All aboard for a life of laughter

Clown Tweedy, otherwise known as Alan Digweed, from Fareham
Clown Tweedy, otherwise known as Alan Digweed, from Fareham
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For two years their home was a circus train trundling through the vast swathes of America most people never get to see.

Mile after mile of landscape stretched out before them, as the carriages snaked along the country’s network of freight rails.

Open scenery was punctuated by industrial backdrops as the train made its way to the next stop-off.

Tourists never travel like this, but as part of a 300-strong community of performers they made their way across America, spreading excitement and anticipation whereever they went.

When the circus comes to town all eyes turn to look, and Alan Digweed and his family were lucky enough to be right at the heart of the show.

Alan – or Tweedy as he’s known to most people whether he’s performing or not – has a talent for entertaining.

His daughter Willow only has to look at him and she cracks up.

With a shock of red hair and a face that makes him look like he was born to be a clown, Tweedy’s the first to admit that he found his life’s calling when he joined the circus.

It’s no surprise he can have his nine-year-old daughter doubled up in stitches with those big soulful eyes and the endless variety of expressions.

When Willow, her mum Sharon and Tweedy hit the rails they were travelling as part of one of America’s biggest and best-known circuses.

There’s not many people who can say they’ve been to every major American city – let alone before they’ve turned 10 – but then this family knows their life is a little bit different.

‘There was one time when it clicked for Willow,’ says Sharon – who used to perform as a circus aerial artist herself.

‘It was early morning and we were still in bed and she was looking out the window as the train went along and she shouted “Look at the view!”

‘It was then that I thought, she gets it.’

Tweedy had been performing as a clown for more than 14 years when he was recruited to join the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus. Known as ‘the greatest show on Earth’, representatives flew across the Atlantic to meet him after watching a DVD of his work.

It’s an unusual way for a clown to be hired but that was March 2008 and they offered him the life-changing job.

‘He rang me and said “Do you want to go to America for two years? I’ve got to decide today”,’ remembers Sharon.

Her first concern was to check if her parents could look after their dog and when they said yes, Tweedy signed the contract.

‘It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, it’s not something I would ever have thought would happen,’ adds Tweedy.

During those two years on the road they travelled the length and breadth of America stopping off for shows in 90 cities along the way.

Carriages carrying the circus’s elephants and tigers were coupled to the performer’s living quarters and equipment trucks.

‘There’s more than 300 people working on the show and the train is a mile long,’ says Sharon.

‘People think that’s just a saying but it really is a mile long.

‘It’s half living quarters and half trucks and the lorries just drive on to the back of them.’

Tweedy adds: ‘We left in November 2008 and went to Tampa in Florida first and stayed in a hotel with a pool while we waited for our quarters to be built.

‘We had our own carriage with a bed area for Willow, a kitchen and living area and another bedroom.

‘I got a bigger carriage because I was a feature clown. Before we went, everyone had said make sure you negotiate your living space before you sign the contract and I hadn’t so we were surprised.

‘We had a porch outside so we would sit and watch the world go by.’

Sharon adds: ‘A lot of people’s rooms were the size of Willow’s bed area and they called them coffins because that’s what they are like.’

The circus would roll into a city for a week or two at a time, giving the family a chance to explore their new surroundings.

The trip took them to all the iconic cities – including Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

And shows took place in massive arenas, like Madison Square Gardens, in front of audiences of thousands.

‘It’s an enormous show, it’s been around for 200 years which is almost as old as America so it’s a household name,’ explains Tweedy.

‘It was quite overwhelming really. I was working on stages the size of football pitches and the lights are so bright you can’t really see out into the crowd.

‘If 4,000 people came we’d be saying: “That was a quiet show”.’

When Tweedy wasn’t performing he got to hit the tourist trail like everyone else but it was Willow and Sharon who really got to see the sights.

‘We were exploring a new country, we were very excited,’ says 44-year-old Sharon.

‘Willow and I did a lot more exploring and it was amazing, we had a great time.

‘The train was one of the best things. The train goes on the freight rails, not the passenger rails, so we got to see things other people never see.

‘We went up through the Rockies and on a three-day train run into Vegas.’

Taking Willow out of school for two years wasn’t a huge issue for them as this wasn’t their first time travelling with a circus.

Sharon and Tweedy met and married when they were both performers at Zippos Circus and then Willow came along. The family moved to Portchester after leaving Zippo’s and would split their time between a house and a caravan when they rejoined the circus.

‘We’d always travelled so her schooling was always fairly different from the norm,’ adds Sharon.

‘She was going to school three days a week and I was home schooling her the rest of the time.

‘I know people who do perform and bring up a family but it’s really hard, it’s very difficult to do both because it’s such hard work.

‘At Ringlings they had a nursery and a school but we wanted to do things with her rather than put her in a nursery.

‘We worked for a little show when she was really tiny but that was only weekends really. We both had to go on for the show finale – and she had to come with us.’

The circus world is a close-knit community and as a result of that Willow is used to mixing with all sorts of people and feels at ease with adults and children.

The family returned to Fareham in November and have been staying with Sharon’s parents ahead of finding their own home.

‘It doesn’t feel like we’ve been away, it’s just flown by,’ says Tweedy, 36.

‘For many clowns it’s all they’ve ever dreamed of. I feel like I’ve cheated a bit because it was amazing and great but it wasn’t my life ambition.’