About the project

To celebrate Philip Astley’s life and legacy, engaging, entertaining and educational activities took place in Newcastle-under-Lyme during 2017 and 2018 – the 250th anniversary of modern circus, now these Philip Astley Projects activities and collaborations are continuing beyond to present day with the opening of the Philip Astley Centre and plans in place for the future.

Please click on each heading to find out more.

For general visitor information, please see Visit Newcastle-under-Lyme or Enjoy Staffordshire.

Series of talks

‘In conversation’ with Andrew Van Buren, key figures from the circus industry share highlights from their careers and the importance of Philip Astley’s ongoing legacy. Organised by the Van Buren Organisation and Staffordshire University, talks initially took place at venues across Newcastle-under-Lyme between September 2017 and September 2018. Presented by Andrew Van Buren Philip Astley talks and lectures are available ongoing for live and online events.

Exhibition: Philip Astley - his life and his legacy

In May 2018, visitors to the Brampton Museum followed in the footsteps of a team of intrepid research volunteers who have used their skills, tenacity and commitment to investigate our most burning questions… what is Philip Astley and his families connection to Newcastle-under-Lyme? What would his early life have been like? How might this have influenced his later career? The free 12-week exhibition educated and excited adults and young people alike.


On Saturday 4th August 2018, in Lyme Valley Park, the whole community gathered to celebrate Philip Astley at AstleyFest, a free festival. With performances, exhibitions and activities, everyone had the chance to be inspired and get involved. Local heritage, arts and community groups responded to an Open Call to participate, developing new work to showcase in themed areas which immersed visitors in Astley’s early life, equestrian skills and ongoing legacy.

From this initial large scale live AstleyFest 2018 event the 2020 AstleyFest due to Covid was taken online with the help of Appetite – 1st August 2020 saw a full day of online scheduled shows and performances, live behind the scenes footage from Gandeys Circus in Skegness, plus showings of Staffordshire Film Archive historic circus footage, and collaborations with shows around the world. Back to live performance AstleyFest 2021 was further developed and then in 2023 both the AstleyFest and Homecoming events became one for the hugely successful Astley’s Homecoming festival.

Circus film screening

In January and February and September 2018, Professor Ray Johnson MBE and Staffordshire Film Archive presented two popular circus film seasons at the Stoke Film Theatre. The season included amongst others: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Director Cecil B De Mille), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, Director Ingmar Bergman) and Freaks (1932, Director Todd Browning). After the screenings, Professor Ray Johnson MBE hosted a discussion, drawing out the themes and issues raised by each of the films.

Roll up, roll up

Local people were invited to work with the New Vic Theatre developing a brand new performance about Philip Astley, performed at AstleyFest 2018. With multiple opportunities to participate from writing to performing to taking part in a community choir, this new performance brought new opportunities for the people of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Children's poetry and art competitions

School children in Newcastle-under-Lyme were invited to participate in a poetry and art competition organised by Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council. The work that best captured Astley’s amazing achievements was shared at an award ceremony at Keele Hall.

Full circle

Under the tuition of Andrew Van Buren, students and staff at Newcastle-under-Lyme College developed their circus skills in order to bring Astley’s story to life in public performances at the College’s state of the art Performing Arts Centre in spring 2018.

Town trail

A local artist was commissioned by the Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District (BID) to develop a town centre trail that included both historical sites and brand-new art work, illustrating highlights from Astley’s amazing life. Launched in June 2018, visitors and residents can pick up the trail from local businesses, be guided by volunteer storytellers, and revel in the circus atmosphere when town centre businesses decorate their windows, taking inspiration from iconic circus posters.

Astley evening extravaganza

No chance for a quiet drink during this fantastic night to remember in May 2018. Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District (BID) brought an array of circus performers to town centre bars and pubs for drinkers to enjoy along with an Astley Ale or Tightrope Tequila…

Sharing Astley's story

Staff at the Newcastle-under-Lyme Library, the Brampton Museum and local Children’s Centres will worked with the New Vic Theatre’s Education Team to develop the storytelling skills and knowledge of Philip Astley’s story to be able to share this with children across the borough. Co-produced resources are available on the Philip Astley website, creating a lasting legacy for library, children centre and museum staff working in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and beyond.

Media and marketing campaign

During 2018 an unmissable media and marketing campaign raised Philip Astley’s profile in Newcastle-under-Lyme and promoted the project’s events and activities. Newcastle-under-Lyme College, the Van Buren Organisation and Staffordshire University used traditional and social media to deliver campaign bursts that share key messages about Astley’s life and legacy.

After the anniversary year promotion continued with 2019 kicking off with Channel 4 program Extreme Cake Makers being commissioned by Andrew Van Buren to create a Philip Astley cake – made by The Frostery this was the perfect celebration cake for Philip Astley’s Legacy.

Since the anniversary year there have been further radio interviews, television news items, newspaper and magazine articles around the world that have maintained Philip Astley’s Legacy and kept the work of the Philip Astley Project team very much in the public eye.

Research reports and evaluations

Our evaluation reports summarise the development and delivery phases of the Philip Astley Project. The report for the development phase captures the learning, consultation and feedback gathered which was then used to develop the activities, events and outputs detailed in the report for the delivery phase (an independent evaluation undertaken by The Audience Agency).

Steering Group Organisations

Philip Astley Projects CIC includes a steering group of local heritage, arts, education and statutory organisations and individuals:

  • Appetite
  • Belong Villages
  • Brampton Museum
  • Friends of the Brampton Museum
  • Keele University
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme Civic Society
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme College
  • Staffordshire Film Archive
  • Staffordshire Libraries and Information Service
  • Van Buren Entertainment Organisation
  • Arthur Barnard
  • Wenslie Naylon
  • Jim Worgan

Philip Astley Projects CIC

Philip Astley Projects CIC builds upon the work of The Van Buren Family and then the original Philip Astley Project, which saw the coming together of Staffordshire based creatives, organisations, groups and individuals. All working together to not only celebrate the life of Philip Astley, but also to shine a light on Astley’s birthplace of Newcastle under Lyme, and the surrounding Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire area.

The Van Buren family have shared a lifelong interest in Philip Astley, the military hero, original Ringmaster, and almost forgotten creator of the modern circus. This lead to a themed carnival in 1982, followed by a series of events in 1992 celebrating the 250th anniversary of Astley’s birth.

In the 21st Century the message was shared bringing together the team who lead the way to celebrating the 2018 250th anniversary of Astley’s journey creating the modern circus.

This 2017 – 2018 project was managed by Staffordshire University who worked with the Philip Astley Project’s working committee, together successfully creating a number of celebratory events. Also with the Brampton Museum research volunteers and Andrew Van Buren they unearthed lots of new facts about the Astley Family history, cementing the family into the Newcastle under Lyme and Staffordshire area. Much of this new information was incorporated into the best selling book The First Showman, by author Karl Shaw, used as a basis for the New Vic Theatre Production of Astley’s Astounding Adventures, plus used to create new information research packs for public and school use.

Over the past few years the Philip Astley Project has evolved into Philip Astley Projects CIC and grown even more: Always looking to develop new projects and further collaborations in publishing, unveiling monuments, running events, exhibitions, talks and shows, including in February 2024 opening the Philip Astley Centre the worlds first visitors centre dedicated to Philip Astley and his legacy, situated in the heart of his birthplace, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Subway art in Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre


Newcastle-under-Lyme is a lively market town in North Staffordshire with a population of over 75,000. Home to the New Vic Theatre and the Brampton Museum, the town has a varied and exciting arts and cultural calendar. The Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District organises an annual Jazz and Blues festivals and since 2014 has collaborated with Appetite and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to bring circus to Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre during the Astley’s Homecoming Festival.

Local citizens are engaged and active in promoting the town’s unique heritage. The Van Buren Organisation has worked tirelessly to raise awareness and celebrate Philip Astley’s heritage in Newcastle-under-Lyme and beyond for over three decades. Staffordshire Film Archive’s Ray Johnson MBE lends his skills and expertise to a range of heritage and arts activities across the county. In addition, Newcastle-under-Lyme’s Civic Society had 70 members who met regularly and planned activities to protect, conserve and improve the character of the historic North Staffordshire town. In recent years, Newcastle-under-Lyme has seen significant interest in its unique heritage. The Heritage Lottery Fund has recently supported the St Giles Heritage Churchyard project and the development of the Belong Heritage Gallery, as well as the Philip Astley Project. Thanks to the collective campaigning of Andrew Van Buren, the Philip Astley Project, civic society, local councillors and officers from Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre now has a number of visual reminders of Astley’s contribution to circus and the broader performing arts traditions including a street art subway, Newcastle-under-Lyme children’s library and the recently renamed ‘Philip Astley walk’, situated in Lad Lane where Philip actually lived as a young boy plus two monuments, one on George Street bridging the boundary with Stoke on Trent plus a second in nearby village SIlverdale on Pepper Street.

The centre piece of the Philip Astley town trail is the Astley Centre. Opened in March 2024 it allows locals and visitors to call in and learn about Philip Astley plus his family of Patty Astley and John Conway Astley, through to their legacy of modern circus into present day. The centre houses circus workshops, talks, lectures, film shows and also offers the chance for schools to visit as well as working as a launch pad for the Philip Astley Project Circus Skills Workshops which take part in Staffordshire schools, Academy’s, colleges and universities.

Astley is our Shakespeare

Andrew Van Buren

“After all the years that our family has worked to gain Philip Astley greater recognition, it is fantastic to now see his achievements and legacy being celebrated, not only in his birthplace of Newcastle-under-Lyme, but also nationwide and worldwide. Little did we realise back in 1981 and 1992, the scale that the 2018 celebrations and developments beyond, would become.

Astley’s innovative thinking, showmanship, adaptability and drive, are an inspiration that not only influences me, but also are the building blocks that so many other performers and shows are built upon today.

I hope that our plans for an extended heritage trail with the “king pole” centrepiece of a new permanent statue of Astley and a hub of Circus Heritage Arts and Learning will develop further, bringing new visitors to the wonderful area of Newcastle-under-Lyme, creating tourism, greater footfall and increased spending in the town centre, inspiring and cementing Astley’s story into the lives of generations to come.

When you consider what William Shakespeare has done for Stratford-upon-Avon, then what can Philip Astley do for Newcastle-under-Lyme, Philip Astley is our Shakespeare!”


The Philip Astley Project is supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund and generously sponsored by local businesses who recognise the benefits of the Philip Astley Project and their work for Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Philip Astley legacy.

Sponsors include: Stanworths Funfairs, Junction15, Enjoy Staffordshire, Robert Moore, HomeTown Plus, PH Production Services Ltd, Belong Villages and Van Buren Entertainment Organisation.

Supporting Organisations

The Philip Astley Project is working closely with the V&A Museum, Circus Friends Association of Great Britain, Federal University of Bahia Department of Theatre Techniques and Theatre School Brazil, Circensis, Netpop, Federation Mondiale Du Cirque, Circus 250, plus the National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield Library, plus the Worlds Fair Newspaper.

Circus 250 logo
circus friends logo
Federation Mondiale du Cirque logo