The following is a short extract from the book "Circus Runaway Home" [(C) Peter Bendall 1971] where twelve year old David Sinclair is taught stilt walking by Commander Sinclair, the circus owner, with the help of Alli ben Joseph the circus acrobat. Circus Sinclair used Kentish style wooden stilts.
(For those who have asked: Mary is Alli's daughter and Jacky is David's younger brother!)
This is extracted from the original 1971 limited edition and is not identical with that found in the published version.
"Can I have a try?" Asked David.
"Why not?" Said Alli, helping David on to the bonnet of the horse box. "That's why we got them out."
Alli took off the sandals he was wearing and told David to put them on, and then to put his feet on to the foot blocks on the insides of the two long wooden legs. David's feet slid in to leather loops that went over the tops of the blocks and Alli held the wide tops of the stilts against the outsides of his lower legs.
Commander Sinclair started to do up the straps. There were two for each leg. One was just above the ankle, and one below the knee. They were done up very tight.
"So they feel that they won't slip?" Asked David, looking down at them and feeling one with his hand.
"Tighter than that, so they really can't slip!" Answered Alli coming back from tying one end of a rope to a tree, as far up he could reach.
Now Alli stepped up next to David and tied the other end of the rope tightly to the corner post of the horse box body. David tried to stand up.
"Take hold of the rope," The owner told him. "Don't look down, and keep your weight on your feet."
David shuffled round to face the tree, as his teacher continued.
"Lift each foot in turn, and put it back on the ground."
He found he could do it.
He kept on doing it.
"Now, each time you lift a foot up, move it a bit forward and when it comes down put your weight on it."
David took three steps, realised he was walking, and grabbed at the rope. He stopped, swaying from side to side. The watchers didn't speak as he tried to balance on the stilts without moving.
"It won't work, you can't stand still until you're really expert. Keep stepping. Think of it being like riding a bicycle - when you stop,you fall off." Alli was standing by the tree and beckoning him on.
David tried walking again, lifting his knees as the circuses owner did when he walked in the ring, and found he had nearly reached the tree.
Once again he grabbed at the rope, which made him realise that he hadn't been holding it. He looked down at Commander Sinclair, standing near to him.
"Half way, get to the tree and turn round," ordered the owner, looking up at David.
David started again and reached the tree in three more steps. He turned and walked back toward the lorry, lifting his legs and waving his arms.
Just short of the lorry, he suddenly felt "funny" as he described it afterwards, and grabbed at the rope for the first time on this lap. He looked down with a worried face to see the others watching.
"Don't worry," Said Alli cheerfully. "You just realised how easy it was, and went shivery! Everyone does. I did when I learned. Now go to the tree and back once more, and you'll have to come down."
David walked slowly to the tree, his arm across the rope so that it passed under his arm ready to grab. Then he had to turn around.
"It's easy!" He thought, taking one step backwards to turn instead of one step forwards.
His stilt legs crossed and he lost his balance. He grabbed for the rope, now too far away, and fell slowly to the ground.
It seemed a long way down. As he landed, something ripped. He could hear it clearly. But as he rolled aside he knew he hadn't hurt himself, only torn the knee of his jeans a little. He started to apologise for doing it wrong, but stopped when he saw that everyone was looking pleased. Alli started to lift him, and helped him to grab the rope. As he looked down everyone else looked up.
"Well done, David!" Said Alli.
"You've walked, and you've fallen. Now you won't be afraid any more." Said the owner.
David stood still, a worried look on his face. He felt that he must walk the rest of the way back to the tree and turn again to prove that he could do it properly. He wobbled and looked down at the others.
Jacky looked trustingly at him. Alli, watching closely, smiled him. He looked up and straight ahead.
"Forget them!" He thought. "I've just got to look straight ahead. I looked down last time, that's why I fell."
He moved one leg, then the other. He put his arm loosely across the rope and walked to the tree. He turned and changed arms, and walked all the way back until his wooden legs tapped against the bumper at the front of the lorry. Then he used the rope to sit down and sighed a long sigh of relief.
"Two days, and you'll be as good as me," Said the owner. "We'll leave the rope up and you can practice when you want. But someone will have to watch you. Promise me you won't try it on your own?"
Alli and Mary undid the straps and the owner helped David down.
"Put them away in the cab of the lorry, then you'll know where to find them." Suggested Alli.
David opened the door and laid them across the seats. He stood looking at them for a moment, before closing the door. Another useful thing that he had learned since coming to the circus!