Author Archives: ianbraisby

On the Trail of Harry Potter

One of the things I enjoy doing most of all is tours on themes I am personally very enthusiastic about.  In fact, when it comes to anything to do with music, TV, film or literary themes, I tend to only do ones focusing on people and works I personally enjoy. That is the only way I can bring what I believe is the necessary enthusiasm, knowledge and commitment to match what I know will be felt by the people who book such tours.

Trying out the "Green Screen" experience at the studios!

Trying out the “Green Screen” experience at the studios!

Harry Potter is a great example.  Following the immense success of the books and films, tours of locations used in the films have been around for a few years, but really took off last year with the opening of the Warner Brothers Studio attraction.  Since then I have done several multi-day Harry Potter tours, mainly for German speaking groups, and I’m about to head off for another one on Friday.  It’s a totally different experience to most of the tours I do, as you become very immersed in the theme – not only visiting the locations, but playing the films and music on the coach, talking about Harry Potter books and films to the guests, organising quizzes for the children (inevitably these tours are very family-based) and generally entering fully into the spirit of the whole thing. Although I do not go so far as dressing up in a costume!  Of course, doing these tours requires me to be familiar with the world of Harry Potter in both German and English, and to be able to recite chunks of dialogue from the German film versions, which I use to help bring the locations to life for the groups, which was a major challenge at first.

Overall, these tours are hugely enjoyable.  The people who come on them are, almost without exception, enthusiastic and very open to the experiences that the tour offers.  Even those who are not huge Harry Potter fans, but have come because their children or partners are, always have a great time. When all said and done, the tours include some great locations around the country, even without the Harry Potter links, and I always make sure I include other places and topics of interest to give the fullest possible experience.  At the end of the day, I pride myself on making the tour both a magical (pun very much intended) journey for the die-hard Potterites and a quirky and unusual way of seeing some wonderful parts of England for everybody.

With tours already booked in for next year, it seems the Potter phenomenon is still going strong.  Various friends and acquaintances keep telling me how great the tours sound, so who knows I might even look into organising an English language version from the Midlands in the future.


Leading the Fellowship of the Ring

Today, I did one of my favourite of all tours – a full afternoon exploring the locations in and around Birmingham that influenced the young JRR Tolkien in his life and writing.  I always enjoy these tours, but today’s was particularly memorable.  It was for Lower Sixth students from Bromsgrove School, and most of the students, and indeed one of the teachers, had made the effort to dress up in Lord Of The Rings related costumes for the event.  So whilst walking around the various sites, I was leading a mixed bunch of elves, ring wraiths, wizards and hobbits (complete with prosthetic hairy feet).  The effort they had made reflected their enthusiasm for Tolkien’s work, and it was even more of a pleasure than usual to work with the group and share my own passion for Tolkien and Birmingham with them.

With two of the hobbits from my group at Sarehole Mill.

With two of the hobbits from my group at Sarehole Mill.

Q and A – Part 3

What’s the best thing about being a Blue Badge Guide?

There are lots of things I like about it but I’ll pick just a few.  Firstly, the opportunity to show off the best of our country to visitors from all over the world.  Whether I’m helping local people find out things they never knew about their home city, or taking international guests to famous attractions, sharing my knowledge and the locations themselves with people is something that gives me a real thrill.  Secondly, working with all kinds of different people from a huge range of backgrounds.  Especially on multi-day tours, you have a chance to talk to them about all kinds of things.  Thirdly, it is a job that allows me to pursue my own interest in history, culture and discovering new places.  Making a living out of something you love doing and that gives people enjoyment is a privilege that I truly appreciate.

And the worst thing?

Like any freelance job, probably the lack of stability and uncertainty of work is the worst thing.  Also if uncontrollable circumstances such as adverse weather, traffic jams or whatever interfere with an itinerary, as this makes me feel bad for the people on the tour, even though it is not my fault.

What’s your favourite countryside in England?

I enjoy getting out into all countryside areas to be honest, and I would recommend rural England to anyone.  In fine weather, there is nowhere to match it.  But if I had to pick a favourite, it would be the Peak District.  It has a great combination of gentle and more dramatic scenery, along with some attractive and interesting towns and villages, such as Matlock and Buxton.  There are also excellent places to visit like Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, both of which I highly recommend, and love taking groups to.  Growing up in Nottingham, it was an area that I’ve known since I was a child from school trips, walking and youth hostelling holidays in my teens, and when I learned to drive I spent numerous days cruising around the roads and lanes of the area.  I know most of the routes there very well, which leads to some strange looks from coach drivers, when I direct them down an unexpected road during a tour.

For the ultimate English tea?

One of the pleasures of my work is the need to try out local places to eat and drink in locations I’m going to be visiting with groups (purely for research you understand).  So I consider myself something of a connoiseur of tea shops.  There is something quintessentially English about afternoon tea, especially in rural areas, and they are popular with most visitors.  Among many excellent places I have found, my favourite is Juri’s, which is in Winchcome in the Cotswolds.  It is run by a Japanese family, and the owner is a fellow Blue Badge Guide who qualified on the same course as I did.  You don’t just have to take my word for how good it is, they won the “National Tea Shop of the Year” award from the English Tea Council a couple of years ago!

Q and A Part 2

So here are some more questions about me and my work as a guide…

What do you do when you’re not guiding?

Alongside my guiding, I work as a freelance German-English translator.  I am fluent in German – which I am also fully qualified to guide in – and the combination works well as I can do as many tours as possible and take translation work for other times.  When I’m not working I love to read, either novels or books on history and travel.  I also spend a lot of time listening to music – varied styles but rock music is my favourite – and attempting to play the guitar.  I am a keen sports fan, especially ice hockey, which I have been watching since the age of 7, cricket and football.  I try to keep fit by running, swimming and walking.  As you might expect, travel is a big passion and I am always finding new places to explore, in this country and others.

What is your favourite castle?

To be honest, I think that most castles are fantastic places to visit, as they have links to some of the great people and events in history.  Many are also very impressive buildings in scenic locations too. If I had to pick one, however, it would be Kenilworth Castle.  Mainly in ruins, it has enough of its buildings left to retain some of the atmosphere of its glorious past, while its countryside setting and sandstone construction make it extremely picturesque, especially when the sun shines on its walls and makes them glow.  I prefer exploring ruined castles with my imagination and a good guide to visiting better preserved or reconstructed ones with costumed staff and the like, as I think this helps to bring the place to life much more effectively.

And what about stately homes or country houses?

Again, they are fascinating places, as each has its own stories.  While I am keen on what I would call “big history” – kings and queens, great events and so on – my real love is social history, and I am intrigued to discover as much as I can about the people who lived and worked in places, what they might have been like and how they lived.  The best houses manage to convey this effectively through their choice of how they present themselves.  Generally, I tend to prefer smaller ones to the huge palaces, but I have to make one exception here as my absolute favourite is Burghley House near Stamford in Lincolnshire.  Everything about it is impressive, from the architecture to the gardens to the absolutely stunning paintings and wall decorations to the presentation of the house and the family who created it.  Every time I go there, I am amazed all over again and I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t had the chance yet.

Where do you most like to unwind with a well-earned drink after a tour?

My drink of choice is real ale, and I’m fortunate that I get to sample the delights of local pubs and brews throughout England.  It is hard to mention just one favourite but if I had to choose it would be the Red Lion, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.  It is a small local pub with a long tradition, and serves superb food and a great choice of regional ales.  Our Birmingham Graveyard Ghost Walks finish there too, so I do literally get to unwind and refresh my vocal chords after tours there on quite a regular basis!

Blue Badge Guide Q and A

As a Blue Badge Guide, I’m used to answering questions on all kinds of topics.  So I thought it would be fun to interview myself, and share a few secrets, suggestions and favourites in various categories.  So here goes with part one…

What are the most important qualities in a Blue Badge Guide?

Passion, knowledge, personality and professionalism.  I put passion first because I believe that even more than someone who knows what they are talking about people want to be guided by someone who genuinely cares about the places they are visiting and ensuring they experience the best of it.  Essentially, you can get away with gaps in knowledge but not a lack of passion.  I hope this is something that comes across in all my tours, as it is something I pride myself on.  Knowledge is obvious – guiding is about giving information to people in an interesting way.  I am blessed with an almost photographic memory so learning material for tours is not too much of a problem.  Personality is all about communicating in a friendly, entertaining and accessible way, being a person the clients enjoy spending time with.  Finally, professionalism is vital – punctuality, good customer service, exuding reliability and assurance on a tour.  People are putting their leisure time or holidays in your hands, they have to feel confident in your abilities.

What’s your favourite city?

I have to say Birmingham.  It is where I have made my home, it is the place I am most passionate about promoting and sharing.  I think it is an exciting city to live and work in, with plenty going on, and I love its independent spirit, humour, lack of pomposity, and the down to earth good nature of its people.  It may lack world famous sights but it is extremely rewarding for visitors who can find plenty of unexpected delights if they know where to look, or have a good guide to show them!

Three historical figures to invite to a dinner party and why?

First would be Shakespeare.  Someone I talk about so much on tours in Stratford, a genius with a massive legacy on literature, language and art globally.  But we know little about the man, and what made him tick. I’d love to find out.  Second would be Mozart.  I love his music and became fascinated by him when I worked in Austria.  Not sure if I could afford his wine bill with the meal, but as with my first guest, it would be amazing to discover the man behind the art.  I guess we need someone to add a bit of gravitas to proceedings, so my third choice would be Matthew Boulton. The more I learn about his life, the more I admire everything he achieved in Birmingham and his role in shaping the modern world.

Your favourite legendary or mythical figure?

Only one man in the running here.  I grew up just north of Nottingham and spent large chunks of my childhood exploring the woodlands in the area.  I was steeped in the Robin Hood legends from a very young age and remain fascinated by them today.

More questions will follow shortly…

Academic tours…for all ages!

Inside Newman Brothers

Inside Newman Brothers

Guiding tends to be quite a seasonal job, with lots of bookings in the summer but nowhere near to many in the colder months.  But this week has certainly been an exception.

Tuesday and Thursday were school tours for Year 6 classes from Bluecoat School in Edgbaston, who have been learning about Birmingham in Geography.  Having put together a questionnaire for them to fill in with information from the tour, we set off for two and a half hours discovering our city, partly on the coach and partly with a walking section from Brindley Place to Victoria Square.  The children on both tours were enthusiastic, asked lots of questions, asked me about my work as a guide, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the tour.  They were absolutely desperate to complete their worksheets – in fact I kept having to say “Be patient, we haven’t covered that bit yet” as they tried to fill in their answers!  I find the great thing about working with primary school children is their hunger for learning.  Obviously, I have to slightly change the way I explain things and adapt some of the content from what I would use for adults, but that keeps me on my toes.

Sandwiched between these tours on Wednesday was something very different – an afternoon with students from Oxford Brookes University.  They are doing a project about urban regeneration, mixed use developments and the challenge of maintaining communities when regenerating cities.  To tie in with that, I had put together a route taking in some of the most important projects in the city – Fort Dunlop, The Mailbox, The Cube, Brindley Place, Jewellery Quarter.  I always love doing specialist tours, as it means I get to research familiar places from a new perspective, which freshens it up for me and helps me broaden my own knowledge.

The week ended with another school tour, but something totally different from what I’d been doing earlier in the week.  This time, it was Year 7 students from Harborne Academy, and the brief was to combine a ghost walk with other stories about the Jewellery Quarter, to provide stimulus for their creative writing, art and drama projects.  It was a small group of just 13 kids, which was great in terms of getting the chance to talk to them one-to-one.  The trip began with a tour of Newman Brothers Coffin Fittings Works. I’ve been there plenty of times on ghost walks, but it was fascinating to actually have their guided tour and I learned quite a bit.  I also took the chance to take photos, including a new one I can use to promote our ghost walks!  Afterwards, we made our way through the Jewellery Quarter, with ghost stories and other history and tales from the area, including lots that I hadn’t planned but came up because of requests and questions from the group.  Ending in the two catacomb cemeteries was the perfect way to finish.  It is a day I will not forget – the group were an absolute pleasure to work with and we all had such a great day.  While I hope my stories and knowledge do give them lots of ideas for their work, I have to say that the day was extremely motivational for me too.

As you can see, a varied but very enjoyable week in the life of this guide.

Inspired By Birmingham! Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I’m a big fan of Tolkien’s books, and fascinated by how his early life in Birmingham inspired him, but I’m equally enamoured with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord Of The Rings.  So I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jackson’s latest visit to Middle Earth when it was released in December.

The first comment to make, regardless of any discussion about its links to or departures from Tolkien’s source material, is that it is visually stunning, exciting and thoroughly entertaining.  Many people have said it is too long, particularly the early section prior to the company setting out on their adventure, but I disagree.  I thought the pacing was fine, and I actually loved the whole Bag End section as it established characters and themes and had plenty of humour.

With so many new characters to introduce – notably the company of 13 dwarves, Jackson weaves in familiar faces from the Lord Of The Rings, who provide context, making reference to wider events in Middle Earth.  This is a very clever use of Tolkien’s supplementary writing to establish the story within the overall Tolkien mythology, which is actually something the book does lack at times.

The central character of the film is Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous hobbit.  In my view, Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo is probably the biggest triumph of the film.  He perfectly captures Bilbo’s idiosyncrasies – from his house-proud nature to his loyalty and bravery when called upon.  At the same time, the sheer Englishness of his politeness and refusal to show his anger when his house is invaded by dwarves, in fact his reserved approach throughout the film, is superb.  Considering that Tolkien based hobbits on the traditionally English village folk he knew in childhood (including himself), I think Freeman’s performance is the truest depiction we have seen on screen of what hobbits should really be like.

The scene between Freeman and Andy Serkis as Gollum (wonderful as always) is the highlight of the film, and I cannot imagine this iconic scene being played any better than it is.  It is truly a brilliant representation of one of Tolkien’s most famous pieces of writing.

As always, Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth was stunning.  While I object strenuously to them claiming it as the “home of Middle Earth” (which is undoubtedly the Midlands of England where Tolkien grew up), I cannot deny that New Zealand’s scenery provides an incredible backdrop for the films.  As always, the visual effects were superb and the portrayal of imaginary creatures such as orcs, wargs and trolls was totally believable.  Special mention must go to the underground goblin city, which was almost exactly as I had imagined it when reading the book.

All in all, I thought that “An Unexpected Journey” was excellent as a film, and good as an adaptation of Tolkien’s book.  Visually spectacular, brilliantly acted for the most part, and with some truly memorable set pieces, it stands alongside Jackson’s other Middle Earth epics as a major achievement in bringing that world onto the screen.  I hope that the remaining two films make more use of Tolkien’s extensive writing than new material to remain as true as possible to the source, but I am definitely looking forward to how the rest of this wonderful tale will be told in Parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

To read a giant rather than hobbit-sized review of the film, visit my personal blog.

To find out more about how Tolkien’s writing was influenced by his early life growing up in and around Birmingham why not join our forthcoming “Tolkien’s Middle Earth Tour” on February 24th.

The Food of Love

As a tourist guide, it is always important to have a selection of good places to eat and drink that I can recommend to groups when they have free meal times in a town or city.  Stratford actually has a mind-boggling selection of options, but if I am asked this is one that I always recommend, and where I often eat too if I have a lunchtime in the town myself.

Yes, it is a tourist restaurant.  So the menu is not especially imaginative and they are geared up to cater for large numbers of visitors pretty quickly.  But like any other kind of establishments, there are good and not so good tourist restaurants, and Food of Love is definitely one of the good ones.  The menu has a wide selection of choices – sandwiches, baked potatoes, omelettes, salads, pasta dishes, cakes and desserts – and prices are reasonable considering the location.  Quality of food and drinks is consistently very good, OK so they will not be gaining any Michelin stars but that is not their business, and they manage to serve large numbers of guests quickly without compromising on portions or taste.  They have seating inside and tables outside on the pedestrianised Henley Street and although they are generally busy, especially in summer, you can normally find a space.  Having said they are busy, they do not try and rush you like many tourist restaurants do and I actually find it quite a relaxing lunch venue.  The staff are excellent – helpful, friendly and efficient – despite working flat out most of the time.

And let’s just talk about the name for a moment. In Stratford, there are obviously hundreds of places with Shakespeare-inspired names.  Many make be cringe, this one doesn’t.  And it is certainly fitting to be named after a Shakespeare line, bearing in mind the location right opposite Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

All in all, a great choice in Stratford if you are looking for somewhere serving good quality, simple lunches and snacks in a convenient location and in a time frame that will leave you lots of time for sightseeing and shopping during your visit to the town.

If you and friends or colleagues want to discover Stratford in the company of an expert Blue Badge guide, why not book a private tour.  Coach transport can be arranged on request, or travel by train from Birmingham.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth Tour

A Trip to Middle Earth

With the release of the first instalment of the film adaptation of The Hobbit in December, there is a renewed surge of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and his work at the moment.  Peter Jackson’s movies are, of course, shot in his native New Zealand, using some of the country’s beautiful and unspoilt scenery.  In fact, both showings of The Hobbit that I have attended were preceded by a trailer using the film locations as an advert for visiting New Zealand.  One of Jackson’s main collaborators – Richard Taylor whose company is responsible for most of the effects in the films – even once claimed that “Middle Earth was created in New Zealand”.  Now while I think the landscapes of the films is stunning and provides a wonderful backdrop to the stories, it is an indisputable fact that Middle Earth was created in Tolkien’s imagination, based not on New Zealand (where he had never set foot) but very much on his own experiences of life in the England of the early 20th Century.  In particular, his childhood in Birmingham had a profound impact on him, and many of the events, scenes and people he encountered in his early years have direct parallels in his later writings.

For those of us who are Tolkien fans and are fortunate enough to live in Birmingham, it is a source of great pride that our city provided inspiration for some of the most popular and enduring books of the 20th Century.  As a tour guide in the city, sharing this Tolkien heritage with visitors and other local people alike is one of my passions.  With that in mind, I have researched and produced my own half day tour of locations associated with Tolkien’s life, and identified how his experiences are reflected in his writing.  I am delighted that Midlands Discovery Tours, in which I am a partner, will be running another Tolkien’s Middle Earth Tour on 24th February this year, giving me another opportunity to help people discover the fascinating events of the writer’s life in our city.

For any new writer, the advice that’s always given is “write about what you know” and that is exactly what Tolkien did, in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and all his other works set in Middle Earth.  People may wonder how an epic fantasy tale full of magic, swords and armour, elves, wizards, orcs and hobbits can possibly be based on a young boy’s childhood in an industrial city in Central England.  Of course, even I would not suggest that the fantasy aspects of Tolkien’s work had much to do with Birmingham – it’s a culturally diverse city these days, but I am yet to see an elf strolling down New Street. But if we look a little deeper into some of the themes that run through the books – such as progress , war, love, friendship, sacrifice – and the attitudes and emotions of his characters, we find a great many similarities between fact and fiction.  Even some of the places and landscapes of Middle Earth appear to be clearly based on Midlands locations where Tolkien spent time during his early years.

From the (at the time) rural backwater of Sarehole to the industrial heartlands of Western Birmingham and the Black Country, we can trace the true origins of Middle Earth.  That is exactly what our tour is all about – combining sections on a coach with several short walks, we really do follow in Tolkien’s footsteps and get a much better understanding of the man and his work.

If you would like to join the Tolkien’s Middle Earth tour, tickets are available online and more details can also be found on the Midlands Discovery tours website.  The tour can also be done as a special event for schools or other groups who want to find out more about Tolkien’s roots in Birmingham.

Birmingham’s Christmas Markets

Birmingham's German Christmas market by nightThe latter part of the year can mean only one thing in Birmingham, and that’s market time!  Since it began more than 15 years ago, it’s become as much a part of Christmas for Brummies as carol singers, presents and decorations.  Seeming to get bigger by the year, it is a fantastic way to get into the festive spirit, although you need to pick your time to go if you don’t like crowds and noise.

Centred on Victoria Square, and extending down New Street in one direction and to Chamberlain Square and Centenary Square in the other, the market includes plenty of stalls, and also plenty of places to get food and drink.  The kind of things you can buy don’t tend to vary much in the main market, essentially what you would find in any German Christmas market – candles, wooden decorations, hats and gloves, ornaments and the like – but the craft market in Chamberlain and Centenary Squares features much more variety and also a number of local craftspeople getting a chance to sell their products.

To be honest, most people go to the market for the atmosphere and to eat and drink rather than on a shopping spree.  Mulled wine is abundant, as are German beers and typical delicacies such as sausages and pretzels.  As with the stalls, there is more variety in Chamberlain and Centenary Squares, with lots of international cuisine and local suppliers too.  Prices are on the high side, especially drinks, but comparable to places like concert venues and sports stadiums so affordable for a special pre-Christmas celebration.

While I enjoy the markets, I am aware that not all Brummies share my enthusiasm.  Certainly it is not to everybody’s taste.   But whether you want to mooch around the stalls for a present, spend an evening getting festive over drinks with friends, or just soak up the Christmas atmosphere, it’s something you should do at least once.