Recently I did a tour of Birmingham for some Year 6 pupils. Here is the amazing report written by one of them afterwards.
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.
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.
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.
If you would like to book a Blue Badge Guide, contact me to discuss your requirements.
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!
Rushton Triangular Lodge is an oddity set in the middle of nowhere. As its name suggests, it’s built in the shape of a triangle. Everything about it relates to the number three: there are three floors, three windows per wall per floor, with three triangular gables on each side.
It only takes a few minutes to look around, and there are no grounds to speak of, so it isn’t worth making a special journey to visit. However, if you happen to be in the general area it is quirky enough to warrant a slight detour to take it in.
Burghley House is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive stately homes in the country.
On entering the building via a converted barn, visitors are treated to a history of the house, recounted by the family themselves, projected onto the stone walls. From here you exit into a courtyard and then into the main part of the house through the enormous kitchen, which is decorated, believe it or not, with a moose head and turtle skulls.
The artwork throughout the house is stunning – especially the Heaven and Hell rooms
The outside is just as amazing as the inside: the Garden of Surprises lives up to its name, with mirror mazes, fountains and grottos all hidden from view until you get right up close. If the weather is nice and you have young children, be sure to take their swimsuits.
The sculpture garden is beautiful to stroll around, especially in the height of summer, and is also full of unexpected surprises such as the ice house. It’s definitely a place where you could pass a whole day.
As the highest guiding qualification in the UK, the Blue Badge amounts to a quality mark for guides. While guiding styles and personalities differ hugely, the badge shows that the guide has studied the Blue Badge course for their region, and has passed the written and practical examinations. You can be assured that they have a thorough background knowledge of English history, culture, architecture, literature and many other topics, along with very specific knowledge of the region they are qualified to guide in. It also means that they have been trained in guiding techniques – how to present information effectively for different kinds of tours, how to plan and organise a tour, how to research areas and locations, how to manage a group safely on a tour. Equally important, but often overlooked, is that the Blue Badge means the guide has full public liability insurance cover through their membership of professional associations. Other guides may indeed have insurance, but you have no way of knowing unless you specifically ask them to prove it. All in all, by hiring a Blue Badge guide you can be confident that you are in the best and safest possible hands to help you make the most of your trip, combining in-depth knowledge, practical expertise and the reassurance that comes from working with a highly qualified, accredited and insured professional.
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!