Recently I did a tour of Birmingham for some Year 6 pupils. Here is the amazing report written by one of them afterwards.
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.
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.
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…
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.
During 2012 we have enjoyed reading your blog and have had a wonderful time using several of your suggestions for days out. We have also been on some of your walking tours and themed events. All have been good fun and value for money. The Valentines walking tour was very nice and was followed by tea. Our absolute favourite has got to be the Tolkien Tour, which was suitable for all ages. It involved some walking and coach travel. Wether you enjoy reading Tolkien or not it was very interesting learning about the connections with Birmingham . We would like to wish you a very happy Christmas and a happy new year and look forward to seeing your diary for 2013. Jennifer