Tag Archives: tour

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.

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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.

Harry Potter Studio Tour, Leavesden

A couple of years after the final film in the series was released, Warner Brothers opened their Harry Potter studio tour at the Leavesden studios where the films were made in March 2012.  With original sets, a huge number of props from the films, interactive sections, demonstrations and much more, the tour is an absolute must for Harry Potter fans of all ages.

Entry is by timed ticket, and to start the tour a group of you watch a short film before being taken into the studios by one of the guides, all of whom are wonderfully enthusiastic.  I won’t spoil the surprise of where the tour begins, suffice to say the first stop is incredible and really sets the scene.  The rest of the time is self-guided, as you make your way through two sections of studio buildings, with recreations of many different sets and exhibitions of props and original costumes.  Between the two buildings is the back lot, containing some of the outdoor sets, a few exciting surprises, and an opportunity to sit down and enjoy a snack, including your chance to try the “Butterbeer” so popular with Hogwarts students. Extremely sweet but delicious!

Hogwarts Great Hall

The second section is more about the technical side of the films – the mechanical creatures and props made, CGI, visual design etc. and is absolutely fascinating, but still has enough interest and excitement for kids.  One of the great things about the attraction is that you can just wander round and look at everything, or if you want more detail you can read the info panels and watch the film screens located in each section.  Or, for the really in-depth tour, you can pay for the audio visual guide, which is an iPod like device containing not just commentaries on the tour (voiced by Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in the films), but interviews with actors and film makers, along with short video clips demonstrating how the movies were created.  I think the choice of how much detail you want is a big plus point, as children in particular can just enjoy exploring and seeing the amazing exhibits, while adults can get a bit more background if they want to.  The technical information, demonstration films etc. and the sheer number of original items from the films on view are part of the reason why I believe the attraction is a great day for any film fan, even if they are not specifically Harry Potter addicts.

Hogwarts castle model

As with all such attractions, you exit through the gift shop.  Here, you can buy pretty much anything Harry Potter related, from toys to costumes, to books, to wands.  A great selection, although not much in the “pocket money” range or things you could buy as a little gift for several friends or family.  The complex also includes an excellent snack bar and coffee shop, with an outdoor seating area.

The car park is huge, and the place is easy enough to find, situated just off the A41 near Watford, within a few minutes of the M1 and M25.  There is a free bus service to and from Watford railway station, as well as buses from Central London.  As you would probably expect, the tickets are not cheap – £28 for adults, £21 for children, and must be booked in advance online.  But there is certainly enough to see and do to stay for well over half a day (they recommend a minimum of 2 ½ to 3 hours, but that would be quite a cursory visit in my experience).  That, along with the sheer uniqueness and excitement of being on the sets of blockbuster films, make it relatively good value compared to other major attractions such as the big castles, safari parks, etc. that are the major competition for big family days out.

All in all, I would certainly recommend the studio tour – it is a must for Harry Potters fans of all ages, a great family day out, and a fascinating experience for film fans.

To find out more about the tours I offer and how to book them, visit my website.