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14 November 2020

What Makes the Perfect Tour Guide?

By Rachel Sloane

Whenever I have been on a visit to an interesting new city or larger town, I have nearly always looked up the times of the local official guided tours. Wandering around soaking up the atmosphere is wonderful, but you miss much of what is under your nose – or above your head!

In Stratford on Avon, Cambridge, Oxford and Norwich, l have enjoyed my visit all the more because of a knowledgeable tour guide. However, the best tours are often of the places you think you know very well. It was the official Ipswich tour guides pointing out a concealed doorway, the eaves high above a modern shop front or what the name of a street can reveal, that made me look at my hometown with fresh eyes.

What does it take to be an accredited Blue Badge Guide, and why are they your best escort if you want to learn more about an area?

The idea of official trained and registered guides was born in The George Inn in Streatham, London, back in 1950 when the British Guild of Tourist Guides was formed.

“There are 13 regions and each, apart from London, comprises several counties,” explained David Waite, a Blue Badge Guide and guide trainer. “Every official guide has to be accredited by the Institute of Tourist Guiding, the examination board for England. In London the course lasts two years, and in the regions, one year. As each course takes three years of planning, they are held every three to nine years, depending upon when new guides are needed. There are also Green Badge Guides who are limited to walking tours or fixed route coach tours.”

Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich have accredited Blue Badge Guides, qualified to lead walks that can be booked privately or through Tourist Information Centres. What makes a good guide?

Adrian Tindall, The Chairman of the Bury St Edmunds Association of Tour Guides said: “They need passion for their subject, a friendly and welcoming manner, a strong and clear voice, a reasonable level of fitness and a very good memory.”

There are 24 accredited guides in Bury St Edmunds, sixteen of whom
qualified as accredited, gaining their Green Badge in 2017 and entitling them to guide locally. They were recruited after adverts in the local media, and a selection process in accord with national standards.

“The training comprised lectures, practical sessions, the need to research local and national history and heritage, guiding theory and client management,” said John Saunders, a Bury St Edmunds accredited Guide. “It was intensive and was more than aspiring to be a ‘walking Mastermind’ – key requirements were fluency in communication and the ability to manage groups. Our new-found skills included the ability to face the client group whilst having one’s back facing the point of interest, being akin to a weather forecaster having to describe left and right from the group’s perspective! Knowledge of routes was essential including knowing where kerb levels were suitable for those with mobility challenges.”

After months of lectures, seminars, observed walks and tours, and hours spent in personal research and practising, trainee guides then have twelve hours of exams to pass, covering the background knowledge they need and seventeen subjects such as history or art, music and health, both nationally and as applied to their region.

“A guide on a coach tour needs to be able to be interesting to listen to, even when on a dual carriageway with nothing to look at!” said David. “A party of Americans or Italians for example will be interested in things like the white lines on the road, the hedges and fields, dry stone walls etc.”

“For many of us, examinations and assessments were something we thought we had left in the past, but this was for real and required considerable effort,” remembered John. “The existing guides mentored and helped us immensely and the camaraderie of our group was soon established as we relied on peer support.”

David said that the training fee to become a qualified Blur Badge Guide for a full region typically is £3,000-£4,000 and the examination costs £1,200 so to become a Guide is a financial commitment as well as a time-consuming one.

Using Bury St Edmunds, as an example, a standard daily tour is 90 minutes’ long and covers the town and Abbey. There are also additional tours for particular events, such as the Bury Festival, Suffolk Day and Heritage Open Days. There are also specialist tours on such topics as Crime and Punishment, Riot and Rebellion, Bury at War, Victorian Bury and they can offer bespoke tours.

“By far the most popular are the Ghost and Macabre tours which occur from Halloween through to March, and attract those who want to know the darker side of the past (the bloodthirsty murder of Maria Marten by William Corder; stories of grave-robbers etc) or who come as a group for an evening of fun,” explained John “Although many local people come on the tours, we have lots of visitors including coach parties. The nationalities of tourists are diverse and last year they came from around 40 different countries.”

Once qualified, Guides are reimbursed for their work. “We agree fees annually and try to ensure we generate enough surplus to reinvest in our future plans,” explained Adrian.

Guides come from many different backgrounds, the public, private and voluntary sectors.

“It was surprising how quickly the diverse group of members bonded,” remembered John, “We were an all-weather bunch coping with the chill of winter, snow and getting soaked – I well remember being in the Abbey Gardens determined to impress with the delivery of my four minutes on the subject, unable to see through the rain driving against my glasses but noticing my colleague as she produced a tissue to wipe them clean, and being congratulated for my staying-power! And of course, we possessed the greatest quality of all, a sense of humour which was, and remains, always in evidence.”

The guides have continuous professional development and enjoy researching new topics, preparing new tours and rehearsing them under the critical eyes of colleagues. During lockdown in Bury St Edmunds, they have achieved this by individually submitting papers on subjects of interest, resulting in keenly fought quiz nights via Zoom to test everyone’s absorption and understanding.

This year was seen as a great opportunity for the guides to contribute to Abbey 1000 (the town’s celebrations of 1,000 years since the founding of St Edmund’s Abbey) and they have written six separate tours (all of which can be viewed on their website ).

“Often we ignore what is on our doorstep but a guided tour of Bury is well worth doing. It is very satisfying when we hear local people say, “I’ve lived here for years and have never noticed that,” said John. “We also enjoy those lighter moments, for example, when we have explained the detail of the Abbey ruins and how they resemble a cockerel and teapot only to hear the question, “Did they actually build those shapes?”

“Weather is always a challenge – to provide shade on those sweltering days and cover when the rain falls, so flexibility and adaptability is essential. Another ‘essential’ is time management – we have to resist the desire to visit everywhere and explain everything.”

From 4 July the guides resumed their daily tours of Bury St Edmunds
via online bookings and very much with safety and pleasure in mind.

For those of us looking for a knowledgeable guide, an official Blue or Green Badge Guide is definitely worth seeking out. The best guides have a good memory, patience, a sense of humour ….and comfortable shoes!

For more details:

East of England

NB This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life, August 2020