The People's Friend Special
Gillian Thornton explores the enduring appeal of Britain’s Blue Badge Guides
Travellers from across the globe love Britain’s Blue Badge Tourist Guides. Gillian Thornton finds out why.
ABACKGROUND in theatre proved the perfect passport to life as a tour guide for Emily Dell from south London.
Thirteen years on, she has never looked back.
“I soon realised that the precarious life of an actress wasn’t for me,” Emily, who took a job as a guide on London’s open-top buses, says.
“I loved guiding and, after five years, moved into coach tours, taking visitors to iconic spots such as Windsor and Bath, Leeds Castle and Stratford-upon-Avon.
“That’s when I began to notice guides wearing shiny blue badges, so I researched the Blue Badge Tourist Guides and really wanted to join them,” Emily adds.
“At not quite thirty, I was one of the youngest on the two-year course, but I just loved it.
“There were people from all walks of life and the camaraderie was astonishing.”
Since becoming a Blue Badge guide in 2018,
Emily has launched her own website, but as a member of professional organisations is part of the big, friendly guiding family.
“Whatever you want to know, there will always be somebody ready with an answer,” she says.
“Clients can range from a single person on business in London who wants a highlights tour to groups of students or tourists after something specific.”
As a keen artist herself, Emily’s favourite bookings involve London art galleries, but every tour has its rewards.
“I never get bored because there is so much to talk about in London. Every booking is different.
“Some clients just want light history; others prefer detailed facts or maybe a tour geared to children. I plan my tours around my audience more than around the destination.”
Whilst pandemic restrictions put an end to
live tours, Emily and many other Blue Badge guides developed programmes of virtual tours to be enjoyed from your sofa.
“I love researching a new tour for a client, especially if it is outside the main visitor sites.
“Wherever I guide, my greatest reward is to lead a first-time visitor and see their reaction to my home city.”
And the best part of her job?
“My colleagues! There’s nothing like waiting to enter Windsor Castle or the Tower of London and seeing members of my Blue Badge family waiting, too. So much knowledge and enthusiasm in one place!”
Fellow guide Julia Morris had a wealth of experience in teaching at museums and historic houses before taking her Blue Badge qualification.
Living in Somerset, she is in easy reach of Bath and Bristol, Stonehenge and the Jurassic Coast, but is qualified to conduct tours from Windsor to Land’s End.
“It’s such a diverse area and I absolutely love showing visitors around,” Julia, whose own background is in history and archaeology, enthuses.
“I have a particular fascination for the history of our culture, landscape and food, and I love showing guests how British food has been transformed with the best of local artisan cuisine.”
Julia particularly enjoys guiding cruise ship passengers – especially Americans, whom she generally finds to be good fun and eager to embrace new experiences.
“Their questions are often very innocent, but completely serious,” she says. “Why are our hedges so high and close to the road, for instance, when tourists want to look at the landscape?
“I think many of us would be just as naïve in their country!”
With international tourists off the agenda in recent months, Julia has noticed an influx of younger British visitors from all ethnic and social backgrounds on tours to historic places such as
One young man was a funeral director who had been inspired by his work to find out more about history and people.
A keen environmentalist who is also involved in training, Julia is particularly keen to develop itineraries local to cruise ship ports like Portsmouth and Southampton.
Particularly passionate about Dorset, she has already developed courses on lesser-known aspects of the county.
“I never tire of visiting Stonehenge or Salisbury, Bristol or Bath, but I do love guiding to more unusual places.
“One elderly Australian lady asked for a private tour through Dorset’s
Wylye Valley in the footsteps of her father.
“He had been in a military hospital there in World War One and I was really moved to see what it meant to her.
“Then there was the American politician and his wife who wanted a private tour of Cornwall.
“He’d been all over the world, but was bowled over by the Minack Theatre on the cliff top at Porthcurno, and particularly by the determination of its founder Rowena Cade.
“He didn’t stop talking about her for days!”
Like Emily, Julia insists she can learn as much from her guests as they do from her: about people, their home countries, and sometimes even about her own!