Memoirs of a Blue Badge Guide

Times are strange. We can all appreciate that.

Many of us are frustrated that we’re stuck at home, we’re worried about our loved ones, everyone’s either got too much toilet roll or not enough, and we all look forward to a world when we can go outside more than once a day.

In March, I qualified as a professional Blue Badge tourist guide, but for the first time in my life London has zero tourists… (cue tumbleweed)
Becoming a Blue Badge guide was a tough process. I started the course in 2018, 18 months of studying London and the South East of England and 10 exams later, I have the privilege of counting myself amongst the top guides in the country. The Blue Badge is the highest Tourist Guiding qualification in the UK plus you actually get a shiny, blue badge with your name on it. I am genuinely so pumped to get mine!

During lockdown, many of my fellow guides have found genius new ways to keep people entertained, keep themselves busy, and promote tourism in the UK. From virtual London tours, to History-related musical performances, and some fantastic interviews, you can find many of them listed here.

The Blue Badge brand is quite obscure unless you’re in the industry. I have, however, known about the Blue Badge for most of my life, because I am proud to say that my Grandma is a Blue Badge Tourist Guide and has been since 1972.
So, while I may not be able to get out there and guide in this beautiful spring weather (it really is cruel how nice it is outside!), I thought I’d live vicariously through the experiences of my Grandma.

So on a sunny spring afternoon at our dinner table, with the front door wide open, an eerily quiet main road and contrastingly noisy birdsong (which I didn’t notice at the time, but is all over the recording!), I interviewed my Grandma.
(In the interview below, what’s verbatim is written normally and my paraphrasing and interjections are written in italics. I have cut some things out – it was an hour long chat! – and I’ve rearranged a few small bits, but otherwise this is the interview as it was.)

Why did you start guiding?

It’s 1969. I needed to earn money. Your Grandad had not a regular income but I couldn’t have a job 9 to 5 because your mum was a toddler. Your uncle was at school, but still, I needed to be at home. And so I looked in the newsagents; there were always cards offering this, that and the other, and then one day I saw a lady was looking for a typist. I could work from home and it happened that this lady ran an agency, supplying guides in different languages to different agencies.

And I typed out the list every month how much each guide earned. She took a big chunk out of their earnings, but compared to what I got paid for typing, which was peanuts, I thought, hang on, I speak German, why can’t I rather be a guide? So she agreed to train me. She ran a kind of training course, and that’s how I got into guiding. Pure chance. 

She started out with coach panoramic tours in London. My Grandma’s a bilingual guide (English and German), but back then she could still speak French. Even all these decades later, she still remembers her first ever guiding job.
My very first tour was… for a French rugby team. My Grandma’s laughing all the way through the next sentence. Nobody listened at all to what I had to tell them. 

I only remember going round Hyde Park Corner, and they were talking and laughing and I thought, I’m wasting my time here. She’s still chuckling.

So what prompted you to do to the Blue Badge course?

It came out consistently through the interview that my Grandma still feels quite guilty for the quality of her tours in these early guiding years, when she was unqualified. She had received very little training from her typist employer and was then shoved out of the nest, into the world of tourism.
But I did not feel that I did a good job. …And, being German, I want to be perfect, or at least as perfect as possible and I could realise that this was not what I wanted to produce.
So when I learned about the course, that was my aim. 
And she [the typist woman] did not encourage me to take the course because… I then can find work independently. So she was not at all keen. But I insisted. And I had to also persevere because your Grandad didn’t want me to do it, “Oh no, she says you don’t need it, so why bother? It costs money.” But I persevered.
Word to the wise, don’t ever tell my Grandma no. Just saying.

How did you hear about the course?

Probably from another Blue Badge guide. At the guard change you meet everybody.
Glad to see some things never change!

Do you have any memories of your training?

There was a general consensus that it must have been such a traumatic experience that she’d blocked it from her memory. There was a vague memory of both written and practical exams, but the overwhelming takeaway almost four decades later: We were as scared as you were [before your exams].
But [at the end of it all] I was so proud, when I had my Blue Badge and I could confidently stand next to other Blue Badge guides.

My Grandma on the left with her badge

And testament to this pride, she has looked after her badge beautifully: Yes, it’s the second or third [badge]. I’ve lost one, changed name.
Pretty good going for almost 4 decades.
I always admire it when I go to her house. Picture Gollum and you’re not far off.

At this point we fall down the memory rabbit hole a bit. Mum was sitting outside our front door, enjoying the sunshine, for most of the interview, so I pulled her in to add to the story as well.

Mum, you said you remember going on tours as a child.
Mum: Yeah, many times.
Grandma: But then, you were already 5 or 6, and you’d been on the tour so many times, you could sometimes prompt me what to say!

There was more about late pub tours, long days in Stratford and Blenheim, the little recces I remember she took me on to Cardiff, Manchester and Colchester, but clearly we were getting too off topic by this point. My Grandma, ever the responsible guide, steered the conversation back...

[My Grandma asked herself the next question on my behalf – getting us back on track… “Your next question, I think, is why you love guiding?]

So… why do you love guiding?

There’s the intense satisfaction of the job: You have a set programme and in a way you are like a conductor, who also gets a set piece of music but it’s up to him to make the most out of it.
You always want… that they come home with a beautiful experience. And if this conducting and planning clicks, at the end of the day you have great satisfaction. And that inspires you.

And the sense of companionship: You meet strangers, total strangers… [and] you can inspire people with interest and excitement and make them see what you love about England or what you show them. And this can be quite addictive, this connection between the people and the feedback you get. This is something you aim for. 

You love what you show them and you want them to love it as well. 

The community of guides is also something you enjoy. And drivers. … It really is a nice feeling. …people have goodwill and help each other.

Recently my Grandma has had to take a step back from guiding. It was a huge blow to the family, but early in 2020 she was diagnosed with lung cancer. My Grandma is probably the strongest person I know, but at 85, because of the cancer, she’s had to give up a career that she absolutely loves. Despite being a woman who almost never complains, it’s clearly something which has deeply affected her. I asked her what she thinks she’ll miss most about guiding:

…this connection with people, with strangers, who then are inspired by your work. And also whatever you see on television, you think, “Oh that’s where I’ve been”, or, “Wasn’t it nice to be there to show it to people?” Yeah, but, mostly, people, you miss… You miss getting to know… [them], and perhaps it’s a kind of vanity [you miss] as well. You want [that feeling that people] appreciate what you’re doing.
I understand what she means. Guiding is like a performance art after all. It’s addictive. Who doesn’t love a round of applause for their hard work?

Do you wish you’d known your last tour was “the last tour”?

I’m glad I didn’t know.
It would have been very sad. I mean, half and half, I could imagine this might be the end or very soon. No, I didn’t want to think about it…
And I’m grateful that I can now work with U3A [University of the Third Age] and plan day trips to London. The fun is the planning, to put it together, research, and again get the satisfaction when people say, “Oh, this was wonderful.”

We talked about this companionship, this sense of friendship and respect which you can establish quite quickly on a tour, with people who were strangers only a handful of days before. Relationships that can last, literally, decades…

The other day I had a message… from an Austrian client, I had… [worked] with, so many, not years, decades ago…
[He was the tour organiser] and he wanted everything out of me. Long days. …But they were such a lovely Austrian group, and they came again and again because they wanted me to guide them. And now still, he is 80 years old and he rings me to say how much enjoyment he still has from the memory of our tours together.

They brought the same people, a fridge full of wine, Austrian wine, and they asked me to make a tour for them which I did. …So I could really use my initiative and show them things which were unusual. …It was always the same driver, the same coach company, and the fun we had on that coach…

And it’s not the only example either! There are others [clients] who faithfully write at Christmas.

There were memories of tour directing in Bristol, Scotland and Cornwall. Her adoration of the Scottish and Cornish countryside is so clear in her voice:
[Cornwall] The coastline, the cliffs, and there is one place called the Minack theatre built into rock-side, and the view out, the colour of the sea, it’s a dream. Really. 
But Scotland: the mist, the horizon, these shapes of other islands. Fascinating as well.

There was also the time when I was still at university and my Grandma brought a group to Oxford:
You came from an examination. You had a pink flower [and in full academic dress]. And the tourists, [claps] they were jumping for excitement to see a real student!!! Talking to them! Gosh, that made their tour. …Happy memories.

Obviously, not all the memories can be about perfect, seamless tours, full of Austrian wine and Christmas cards. In guiding, there is plenty which can go wrong!

I’ll never forget… I wasn’t qualified yet. We were visiting Christ Church College in Oxford, never been there. I studied the plans the night before, everything about Christ Church.
Unfortunately, sometimes even infinite planning doesn’t pay off in reality… [We ended up] going round and round the cloisters, looking for the door to the cathedral, with a lot of tourists behind me [she’s laughing now] who must have been wondering, “What is she doing?” Second or third round, I saw the door and could get into the cathedral!
Clearly it’s funny in hindsight, but I know first-hand the heart-palpitating nausea which comes when you’re leading a group and you realise you’re lost…
So there are these scary moments or even sometimes agents don’t study opening times perfectly and you come to a venue, it’s shut on Mondays or so. Experience will teach you to find something else to show your people. Or when a coach breaks down – once it happened to me in Scotland, in the middle of nowhere and no mobile phones then! You have to hold your nerve and find the solution in seemingly impossible situations!

My Mum chipped in again:

Mum: She [also] lost me in Windsor [when I was 8 or 9-years old]
Grandma: That was embarrassing. Was time to leave and I’m looking for my daughter.
Mum laughs and I ask her accusingly: Where were you?
Mum [playing the traumatised grown-up]: I was crying! I was lost. I was looking- I went over to look over a railing. I remember I was outside. And then the next time I turned round, the group was gone! The police found me… [Someone had to come] back from the carpark [to pick me up]
I turn my accusatory tone on my Grandma (less effective when you’re also laughing): You got all the way to the carpark??
Grandma [incredulously]: Yeah!
We’re all chuckling by this point.
Mum: I was distraught. Normally… I used to go off anyway. I used to just go and spend my time in that toyshop [on the high street] looking at the Barbies [and then meet the group by the station after].
We’ve moved on from the stories of neglect. Clearly, old wounds have gradually, finally healed. And I don’t need to remind Mum that parents aren’t perfect (losing your daughter on Bournemouth Beach ring any bells?).

Looking back on your career, is there anything you wish would have done differently?

Without hesitation: Yeah, I wish I had been able to take the course and not work as an unbadged guide, because I feel sorry for the people who were on my early tours. They may not have realised it, but no. That was not a good job.

How has guiding changed since you started?

[Even while I was still asking the question she utters an: “Oh my goodness” which reads clearly as, “Where do I start?”]

Big ones are the amount of traffic and the increasing number of tourists, the effect of mass tourism on places like Windsor.
But apart from that, we didn’t have mobile phones. If your coach didn’t come, you had to find a phone-box or dash back into the hotel.

And, goodness me, the coaches we got. The microphones didn’t work, you had to stand and shout and obviously people in the back didn’t hear you and that happened quite often.
This was the most shocking for me though: People were smoking [on the coach]. I had a tour with 50 people and only one exit… to empty a coach of 50 people took a long time! And the smokers were doing their break outside, [but instead of smoking then,] as soon as they got into the coach, they lit a cigarette. 
Say what now???

We talk about the wisdom of always making friends with your driver. They are your support and often a much-needed friend in the madness of a tour. At the end of the day, remember it’s your tour, but a bad atmosphere between driver and guide spills over to the passengers, and should be avoided at all costs!

Any other advice for new guides?

You can, having passed your exams, you can be very confident that you can face any situation, but you still have to prepare yourself for every tour you do. And with every single tour, you can learn something. That is definitely – never stop learning. 
Love and respect all the different people you meet. [You can hear the smile in her voice] And there will be such a variety. 
Don’t overload them with your knowledge because then they might feel, yes, inferior possibly. Don’t overload them.
And inspire them. Yes, let your enthusiasm inspire them so that they go back home with the memory of a lovely experience.

***

It was wonderful to interview my Grandma and hear her stories. It reawakened that excitement, which had dwindled somewhat with the lockdown, to get out there and start my career as a Blue Badge guide. As my Grandma says: You are lucky to belong to that community.

I am proud because I am following in my Grandma’s footsteps (literally!). Just as we have surnames like Baker and Cooper (made barrels) or the German Schuhmacher (shoe maker), which historically indicated a person’s career, I’m wondering if I should just change my surname now to Amber Bluebadger. I’ve also started a family tradition, so I’m hoping that my future granddaughter won’t mind that her career has already been picked out for her…

And probably my favourite story from the interview, how Little Me made it clear I was meant to be a guide:

Thank you, Omi x


5 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Blue Badge Guide

  1. Love this. Didn’t know your Omi’s a tour guide. Knowing your mum she didn’t really get lost. She has an inquisitive nature and wanted to see what outfit she could get/ask for for Barbie.

    Great writing once again.

  2. It’s definitely in your blood, Amber, and it’s clear why you do such a good job. “ You love what you show them and you want them to love it as well. ” This was clear when our group was with you! Great interview and best wishes to your grandmother fighting her cancer.

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