I would make a terrible police witness. In 29 years of living in London, all I can really tell you about Farringdon is that there’s a Costa Coffee and a Subway sandwich shop. Oh, and that the station was the terminus of the world’s first underground railway. That much I know.
So, I’m ashamed, but also as a history buff rather exhilarated, how much I learned from Blue Badge tourist guide Joel Reid, 52 in just an hour of his company. Around Smithfield Market, Charterhouse Square, St Bartholomew’s Church and Postman’s Park on a warm April afternoon he pointed out things that have been right under my nose for decades, such as shrapnel damage embedded in a wall, a result of a 1917 Zeppelin raid.
Particularly poignant was the wall of porcelain plaques in Postman’s Park with its Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, tales of ordinary Londoners who gave their lives helping others. (“Sarah Smith, pantomime artist, at Prince’s Theatre. Died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion. January 24 1863.”) And I had all this to myself: if ever there’s a moment for tourists with a fear of crowds, it’s right now.
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A badge of distinction
Blue Badge guides are the Rolls Royce of the industry – Reid had to pass 13 exams to earn his accreditation, and speaks several languages fluently – but, like many in hospitality and tourism his livelihood has been almost wiped out by the pandemic. This should be a year of celebration: 70 years since the Blue Badge system was set up in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. In normal times, it’s estimated that professional guides bring in nearly £42m to the economy as part of the £127bn UK tourism industry, according to the Institute of Tourist Guiding.
The British hospitality sector is bigger than the automotive, aeronautic and pharmaceutical ones combined and Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality, told me that while inbound visitor spending is forecast to reach an impressive-sounding £9bn in 2021, that’s still way less than the all-time high, £28.4bn, set in 2019. And exactly when the UK will open up fully again is nothing more than educated guesswork right now, which is a worry to the likes of Reid.
“Most of my guests are American so I’ve gone from being flat out to zero”, he tells me beside the spot where Sir William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered in 1305, even though he admits benefits have included more daddy-daughter time and the opportunity to study and enrich his knowledge. Fortunately, his wife, a writer and journalist, has been able to earn during the pandemic.
The digital divide
Many have not been so lucky, falling through the cracks of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Some have turned to video guiding, leading tours by Zoom, with varying degrees of success.
“Online tours have been a great filler” says Reid “but there’s always been a performance element to guiding, which depends on personalities and eccentrics, and a physicality. Actually being there is very important. You might pick up a subtle vibe from a group that makes you take a tour in a different direction or have spontaneous questions that you just won’t get over Zoom.”
Others have had to temporarily quit the profession altogether. Manchester-based guide Michele Thompson, 40, has seen her client numbers drop by 99 per cent over the last twelve months. Instead of leading German and British tourists around York or Whitby she’s been stacking shelves for Amazon, the only company to reply to her numerous job applications.
“It’s been strenuous” she tells me over the phone. “But it’s such a varied workforce, and I’ve met a lot of ex-travel people including travel agents and cabin crew. It was a really nice mix and very multicultural, but the first six weeks were tough, especially on my back and shoulders because you’re on your feet for eleven hours a day.”
“I’m definitely going to keep guiding, though, when things come back” she continues. “People who were due to come with me last year, who’d put down a deposit, those bookings are now starting to crawl back. In the last week, six people have booked back in. No hint of any foreigners yet but cruise ship terminals have been in touch saying there might be some possibilities coming up, but at the moment I can’t guess when, we’re just waiting.”
“I’m excited about the RHS garden at Bridgwater opening on 18 May. I’m part of a new cohort of Bridgewater Canal guides that’ll be offering a ‘Coal, Canals and Cake’ tour every Saturday. Salford Council gave us a grant to work on our website and make ourselves more professional, which I don’t think we’d have got had it not been for the pandemic.”
Now, like the rest of us, guides can only wait and hope for the further easing of lockdown when tourists feel safe enough to get back out on the road again. And once they do, for those holidaymakers and travellers to value the services guides provide and to discover how much more they can add to a day out. As I discovered.
“Blue Badge tourist guides are the cultural jewel of this country” Reid adds proudly as we’re about to part ways and I walk back past Subway and Costa Coffee to hop on a train. “It would be lovely if the public would make more use of us while we have this quiet period and have the whole country to ourselves.”
British Guild of Tourist Guides: britainsbestguides.org
Joel Reid’s London tours: joelreidguides.com
Michele Thompson: bridgewatercanalguidedtours.com