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Sunday, 23 November 2014

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Talking the talk, walking the walk

Alan Heppenstall is chairman of Cumbria Tourist Guides, whose members help visitors from around the world to experience the county’s charms. Most of the time things go smoothly. Mostly, but not always.

Years ago Alan took American tourists on walking holidays in the Lake District. He recalls: “With the larger groups we offered a choice of walks, an easy one and a hard one.

“On the final day with one particular group, they had the choice of a relatively easy walk along the shore of Ullswater, combined with a boat trip, or a 14-mile walk along the length of High Street, starting at Howtown and finishing at Troutbeck.

“I was surprised that all the good hikers in the group opted for the easy walk. At dinner that evening I asked one of the participants why she had preferred the easy walk, to which I got the reply: ‘Well, we wanted a good stretch and didn’t fancy any more shopping.’

“I asked her what shops she was referring to. ‘Why the shops along the High Street, of course...’”

Another guide working for an American company had a client knock on their hotel room door one night. This lady had posted a parcel back home that day, and had inadvertently posted her air ticket as well. She was due to fly home next morning.

Cultural misunderstandings and the kind of gaffe to which all nationalities are prone: this is the world which a new generation of tour guides is about to enter.

This week 23 people from all over Cumbria graduated as Blue Badge tourist guides.

The ceremony at Brantwood, Consiton, crowned an intensive year of study into Cumbria’s landscape and history.

Blue Badge guides are recognised by tour operators and travel agents around the world for being entertaining, informative and professional.

Cumbria’s new guides are all freelance and will be available to lead individuals and groups on foot, by coach or car, and around sites.

The guides were mentored by Nicky Godfrey-Evans, a Blue Badge guide herself, through her company Cultural Tourism Training.

“The new guides are aged from their 30s to 60s,” says Nicky, who lives near Penrith. “It would be nice to have some younger ones but it tends to be people who’ve had more experience and knowledge of our county.

“For some it’s a career change. For others it’s part-time as well as doing something else. Guiding is ideal for someone wanting to decide how much they work.

“We’ve got Cumbrians, off-comers, people retired from the police, retired teachers. People have different areas of interest: outdoor pursuits, churches, museums, art galleries.

“In the past most guides have been fairly stereotypical middle class. Partly because of the cost.”

The new generation of Blue Badge guides are the first graduates for 11 years. The price of training – about £4,000 – has been a deterrent but the new recruits paid only £1,500.

The balance came from the Rural Development Fund, which regards tourist guides as an investment in Cumbria’s economy.

Says Nicky: “They recognise the value of Blue Badge guides to bringing in business. Visitors go into shops and attractions because guides have recommended them, even though the guide might not be with them at the time.”

Cumbria now has about 40 Blue Badge guides. The honeypot areas such as Grasmere and Windermere are always well catered for. Nicky is confident that visitors will now have their horizons widened to some of the county’s lesser-known gems.

“A high proportion of our course live in Eden and we’re really happy to draw on those people to develop new tours.

“We also have people around Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall. South Lakes is fairly well represented. The west Cumbrian coast – we tried and tried to get people from there but the furthest west we got was Bassenthwaite. It’s a great shame. But it doesn’t mean guides aren’t going to cover the west.

“I’m sure a lot of them will develop interesting tours. When they started training a lot of them might think ‘I wish I didn’t have to do churches.’ But they might change their mind. The course opens people’s eyes.”

With so many guide books available and so much information on the internet, why would people want to hire a guide at all?

“You can’t beat the personal contact,” insists Nicky. “Being taken round by a guide who can respond to your specific interest and mood is a very different experience. Having the knowledge shared by someone who’s enthusiastic – you can’t beat that. People like people.

“You have to have a real enthusiasm. You’ve got to love the area and you’ve got to really like people. It’s understanding people and what makes them tick.”

Other important qualities include the flexibility to respond to an 11th-hour booking, and preferably the ability to speak to foreign visitors in their native tongue.

“Language skills are increasingly important. Six of the guides were out yesterday. Five of them were with Japanese parties. We have a Japanese speaker. She’s going to want to reinvent herself several times.”

Other new recruits speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German. German is particularly useful. Germans like the Lakes. And although most can speak English, they like to be addressed in their native tongue.

Locals also come on Blue Badge tours, which is something Nicky and her colleagues are keen to encourage. Guided walks and tours for locals at a reduced rate are planned from next month.

Guiding is largely seasonal but winter walks and tours could be viable now that Cumbria has more people to lead the way.

Nicky has been a Blue Badge guide for more than 30 years. What does she enjoy about it?

“I enjoy the variety. You just go on learning. It’s very much a two-way relationship. Every question they ask, you’re finding out something else with your research.

“It’s marvellous to see people having a fantastic time or saying ‘I hated history at school but you’ve brought it alive.’ I always say guides open eyes.”

Does Cumbria make a guide’s job easier? “Oh yes. No doubt about it. It’s a given that people are going to love it. But Blue Badge guides are good at bringing anything to life. We could do it with a car park or a building site.”

Anna Gray from Great Corby near Carlisle is one of the new guides. She plans to do it part-time, as well as running Anna Gray Associates which provides services such as copywriting and graphic design.

“It just seemed to be a natural progression,” she says. “I’ve done work for Cumbria Tourism and I know Cumbria extremely well. Now I’m looking forward to transferring that knowledge from writing to speaking.

“Our training included giving commentary to each other on coach tours. For me the main skills were how to present to an audience verbally.

“The more you delve into Cumbria the more fascinating it becomes. Guiding attracts someone who’s into history and heritage. Someone who’s a bit curious. I love reading landscapes and trying to understand how they’ve come about, man’s influence on them.”

Anna doesn’t plan to specialise in any geographical area and she recognises the need for flexibility.

“I’m happy to do coach tours, town tours, country walks. I’d like to tap into the conference market: delegates or their partners.”

Her language skills don’t extend much beyond O-level French but she can call on a French- and German-speaking friend as translator if necessary.

“I would try and give a tour geared towards what different cultures are interested in. In Cumbria we have links with Japan. Barrow used to build ships for the Japanese government. A lot of eastern European refugees came here in the war. German painter Karl Schwitters lived in the Lake District in the 1940s.”

Anna’s new line of work is just beginning. But the Blue Badge course has already taught her that language is not the only national barrier. “With certain nationalities you have to be mindful of their culture.

“The Japanese regard the number four as unlucky so you have to be careful with things like room numbers.”

Brian Reay of Bassenthwaite is hoping to turn his passion for his home county into a new career.

Two months ago Brian closed Wigton’s Water Street gym, which he had run for 22 years.

“I’ll be 60 next year. I feel this is the right time for something new.

“I didn’t know much about the Blue Badge scheme. Only when I started the course did I realise what I’d let myself in for!

It was hard work but very interesting. I wanted to take people fell-walking. Fell-walking was about one per cent of it. The rest was learning about Cumbria’s architecture, history, people.

“I’m a Wigton lad and I was one of only two or three who were born and bred in Cumbria. I’ve given the others a feel for some of the unsung places like Silloth and the Solway coast, Bassenthwaite, Cockermouth, Maryport.

“The majority were from the honeypot areas. When I was on this course, Wigton was a bit of a standing joke. One day I took them to Wigton and did a guided tour. I talked about George Moore who built the monument, Melvyn Bragg, Anna Ford, John Bell the bowler – he was best man at my wedding.

“They thought it was brilliant. It brought Wigton to life.

“I see my particular things as coach guiding and driver guiding; taking people in my own vehicle. I’ve just bought a seven-seater.

“I could do town walks such as Keswick and Cockermouth and fell-walking, maybe showing people some of the quieter places like back o’ Skiddaw and Caldbeck. Going up Helvellyn is like going up the M6.

“I think the majority of tourists will be from Britain. We tend to not know what’s on our own doorstep.

“I’m really looking forward to the challenge. I’m going into it wholeheartedly.”

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