Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 4 (Final)

In my last blog (about being a tour guide this year) I write about some guest foibles and the highlights and that all tour should finish with tips!

Guest Foibles

One of my opening questions at the briefing is “what are you especially looking forward to during the week?” The men have no particular idea having scanned the itinerary months ago and probably having forgotten it by now. This can be true for the females but less so and there are always a couple of activities that excite. One was the Pilgrim’s Walk across from the mainland to Holy Island. This can only happen when the tide is out. I had one lady say that she’d gone into remission with breast cancer and this had been an ambition before and after her treatment. I was happy to help although the magic of the walk always escapes me. On both walks I’ve had two women fall over on their faces in the mud half way across. As a guide you’re horrified but they both saw it as hilarious and are probably still dining out on the story.

Nearly smiling. Two and half miles of waterlogged sand…

One guest advised that she needed to find a hairdresser to wash her hair. I half understood this. Obviously I have little fleece but having three females in my life I am always staggered by what they put on their hair let alone what they pay at the hairdressers. This was difficult to resolve as we were deep in the Dales and finding a sheep shearer might have been easier. One guest wanted details on what professional women’s football games were on in London at the weekend. Of course you can look at Google but where are the grounds, how do you best get there and how much?

The Highlights

I mentioned that a well curated tour is the most vital thing for success., followed by some decent weather. To think my ‘office’ was Hadrian’s Wall, the Northumberland coastline, Alnwick Castle, Malham Tarn, the Black Sheep Brewery or Fountains Abbey then you can appreciate that there was pleasure in introducing the guests, mostly southerners, to the magnificent landscapes. I never tired of that despite repeat visits. I have a sketchy knowledge of the history but that is improving and I enjoyed learning more, in fact I could have a dart at Mary, Queen of Scots, as my specialist subject on Mastermind. I did tell the other guides on our shared WhatsApp group that excitingly she stayed at one of the attractions I was taking the guests to. Quickly one wiser sage came back and said ‘Tony, she stayed every where!’ True, was in exile in England for 18 years and rolled from one stately pile to another with her entourage of over 50 people. She could fund this number as she was a widow of a former King of France on a very good stipend…enough now Tony.

There is considerable pleasure to gain command of the tour. You start hesitant but eventually you not only know where to go and what to say but you also get sufficient knowledge to deal with changes and variations without due concern. Another thing is that if the tour goes well for a couple of days the guests build up confidence in you and then if things go wrong they’re more forgiving and tolerant.

The ruins of Bolton Abbey, the Yorkshire Dales

Some guests are hilarious and or interesting. One American guest took it in her stride a night when the party took on itself to go for a pizza in Settle. The Italian owner was cook, wine waiter and maitre ‘d. He was also a wind bag who took ages to do any of these jobs. This led to delays in the food arriving. It was my night off and so the next morning they all told me about this frustrating night. Were they unhappy? My American guest described this as ‘dinner and a show’ in terms of entertainment!

The amazing Gordale Scar, in the Yorkshire Dales

Often the news headlines would be discussed at breakfast. I kept quiet as my politics were usually not theirs but there was one sad story about an aggressive dog being put down for some terrible attack. The consensus was that the owner should have been destroyed instead! Another guest produced a video on his phone of his dog. I was encouraged to have a look, not an obvious delight for Tony. To my amazement his dog was walking on a tread mill! This is how it often took its exercise. He also recounted a story where his wife popped out for an hour and a half forgetting that the dog was on the tread mill. When she returned Rover was still plodding along!

One driver who was with us for a few days was seemingly relaxed and experienced. However one incident was very tense where he met an oncoming car as he finished crossing a single lane bridge. The woman in the car was gesticulating suggesting he was wrong to not give way. This was a strange point of view given the size of the bus and the fact he was already on the bridge. Anyway, cringingly he stopped beside the grumpy driver, wound down his window and started to debate the merits of her analysis. Fortunately it was relatively brief and the guests thought it was hilarious. I can smile now but surely keep your emotions under control with drivers you’ll never see again and you’re with a bus full of customers? 

Warkworth Castle on the Northumbrian coast

There’s only a certain amount you want to learn about guests and certainly only a limited amount you want to tell them. However, conversations start and you can end up down a proverbial rabbit hole. One British resident male guest had a career in IT and ended up a US national. As ‘I peeled the onion’ of his life it had started with a period of time as an ice cream salesman in Kansas. If this wasn’t a very baffling progression then he had chosen to remain a dual national. From here a detailed expose on the tax realities of such a status were revealed. The gist being that Uncle Sam got first dibs before HMRC swept up the balance of the due levy. From here another conversation of why retain both citizenships ensued. It never came with an answer I thought was compelling but there again stuff like Brexit or Scottish Independence never hinge on the logic of monetary arithmetic do they.

As a guide then most of the other professionals you deal with whilst out and about are usually on your side and one meeting that touched me was at Hardraw Force Waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. Leading the party I turned up at the counter to pay for the guests to walk up to the waterfall. The lady behind the counter was a little terse and sought our help on using the technology to pay for the visit. I also needed a receipt and this was another challenge for her. Anyway we did the transaction and the guests went up to see the attraction whilst I stayed behind. It transpired that she was nearly blind and that using the technology was a bordering on impossible. She told me she had terminal ‘blood cancer’ and that the treatment had led to her blindness. She owned this attraction with her family but she’d had to manage the admissions for the day.

Within Alnwick Castle on a private tour

As I helped her she was so grateful and I was offered chocolate bars and coffee for free. Frankly I was so glad I’d helped let alone needed to receive any gratuity. As they say ‘be slow to judge people’.

I must mention the camaraderie of the guides. This wasn’t just when working together but before, after or during a tour you’ve always got someone to ask about lunch solutions, train pick ups, walking short cuts, rescheduling and the like. If you have the experience then you’re happy to share and you know the pressure the guide is under time wise so that everyone responds with alacrity.

Tips

I worked for two tour operators on the four tours. Each operator’s brochure mentions tipping the guide/s on the holiday. Personally whatever I might receive then it was never going to be used to pay a bill or change my life. However, it does provide a fillip and boost for feeling you’ve done a good job. Everyone likes a ‘pat on the back’. 

The amazing Vindolanda

Before I started there were folklore stories about Americans being very generous and I knew what Anna and I had tipped on our holidays. Surely it’d be a pleasant surprise when they personally sought me out to press cash into my hand before they left? No, frankly it was miserable and I mainly came away thinking that the British were simply mean. The older the guest the lower the tip (or non existent) and as you’ve read then those are the guests who you help most, ask the most questions (sometimes repetitively) , re-arrange dining arrangements for and you have to listen to most to as they regale you with endless anecdotes. The simple fact is that many are lonely and this is a social event as much as a, say, sightseeing or walking holiday.

On average I received less per guest than they spent on cheese, as gifts for family and friends, when we visited the Wensleydale Creamery. For the hours spent, and the care given, this is awful. On my last tour I received no tips. In fact that’s not quite true as one guest organised a cash transfer for me. However, I needed a bank account in the country they originated from to access the dosh. I didn’t and so it remained uncashed. On this last tour I helped and accommodated one guest whose infirmity made their attendance very risky given the unavoidably difficult terrain we visited. If they had taken me to one side, at the end, and simply given me a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for my care it would have been lovely. If there’s one ‘take away’ from guiding then I shall have little or no expectation of gratuities on the next tour!

So next year? Well, I’m up for it and I’ve ‘learned’ my territory so that it should be less time consuming pre-tour and generally less stressful. During the winter I’m taking the necessary steps to get a Private Hire licence. (This is expensive and onerous but the land agent is helping financially.) In the uncertain world of recession and global headwinds who knows how the opportunities will work out but I’m hopeful it continues.

5 thoughts on “Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 4 (Final)

  1. Hi Tony

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    div>I loved reading about your experiences being a tour guide, something I had wondered about doing myself locally i.e. without the bus, accommodation, and so on. Maybe Winchester needs another guide😂 although I

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  2. My dear Carson, there really is no limit to your talents. This a a first class account of what looks like a seriously hard job and not one undertaken for the money (their tips seem rather mean). Well done, big kudos and hope it was worth it. Rather like your cycling journals, your commendable lightness of touch and focus on the positive perhaps direct attention away from the less attractive aspects of each activity? Oh, and Carson, we’ll have the ’84 Pomerol with dinner this evening. That will be all.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tony. Made me smile throughout. You have nailed it in sooo many ways.
    There is probably a film series to be had out of a guides life. Perhaps use tips to fund its development?

    Liked by 1 person

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