Bringing history to life

Are you hooked on history? Clued up on culture? If so, then now is the time to share your passion and get a Blue Badge, says Steve Martin

As a tourist guide, Rosalind Hutchinson spends her days bringing history to life. But she didn’t expect it to come quite so vividly to life as it did on a ‘Smugglers and Spectres’ tour in Kent.

“I was telling the group about the terrible deeds of a smuggling family called the Ransleys – the leader had two sets of teeth in his top jaw and would brand people with a bite – when an Australian voice at the back of the coach piped up: ‘I’m a Ransley!’ That was quite a moment.”

Hutchinson holds a Blue Badge, the country’s top tourist guiding qualification, and after 30 years of escorting visitors round the sights of London and beyond, she takes most things in her stride. She loves the variety and the constant learning. “Researching new venues is one of the things that makes it so exciting,” she says.

A typical week could involve anything from a Sherlock Holmes tour for participants of a crime writers’ convention to explaining the neo-classical architecture of Spencer House, an 18th century private palace near Green Park, where she runs a team of guides.

Like many Blue Badge holders, she is on her second career. A former midwife, she started guiding to provide a part time income after her own children were born. It’s also a popular choice for active retirees, with around 45 per cent of Blue Badge guides aged over 60. Most guides work on a freelance basis, finding work from tour agencies and through networking.

Geoffrey Warr, 78, took up guiding 19 years ago after a career in the oil industry. “I was in the British Museum one day and picked up a flyer about guided tours and I thought ‘I could do that’,” he says.

But he is keen to dispel the notion that it’s just an interesting hobby for older people. “When I get up at 5am to drive down to Dover to meet a group, I don’t quite look at it that way.” Throughout the summer he averages three days of guiding every week and, as a German speaker, spends much of the time showing German tourists around London. The work can be physically and mentally demanding. “You’re concentrating all the time. Younger guides get just as tired,” he says.

And it’s certainly not a case of delivering the same spiel over and over again, says Hutchinson.

“The art of guiding is the selection of knowledge for the people you’re with so you have to listen to the group in order to give them what they want. You have to be very careful you don’t start lecturing them. If somebody asks me if I used to be a school teacher, I don’t take that as a compliment!”

As well as history, you also need a knowledge of popular culture and he is sometimes surprised by tourists’ love of British television programmes and films, he adds.

“One of the questions children often ask is where Mr Bean lives.”