Diary of a Guide…Art and a Vintage Bus

A mixed bag this week of coach tours, a lecture and a visit to the National Gallery.

Wednesday

City of London Livery Companies' Lecture at Luton U3A

City of London Livery Companies’ Lecture at Luton U3A

This afternoon I was off on the train to Luton to give a talk to Luton U3A (University of the Third Age) History Group on the City of London Livery Companies.

As a City of London Guide, I often give lectures on ‘City’ topics and love talking about the livery companies; their origins, history and function – both hundreds of years ago and today.

Luton U3A are a great group to give a talk to; always interested and they always ask lots of questions afterwards. I started giving lectures to them about 18 months ago when I was booked to give a talk to Dunstable U3A and then they passed me on to Luton U3A, who passed me on to another local U3A group, who also passed me on to another local history group. It’s a bit like Pass the Parcel in this game – once you give a talk, and they like you, they pass your details onto others they know and you go and give talks to them too.

So now I go up to the Luton area about six times a year. One of the members meets me at the station, I give my talk, have a nice cup of tea, and then I get dropped back at the station. Just lovely.

Thursday
A full day’s tour today. I was due to take a coach load to Stonehenge and Bath, but added on a stop at Windsor on the way following a call from the tour operator yesterday.

Once I’d got my group into Windsor Castle, given them a short tour of the castle precincts and left them to visit the State Apartments on their own, I met up with a fellow Blue Badge Guide who I hadn’t seen for a few months for a coffee and a catch up. One of the nice things about this job is that you occasionally end up in the same place at the same time as a friend. Lucy and I trained together on the Blue Badge course and during the main season it’s hard to meet up properly, so we grab time when we can to share stories and swap tips.

Who thought it would rain at Stonehenge today??

Who thought it would rain at Stonehenge today??

Back in the coach park, two of my visitors were late back and in the end I had to head off to Bath without them – there’s only so long you can make 50 other people wait! However, the tour operator was able to contact the missing couple and another coach gave them a lift from Windsor to Bath, where we were reunited just in time to go into the Roman Baths. The couple were terribly apologetic and admitted it was all their fault as they had just lost track of time in the castle.

Our final stop of the day was Stonehenge – it was beautifully sunny and, as my group left the coach, one man asked if he’d need his umbrella. I laughed and said: “Nah, it’s not going to rain today”. Famous last words! Once the group were up by the stones, which are 1½ miles from the visitor centre, guess what? It rained! Luckily not too much and not for long, but it did rain. Boy, did I get some stick back on the coach.

Friday
Today was a day off, but I’d offered to take a couple of Blue Badge students on a walkthrough of the National Gallery so headed out reasonably early to meet them. They have their exam (a tour of the gallery) in September and it’s hard – there are 21 paintings on the tour and you have to be able to deliver a 5 minute presentation on all of them. I remember my training and exam well. I felt like I would never be able to find my way through the gallery from one painting to the next, let alone be able to talk about each one.

The Rokeby Venus by Velazquez

The Rokeby Venus by Velazquez

Art was never really my ‘thing’, but once I realised that I could talk about the stories in the paintings and not just the history of the art, the paint techniques and the artists, it became much easier. It was still a tough exam, but I actually started to enjoy the art. I love that Caravaggio was the bad boy of the art world in the early 1600s (arrogant, he would swagger around town with his mates, and he killed a man in a duel), that Constable’s The Haywain is like a chocolate box cover, and that a suffragette slashed The Rokeby Venus with an axe to highlight the struggle for women’s votes in 1914 (well, not that she damaged the painting but the passion it inspired in her). On her arrest, Mary Richardson said: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

I hadn’t been to the National Gallery for a while, so today’s walkthrough with some students was a good chance to refresh myself on the art while giving them some guidance on how to talk about each painting. We only managed to talk through 12 paintings in the time we had, plus after 12 we were all feeling a little brain dead, so we called it a day and agreed to finish off another time.

Sunday
Back to the Cotswolds today on a lovely sunny Sunday, with a trainee coach driver who hadn’t done this route before. Occasionally with new drivers you have to direct them as well as provide the commentary, which is pretty hard work but, luckily for me, the tour company sent along another driver to act as his mentor and make sure he knew what he was doing and where he was going.

Vintage bus at Bourton-on-the-Water

Vintage bus at Bourton-on-the-Water

The day went well, no wrong turns, no one left behind anywhere, the sun shone all day and the passengers enjoyed their trip out into the countryside.

However, I was very jealous when we got to Bourton-on-the Water and saw another tour in the most gorgeous vintage bus.

Now why don’t I get those kind of tours?!

Diary of a Guide…Coach Trips, an Empty Castle and a Model Village

What a week! It started with a fun but hectic cruise ship pickup and finished in a model village, which has its own model village!

Tuesday
When the alarm went off at 3.15am, I wondered what on earth had possessed me to accept a cruise ship job. Before you start thinking ‘how lovely’, let me just clarify that this is not me enjoying a cruise, but picking up a coach load of tourists from a cruise and taking them on a shore excursion for the day.

My trusty flask

My trusty flask

I struggled out of bed and brewed up my flask of tea – can’t survive an early start without it, and there is nothing at Southampton Docks apart from a rubbish vending machine that is often broken. My cab picked me up at 4.00am and delivered me to a hotel in Victoria where, along with about 45 other Blue Badge Guides, I boarded the coach to take us down to Southampton. On board there was a weird party-type atmosphere (it was 5.00am!) as people caught up with old friends, swopped notes about which excursion they were leading and dished out advice to guides who’d never done a cruise pickup before.

Once we got to Southampton the sheer scale of the job unfolded. Lined up at the dockside were 101 coaches! A large number were coming back into London for the day and their guides were meeting them there – no early start for them. But the rest of us were taking our coachloads all over the place; Bath, Stonehenge, Windsor, Salisbury. I was Coach Number 37 and was off to Winchester and Oxford for the day, along with about another 8 coaches.

Getting that many people off the cruise ship with their luggage and onto the right coach is not easy, so I eventually left the docks over an hour late. However, that was fine as our first stop was Winchester and a tour of the cathedral, which didn’t actually open until 9.30am. So at least by the time we got there we could go straight in – or so I thought!

Bust of deep-sea diver, William Walker, in Winchester Cathedral

Bust of deep-sea diver, William Walker, in Winchester Cathedral

This was where I discovered that my Indonesian group were lovely, but uncontrollable. In the five minutes it took to walk them from the coach drop off point to the cathedral, they scattered and I lost two of them who ducked into a shop without me seeing where they went. Having rounded everyone up again, I did the quickest tour ever of Winchester Cathedral and whizzed round telling them about the history and architecture and pointing out the mortuary chests which contain the bones of Saxon kings, including Cnut, and the grave of Jane Austen.

Stopping briefly at the bust of deep-sea diver, William Walker, I told the story of how he spent six years underpinning the cathedral to shore it up working by touch in the dark, murky waters below. The cathedral is built in boggy land and was in danger of collapsing back in the early 1900s, so Walker spent six hours a day in the water below excavating trenches and filling them with bags of cement. His diving suit was so heavy that when he stopped for lunch, he just used to take off his helmet, eat and then go back into the waters.

Antony Gormley's 'Sound II', Winchester Cathedral crypt

Antony Gormley’s ‘Sound II’, Winchester Cathedral crypt

The cathedral is no longer in danger of falling down, but the crypt still floods regularly.

We were in and out in 30 minutes and then, after they’d all been to the loos, it was back on the coach to try and make up time on the way to Oxford.

We caught up a little on the drive and headed straight into the centre of the city for our lunch stop at The Mitre in the High Street, who did a great job serving 35 tomato soups, followed by 35 fish and chips and then 35 slices of cheesecake in record time.

Because they all wanted to shop, I abandoned the walking tour of the city and gave the group free time before we regrouped for our visit to Christ Church. Probably the most visited college in Oxford, it’s mainly visited for its Lewis Carroll / Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter connections rather than its history and architecture. However, my group loved it, and we finished the day with a group photo in Tom Quad before boarding the coach for the journey to Heathrow Airport, where I waved them off to get their flights back home, and then headed back into London and home – exhausted, but happy at a job well done.

Thursday

Another coach group today, and this time I spent the day playing catch up as my timings went to pot! I left London a little late as some of my passengers were late arriving for the coach and a family of eight didn’t turn up. So with 63 passengers on board a double-decker coach we set off to Windsor.

Windsor Castle opens at 9.30am and I was pretty confident we would be the first coach there – until we hit the M4! The traffic slowed to a crawl, as there were three separate accidents ahead of us. So instead of getting to Windsor around 9.00am, we didn’t arrive at the Castle gate until 9.45am.

Just me and the Guardsman at Windsor Castle

Just me and the Guardsman at Windsor Castle

However, we sped through the ticket hall and security as I was still the first coach to arrive (all the others were still stuck on the M4) and I’ve never seen Windsor Castle so empty, not even in the middle of winter. There wasn’t a soul there when we arrived, so it was bliss conducting my tour of the castle precincts without anyone else around, and I got my group straight into the State Apartments.

Back at the coach park after my group had time to explore Windsor and watch the guard change, they came back mostly on time and I was reunited with the family of eight as another coach tour had given them a lift to Windsor. However, we still left later than originally planned as I’d given the group their full time at Windsor even though we’d arrived late.

We made up a little time on the way to Bath, where I walked the group to the Roman Baths and then gave them free time to explore. I grabbed a cup of tea and had a little rest, before meeting my group at the coach pickup point, known as Bog Island (better than it sounds). Two people were late back, so we left Bath later than planned again, and whizzed our way through the countryside to the medieval village of Lacock with its abbey and Harry Potter connections – a house in the village was used as the location for Harry’s parents’ house in the films and filming also took place in the abbey itself.

After a rather late lunch in the 14th century George Inn, we headed to our last stop of the day at Stonehenge and got there with 10 minutes to spare before the last entry – phew!

Friday
Today was much more relaxed as I took a lovely group out to the Cotswolds for the day in the warm sunshine that has finally emerged.

I love guiding in the Cotswolds. It’s just so beautiful and overseas visitors are enamoured with ‘olde England’ – it’s just how many of them imagine England to be with its picturesque villages and quaint cottages.

Our first stop in the village of Bibury went well, until we came to get back on the coach and two of my visitors were missing. I ran round the village (it is not that big) and couldn’t find them anywhere. At this point I was starting to worry – how on earth could I lose two people in a teeny tiny village?! 20 minutes later, just as I was giving up and about to head off without them, they came ambling slowly down the hill from the back of the village without a care in the world and completely oblivious that the other 50 people had been waiting for them!

Model Village in Bourton-on-the-Water

Model Village in Bourton-on-the-Water

Our lunch stop in Burford was great – again, it always amazes me how they can get so many meals out at one time, but The Cotswold Arms (not been there before) served lunch quickly which gave the group a little extra time to explore the village. The coach driver and I had a little table in the corner of the bar area, away from the group, so we could relax over lunch. If you ever visit, I highly recommend the homemade steak and ale pie, which I followed up with apple crumble and custard.

Feeling more like taking a little siesta rather than delivering a guided tour, our next stop was Bourton-on-the-Water. My driver kept making fun of me, as I tend to pronounce it ‘Burton-on-the-Water’ rather than ‘Boorton’, but as he kept correcting me, I switched to the correct pronunciation, stressing it accordingly – which just made him laugh even more.

Once there, I managed to take a little time out and visited the model village, which I’ve not managed to get to before.

A model village within a model village!

A model village within a model village!

A visit is well worth it, as it is an exact miniature replica of the village of Bourton-on-the-Water and was built in the garden of the Old New Inn back in the 1930s. The owner at the time, landlord C A Morris, actually measured the village and then recreated it on a scale of 1/9, opening it to the public in May 1937 to celebrate the coronation of King George VI.

The model village is just fantastic with its miniature houses, replica river Windrush running through it, and church complete with singing choir.

The detail is incredible – right down to the miniature Old New Inn pub, which even has a model village in its garden!

Diary of a Guide…Pilgrimage to The Friars

A quite week workwise, so I spent most of the week conducting research in preparation for a tour with a church group in September – and in the process discovered the most beautiful and peaceful priory in Kent.

Tuesday
When the tour operator booked me to take a group on a trip to Aylesford Priory, known as ‘The Friars’, I’d never heard of it and had no idea where it was. But I said yes to the job anyway, figuring that as the tour isn’t until September I had plenty of time to check it out. So with a free day today, I drove down to Kent and spent the day in the calm and inspiring surroundings of a Carmelite priory and place of pilgrimage.

12th Century Pilgrims' Hall

12th Century Pilgrims’ Hall

Founded in 1242 when Baron de Grey gave land to a group of hermits that he brought back from Mount Carmel on his return from the Holy Land, the hermits held their first General Chapter (or meeting) in 1247 and became mendicant friars. These early Carmelites offered shelter and respite to pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, and the Pilgrims’ Hall is the earliest building on the site having been built in the 12th century specifically as a stopping place for pilgrims by the original owners.

Like most religious orders, the Carmelites at Aylesford were dissolved by Henry VIII. The church was demolished and the land passed through various owners over the centuries until the Carmelites bought it back in 1949. They restored the buildings and celebrated pilgrimage masses on the lawn that covered the site of the old church.

Today masses are still celebrated outdoors, in front of the main Shrine, and The Friars continues to offer shelter to pilgrims as well as welcoming visitors of all faiths and none. And very welcoming they were too when I went into the reception and explained that I was doing a recce for a Catholic group, was Church of England and had never even heard of them before!

St Joseph Chapel

St Joseph Chapel

A lovely lady from the office explained all the group booking information to me, including arranging lunch in the old Pilgrims’ Hall, and then gave me an overview of all the buildings before I set off to explore.

All the work to restore The Friars was undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s, and the decoration, mosaics and ceramics in the chapels reflect the style of the day, with sculptures created by father and son team Philip and Michael Clark, and ceramics by Polish artist Adam Kossowski.

 

First up was The Rosary Way, a tree lined garden where pilgrims can stroll and contemplate. Next I made my way through the various chapels that surround the main Shrine.

 

Reliquary in the Chapel of St Simon

Reliquary in the Chapel of St Simon

The light and airy St Joseph’s Chapel, the family chapel of St Anne’s with ceramics of the Stations of the Cross, the plainly decorated and rather austere Choir Chapel, the Chapel of St Simon Stock (Prior General in 1256) with its eye-catching reliquary containing a relic of St Simon which was brought here from Bordeaux in 1952, and the underground Cloister Chapel, reserved for quiet prayer and dedicated to St Jude the Infant of Prague.

 

Some of the 200 'Peace' plaques in the Peace Garden

Some of the 200 ‘Peace’ plaques in the Peace Garden

Then I took a stroll in the Peace Garden, which was created in 2010 and has the word ‘Peace’ in 200 languages embedded into the paving stones. It was interesting comparing the words and trying to work out what some of the languages were – I mean, I know what French, Ancient Greek, Cherokee and Welsh are, but where do they speak Wolof or Ingush? Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania in the case of Wolof, and the North Caucasus region of Russia for Ingush, if you’d like to know.

The whole place exudes a sense of tranquillity and, as I sat for a while in the sunshine on one of the open air pews in front of the main Shrine with its beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary, I could almost feel the thousands of pilgrims seeking calm and refuge who have visited the priory over the centuries.

Main Shrine were pilgrimage masses are held

Main Shrine were pilgrimage masses are held

If you’re ever down in the area, take a detour from the hustle and bustle of Canterbury and maybe make your own pilgrimage to The Friars. I simply cannot wait to show my group of Catholic Americans, the peace of a Carmelite priory in the heart of the Garden of England.

Diary of a Guide…Heroes, Villains and Rain!

Well, this week started in spectacular style with an event at the Queen’s Gallery, then I got soaked in the middle of the week, and it ended with a talk on the Great Fire of London.

Monday

Bernard Donoghue, ALVA Director, at Queen's Gallery

Bernard Donoghue, ALVA Director, at Queen’s Gallery

What a great way to start my week – in the fabulous surroundings of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, on an ALVA (Association of Leading Visitor Attractions) workshop on theatre, performance and contemporary art in attractions.

I was attending on behalf of The View from The Shard and the room was filled with people from all sorts of visitor attractions; museums, galleries, heritage sites, gardens. Even representatives from London Zoo were there.

As this was my first ALVA event, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the speakers were just inspiring. Historic Royal Palaces kicked off talking about their costumed performances for children and also gave an overview of the phenomenon that was ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Reds’ (more commonly known as the poppies) at the Tower of London.

Other speakers talked about collaborations for modern art installations, making the most of the landscape, the cultural legacy of the Olympic Park and theatrical productions, but the highlight of the day for me was Helen Marriage, Chief Executive of Artichoke. And if you’ve never heard of Artichoke, well I only have to say that they were the organisation behind Lumiere London in January this year, and that amazing spectacle will immediately spring to mind.

Lumiere London at Leicester Square

Lumiere London at Leicester Square

Helen talked through how the Lumiere London project came about and the challenges involved, not least raising the funding as the project started with no budget. Other challenges came from Transport for London who originally told her that they couldn’t close Oxford Circus for the event. When asked why – because of the commuters. When she said, well we’ll do it after the commuters have gone home, they said no because of the shoppers. She responded with well what if we do it after the shops close, they said no because of people enjoying the nightlife. Finally it all came down to the buses. When asked if they could divert the buses, they said no. That woman must be like a dog with a bone, because she got them to close Oxford Circus for the event – which was just as well because people were lying down in the road taking photographs of the display above them (good job they stopped those buses!)

Thursday
Today it rained. And I got wet. More than once, as that ancient law known as ‘Sod’s’ ensured that I had two walks on a day that was full of showers.

The Clink Prison

The Clink Prison

My morning walk, Bawdy Bankside, wasn’t too bad as the showers were more drizzle than proper rain, but it was damp and cold as my group took in the 16th century entertainments on offer on the riverside. We started with the original theatres, The Rose and The Globe, before hearing about American film director and actor, Sam Wanamaker’s, mission to rebuild the Globe as it had been in Shakespeare’s day.

Moving on, we covered the bear baiting that once took place here and, of course, the inns and taverns in the area, The Clink Prison and the Winchester Geese who plied their trade in the brothels and stews.

My group were regulars who normally do country walks, but come into London a couple of times a year for a walk with me, which meant they were dressed for the weather. Good job they were regulars though, as the entire walk ended up revolving around wee – from the urine that people used to sell to the tanners in the area for them to use to soften their leather, to the human and animal urine that Shakespeare’s father would have used in his trade as a glover (again to soften the leather or animal skins). What with all the talk of wee, the sound of the river rushing by and the constant rain, we were all desperate for the toilet by the time we reached Southwark Cathedral, so dived inside to use their facilities and warm up with soup and coffees in their café.

London's first coffee shop

London’s first coffee shop

Having dried out, I got absolutely drenched with the corporate group I took on a ‘City Heroes and Villains’ walk this evening. It was drizzling, yet again, but as we left their offices to start the walk, the heavens opened and we got caught in a torrential downpour. Got hand it to them, those bankers are hardy types, as they stuck with me as we galloped through some of the City’s best known and also unheard of heroes and villains. The 1910 Houndsditch Murders where three policemen lost their lives, the destruction caused by the Great Fire of London, the bombing of the Blitz, and London’s first coffee shop (must be a hero to most people these days – who can survive without coffee?).

Along the way we discovered the Boudican revolt against the Romans, the true story of Dick Whittington, Lloyd’s of London (whose reputation was built on settling large claims fast, such as the sinking in 1799 of HMS Lutine and the unsinkable Titanic in 1912), Charles Dickens pricking the nation’s social conscience with his novels, and Thomas Gresham, who aptly built the Royal Exchange in 1571 so traders could meet under cover. Now there’s a man who recognised the problem of London weather!

James Henry Greathead, railway engineer

James Henry Greathead, railway engineer

We finished with one of my favourites, James Greathead, who invented a deep tunnel shield that enabled the City and South London Railway to be built between Stockwell and King William Street in 1890. It was left to each individual to decide if the man who enabled the forerunner of the Northern Line was a hero or a villain??

Cold and very wet, everyone stayed cheerful to the end, but I got some strange looks as I dripped all the way home on, yep, the Northern Line!

Saturday
I finished my week dry and warm as I delivered a talk on the Great Fire of London to my local Arthritis Care association, who provide a regular programme for (mainly elderly) people suffering from this debilitating condition – many of them hardly leave home.

I’d spoken at one of their monthly gatherings last year (on the Great Stink) and they’d kindly asked me back again. It’s a bit of a challenge, as they have no projection equipment and you have to be flexible as you can’t start until all the ambulances have delivered people safely to the venue. However, they are a lovely group and are very interested and appreciative. Oh, and I also had to deal with the friendly heckling from one old boy (he’s 90) who always sits at the back and can’t hear very well – there’s always one!

My talk finished with a few questions over a cup of tea and a biscuit, before I headed home in, yes you’ve guessed it, yet another shower!

Diary of a Guide…Firemen, Helmsman and Shakespeare

This week started with an urgent request for a tour that I haven’t done in 7 years, and finished with a Shakespeare cruise.

Tuesday
I got an email this afternoon asking if I was free on Thursday morning to conduct a tour of the City of London’s Guildhall for a private group and, as luck would have it, I was free. The tour needed to cover the Great Hall, Old Library and the crypt. So having accepted the job, I dusted off my notes on the Great Hall as I haven’t looked at them since 2009 when it was the venue for the practical exam to qualify as a City of London Guide.

The Guildhall's Great Hall

The Guildhall’s Great Hall

It’s amazing how it all came flooding back. Details on the statues and monuments, the state trials held there in the 16th century, the livery company shields and banners, the legend of Gog and Magog – even the privileged regiments (who are allowed to parade through the City with drums beating, bayonets fixed and colours flying!)

Having been briefed by the City of London Remembrancer’s Office that the tour was part of a day of activities for a senior member of the London Fire Brigade for his retirement and that they particularly wanted the tour to include connections to the Great Fire of London, I brushed up on that too. So approached Thursday feeling fully prepared, even though the tour was at short notice.

Guildhall's Old Library stained glass window

Guildhall’s Old Library stained glass window

Thursday
Thursday morning dawned and I arrived armed to the teeth with Guildhall connections to the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, having identified the shield for the Firefighters’ livery company, and found all images connected to fires in the stained glass windows. So there I was waiting for a group of firemen to arrive, only to find that they weren’t firemen at all! Unbeknown to myself or the client that booked me, the tour had been donated by the retiring senior firefighter as a charity auction prize, and the group were the people who’d bid for it. No wonder they’d looked confused when I’d introduced myself and joked that they probably knew more about the Great Fire of London than I did!

Still the tour went well and the group enjoyed hearing about the banquets that took place in the Great Hall over the centuries, how Sir Winston Churchill received the honorary freedom of the City in 1943 amid the ruins of the bombed out hall, and the trial of Anne Askew who is the only woman on record to have been tortured at the Tower (she was burnt at the stake for heresy).

Medieval crypt at the Guildhall

Medieval crypt at the Guildhall

We also took in the Old Library, where the Guildhall library was housed between 1873 and 1974, with its wonderful stained glass window containing famous figures connected with books and printing; William Caxton and the first printing press in (top middle), Richard Whittington who founded the original medieval library (bottom far left), and the marvellously named Wynkyn de Worde (top left) who was a pupil of Caxton’s and went on to set up his own printing press in Fleet Street.

We finished the tour in the medieval crypt, with its modern stained glass windows installed as part of restoration projects in the 1960s and 1970s. The group were lovely and even appreciated all the stories of fire and destruction that I included. They also looked suitably impressed when I pointed out the Firefighters’ shield and explained its symbolism – well, it would have been a shame not to mention it, especially as I’d gone to the trouble of locating the 103rd livery company high up near the ceiling.

After the tour, I headed over to Canary Wharf for a meeting at the Museum of London Docklands, and whilst there took the opportunity to visit their newly opened No. 1 Warehouse Gallery.

Call-On Bell in Museum of London Docklands

Call-On Bell in Museum of London Docklands

The Docklands museum is located within a Grade 1 listed sugar warehouse, built in 1802 as No 1 warehouse when the area was a thriving dock bringing goods into London, and the new gallery tells its story.

It conjures up a great picture of what working at the docks, and in the warehouse, was like, and features a wide variety of objects including iron-beam scales which weighed heavy goods, a bronze call-on bell rung to signal the practice of calling on (or choosing) the men who work that day, various working tools, and my favourite, the Helmsman carving.

Helmsman in No 1 Warehouse gallery

Helmsman in No 1 Warehouse gallery

Saturday
On a beautifully sunny afternoon, I boarded the Pride of London for another of the Museum of London’s Thames tours. This time the tour was on William Shakespeare, and thankfully our helmsman was more alive than the one I encountered on Thursday.

Alongside Julian Bowsher, senior archaeologist at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), I provided the commentary for the tour.

Julian talked about the 16th century playhouses, the archaeology of theatres such as the Globe, the Rose and the Curtain, and Shakespeare’s London, while I talked about Shakespeare’s life, London landmarks connected to his plays, and Shakespeare’s legacy as a wordsmith. I just love that Shakespeare left us with many phrases that are still in ordinary use today, such as ‘with bated breath’ (Hamlet) and ‘Greek to me’ (Julius Caesar), and also that virtually everyone can quote Shakespeare. I mean who isn’t familiar with some of his most famous lines; “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (Henry V), “Et tu Brute?” (Julius Caesar), “Alas poor Yorick” (Hamlet), “Romeo! Romeo! Where for art thou Romeo?” (Romeo and Juliet). I’m quite sure everyone has their own favourite Shakespeare quote…and yes, on the tour I did quote ‘Carry on Cleo’ with “Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”

The only slightly hairy moment of the tour came when Julian was so busy talking about the Blackfriars playhouse, that he almost missed The Globe Theatre on the other side of the river until I prompted him – phew!

So until next week – “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow” (Romeo and Juliet).

 

Diary of a Guide…Turnspits, Wally and Bluebell

Easter week brought the tour from hell, Where’s Wally and a ride on the Bluebell Railway.

Monday
Most tours go well, but now and again it doesn’t matter what you do but you’ll get the tour from hell. It all started so well as we headed out of Victoria Coach Station with a coach load of tourists on a day trip to Windsor, Stonehenge, Lacock and Bath.

Windsor Castle flying the Royal Standard

Windsor Castle flying the Royal Standard

First stop was Windsor Castle, where I found that an elderly gentleman on the tour couldn’t walk very quickly so needed extra time and help to get into the castle. Fortunately, as an extra guide learning the logistics of this particular tour, I was able to stay at the back of the group as we walked from the coach park to the castle and help him, while the main guide went ahead with the group. Just as well, because he took twice as long as everyone else to walk the short distance. As I helped him we chatted and he told me that he was over from Florida for a ceremony at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford honouring him for his service in World War II. He’d been based in England as a 17 year old when he was an aircraft gunner on bombers. He wasn’t doing badly for 90 years old and made me laugh when he asked if the Queen was home (she was actually – the Royal Standard was flying), as he’d last seen her in 1944!

Having given the group free time to explore the castle, the other guide and I went for a cup of tea before heading back to the coach park. We knew we were in trouble as our leaving time came and went, and we were still missing three passengers – yep, the 90 year old and his companion were among them. However, they weren’t the last to get back to the coach as one man had left his elderly mother on her own in the castle and seemed surprised that she hadn’t found her own way back, even though he told me she got confused sometimes!

Nearly missed it - Tank crossing at Salisbury Plain

Nearly missed it – Tank crossing at Salisbury Plain

Having located the poor woman, we left Windsor late and drove down to Stonehenge. Warning all the passengers, not once but seven times, about the time we had to leave Stonehenge to make our lunch stop and that we couldn’t wait if any of them were late, guess what? Yep, some were late back again! Including the elderly woman, whose son and granddaughters had left her on her own again, despite me suggesting they stick together so they didn’t lose her. Just as we were thinking of leaving, she turned up, but 15 minutes after our leaving time, the decision was taken to go without two other passengers who were just nowhere in sight. It might sound harsh, but with another 70 passengers on board the double-decker coach you can’t wait forever, as it’s not fair on the rest of the group. When the two women turned up some 30 minutes later, the tour operator managed to get them a lift back to London with another coach.

Next up was the beautiful National Trust village of Lacock, but on the way we passed some military manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain and were treated to the sight of a tank crossing the main road – just caught the tail end of it with my camera (you try juggling a microphone and a camera at the same time!).

It’s no surprise that Lacock is incredibly popular as a film location as you feel like you’re stepping into a bygone era.

Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom at Lacock Abbey

Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom at Lacock Abbey

Cobbled streets, no television aerials or satellite dishes and streets looking as they did back in the 18th and 19th centuries. All the residents have to do is park their cars elsewhere and filming can commence. The BBC’s 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice was filmed here, as was Cranford, and the cloisters of the 13th century Lacock Abbey featured as part of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.

Dog wheel at The George in Lacock

Dog wheel at The George in Lacock

 

We had a late lunch in the medieval George Inn, with its open fireplace where in days gone by a dog wheel was used to turn the meat. Bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat so it would cook evenly, small dogs known as Turnspits were placed inside the wheel and ran to turn the spit (bit like a hamster on a wheel). Turnspits were also known as Cooking Dogs, or Vernepator Cur, Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.” Rest assured they no longer use the dog wheel at The George to cook meat over the open fire and Turnspits are now an extinct breed.

From there, it was on to our last stop of the day, the Regency city of Bath, where the group had free time to explore the city, visit the Roman Baths or have a Bath Bun at Sally Lunn’s. The 90 year old World War II veteran was holding up well, but the man with the elderly mother wanted to leave her on the coach while they looked around Bath, and was surprised that we wouldn’t let him do that – we’re tour guides for heaven’s sake, not carers! So he got her off the coach and left her in a tearoom while he went off to explore.

Everyone was back at the coach on time as we left Bath (think they were all scared we might leave them behind) and we headed back to London, having stressed before they got back on board that it was a straight run back with no stops.

Just 20 minutes into the 2 hour journey a passenger tapped me on the shoulder as he was desperate for the toilet (not surprised as he’d obviously been to the pub in Bath). We couldn’t stop where we were, so he had to cross his legs for 25 minutes until we reached the services on the M4. I’ve not seen anyone run so fast for the toilet in ages, closely followed by half the coach who also decided they needed a toilet break.
The rest of the journey back was thankfully uneventful – aside from the very green-looking lady who’d had to be moved to the front of the coach and spent the return journey sitting next to me clutching a carrier bag and constantly asking how much longer we would be!

The View from The Shard's 'Where's Wally?'

The View from The Shard’s ‘Where’s Wally?’

Thursday

I was back in The View from The Shard today for a meeting, and to have a go at playing ‘Where’s Wally?’

Until 10th April you can grab an activity sheet and hunt for Wally and his friends Wenda, Woof, Wizard Whitebeard and Odlaw. I know it’s aimed at kids, but it’s fun. Some of the items and people to spot are in the Shard and others are on buildings you can spot from the top of The View.

No spoilers, but Odlaw was pretty easy to find, and I also spotted Wally early on. The rest were harder, although I suspect kids will have no trouble as they can usually work out anything that adults can’t. Me, well I struggled, so roped in some help – take a tip from me, the team at the Champagne bar know where they all are!

Friday
Today was a day off, and I took my mum down to the Bluebell Railway in Sussex for lunch on a Pullman Steam Train as a birthday treat.

I love a steam train – all that puff and luxury is the only way to travel and, luckily for us, it was the nicest day of the Easter bank holiday weekend.

The 1928 Car 64, or Christine

The 1928 Car 64, or Christine

Boarding Carriage Christine, we settled into our comfortable seats and watched the countryside rolling by as we puffed and tooted our way from Sheffield Park Station to East Grinstead and back again while enjoying a silver service 3-course lunch.

Originally known as Car 64, the carriage was built in 1928 as a 2nd Class restaurant car for the London-Harwich boat trains. She was then used on various railways before finishing her railway career on the Bournemouth Belle in 1967. Next used for promotional events as part of the Bulmer’s Cider Train, where she was renamed “Christine”, she was sold to the Venice-Simplon Orient Express who put Christine up for sale and she was finally bought by the Bluebell. She now runs as part of their Golden Arrow Pullman Dining Train, and is a wonderful experience – another bygone age.

Bluebell Railway

Bluebell Railway

 

The rest of the bank holiday weekend was, of course, a washout as Storm Katie hit, but down at the Bluebell Railway, everything was just lovely.

In case you’re wondering, lunch was delicious; asparagus wrapped in bacon, roast lamb and chocolate profiteroles. Just a great way to spend a spring day, chugging along in the spring sunshine, passing old signal boxes and picture-postcard stations with the puff of the steam engine and the toot of the whistle ringing in our ears.

 

Diary of a Guide…Bridget Jones, Book Fairies and Wonky Tearooms

The season’s hotting up, even if the weather is not, with two walks, the Education Show and a tour of the Cotswolds this week.

Monday
After a few weeks of research and route planning, I finally delivered my walk in Shoreditch this evening for a corporate group made up of British and Americans. We started in Finsbury Square with the Victorian water fountain erected to the memory of Martha Smith by her two sons, Thomas and Walter. Now I’m sure that Mrs Smith was a wonderful mum and worthy of such a tribute, but who’s ever heard of her? I had however heard of her son Tom – who invented the Christmas cracker in 1846 and whose work premises were based in Finsbury Square until the 1950s.

Street ArtOn what was a chilly night, we zipped through the Honourable Artillery Company, Bunhill Cemetery and Wesley’s Chapel on City Road, before diving into the side streets of Shoreditch to discover street art, old warehouses, and not one but two Shakespearian theatres – the Curtain Theatre and the unimaginatively named The Theatre. Then again, maybe ‘The Theatre’ was imaginative in the 1570s!

I even managed to include the latest piece of street art – a take on the Oscar race row. Located on the corner of Great Eastern Street and Curtain Road, it’s a great example of the culture and purpose of street art; topical, eye-catching, often controversial and timely.

I was feeling rather proud of my skills as a guide in managing to find and include such a piece, until the group’s attention was caught by something and all the Americans whipped out their mobiles and started filming. Turning to see what caused such excitement, I was a little disappointed to find that the highlight of their evening was not my inspiring commentary nor my choice of interesting landmarks, but a traffic warden loading a clamped car onto a tow truck to take it to the pound!

Tuesday
This morning I took my Bromley Ladies (a regular group that I take on walks a few times a year) on my ‘That’s A WRAP’ tour of film locations in the City of London.

Starting at St Paul’s Cathedral, we covered David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations, Mary Poppins (spoiler alert – ‘Feed The Birds’ was actually filmed on a set at Walt Disney studios) and the cybermen from Dr Who. Then caught up with Rumpole at the Old Bailey and The Jokers (1967, starring Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford as two brothers who steal the crown jewels), before reminiscing over Four Weddings and a Funeral at St Bartholomew the Great church. The Queen, Evita and The Da Vinci Code saw us at Goldsmiths’ Hall, and then we took in The Lavender Hill Mob and Dick van Dyke’s atrocious cockney accent (Mary Poppins again) at St Mary le Bow church on Cheapside.

After reliving our movie memories, we finished off by re-enacting the final scene of Bridget Jones’ Diary at the Royal Exchange. We got some very strange looks as we all pretended to be Bridget racing through the snow in woolly jumper and stripy underpants (not literally, you understand) searching for Mr Darcy and finally meeting him by the water fountain for the inevitable happy ending!

Saturday
Early start today, as I was off to the Education Show at the NEC in Birmingham to help man The View From The Shard’s stand as I have been instrumental in the development of their learning resources for school visits.

20160319_140520-1As the train pulled out of Euston, I felt like I was on a school trip with my drink and snacks laid out on the table in front of me, but when I arrived at the NEC I started to wonder if I was in the right place as everyone else was dressed as comic book characters? Turns out that Marvel Comic Con was on in the next door hall – if only I’d had my Wonder Woman outfit with me I could have gone to that instead!

The Education Show was probably not quite as much fun as Comic Con, but we did enjoy ourselves and met lots of lovely teachers and school administrators interested in bringing their school groups up The Shard and learning about London from the top. The stand opposite obligingly let us use one of their colourful lockers to secure our personal belongings in throughout the day – didn’t even have lockers when I was at school, you just left stuff in your desk and lugged the rest round with you all day as you moved from classroom to classroom.

The tools and resources available for schools is also quite amazing and has clearly improved a lot since I left school, as we certainly didn’t have all the electronic and computer tools. I also don’t recall the book fairy reading to us – just loved her ‘open book’ wings!

 

Burford

Burford

Sunday

Another early start, this time from Victoria Coach Station, as I took a group to the Cotswolds for the day.

 

First stop was the beautiful village of Burford, with its lovely sloping main street and 15th century church of St John the Baptist, where a stark plaque commemorates three Levellers from the New Model Army who were shot on the orders of Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

Arlington Row, Bibury

Arlington Row, Bibury

 

Next we headed to the quaint village of Bibury, which William Morris described as “the most beautiful village in the Cotswolds”. It certainly is picturesque with the River Coln running through it and the 16th century cottages in Arlington Row.

 

Lunch was at The Swan, a former coaching inn, where I enjoyed grilled whole trout from Bibury Trout farm next door, before we carried on to the ‘Little Venice of The Cotswolds’, Bourton-on-the-Water.

The Cotswold Motoring Museum, Bourton-on-the-Water

The Cotswold Motoring Museum, Bourton-on-the-Water

 

By this time, the sun was starting to make an appearance and Bourton with its tearooms was doing a roaring trade as we strolled along the River Windrush. Some of my group took time to visit the motor museum, the model railway exhibition and the model village, all of which are worth a visit.

 

Our tour of the Cotswolds finished in the market town of Stow-on-the-Wold, where at the height of the wool industry 20,000 sheep would exchange hands at the annual fair. Stow is also the scene of a major battle in 1646 at the height of the English Civil War – a pet subject of mine. So I took advantage of the free time my group were enjoying browsing the antique shops and treating themselves to a cream tea, to visit the parish church of St Edward where there is a memorial to those who died in the battle.

A Parliamentarian victory, this was the last battle of the first English Civil War and saw the destruction of the Royalist army with about 200 Royalist soldiers killed and 1,700 taken prisoner. Local legend has it that the slaughter was so bad that blood flowed like a river down Digbeth Street, as the Royalist commander, Sir Jacob Astley, sat on the steps of the market cross at his surrender.

Huffkins Tearoom, Stow-on-the-Wold

Huffkins Tearoom, Stow-on-the-Wold

 

Needing some sustenance before the journey back to London, I finished the day by treating myself to a nice cup of tea and a lardy cake (made to a secret recipe) in Huffkins (www.huffkins.com), a family bakery that was founded back in 1890 and occupies a rather wonky Grade II listed building made of Cotswold stone.

 

Nothing wonky about my lardy cake though , which was rather delicious – it’s well worth a visit to the Cotswolds just to visit Huffkins, let alone the quintessentially English villages!

Diary of a Guide…Fish, Herons and a pug named Trump

A mixed week of lectures, meetings, scouting walks (again) and hidden gems.

Monday
Worked at home today catching up on paperwork and then went off this evening to the City for the City of London Guide Lecturers Association’s annual Melluish lecture, which this year was given by Museum of London Director, Sharon Ament and, this being an anniversary year, was on the Great Fire of London.

Sharon Ament with CLGLA President, Sir David Howard bt

Sharon Ament with CLGLA President, Sir David Howard bt

The lecture was held in the beautiful church of St Lawrence Jewry, the official church of the Lord Mayor of London and the City of London Corporation, and we were warmly welcomed by the vicar, Canon David Parrott. Appropriately, St Lawrence Jewry was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren following the 1666 Fire. There has been a church on the site since the 12th century, and Wren’s church was restored in the 1950s, having been badly damaged in the Blitz of 1940.

Sharon presented an interesting lecture that, not only told the basic story of the Great Fire, but also looked at it from the perspective of modern day crisis management. It was a different angle to take, but one that got a room full of City guides, who all know about the Great Fire, thinking about what in Sharon’s words would be called ‘a major incident’ today.

The Lord Mayor of the time, Sir Thomas Bludworth, came in for a bit of criticism regarding his lack of action but, in fairness to him, if he had started pulling down houses to create fire breaks without agreement from a higher authority, i.e. the King, then he could have been sued – see, and we thought litigation was a modern disease! You do have to feel a little sorry for the man as his year in office saw both the Great Plague and the Great Fire devastate London and, in his own words, he had “the severest year any man had”.

Sharon summed up why the Great Fire was so disastrous in three key points, aside from the baker not putting his ovens out properly. Firstly, complacency – fires were a regular occurrence back then and there was no reason at the start to think this fire was any different. Second, poor leadership – no one took control initially and it took time to mobilise troops and co-ordinate the fire-fighting efforts. And lastly, a lack of equipment – fire hooks, leather buckets and squirts were supposed to be kept in every parish church for use against fire, but this was not always the case.

William Hogarth statue in Chiswick High Road

William Hogarth statue in Chiswick High Road

The Museum of London has a new exhibition due to open in July for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire, and ‘Fire! Fire!’ is sure to be this year’s hot ticket!

Thursday

Travelled over to Chiswick today for a meeting with a tour operator about some coach tours later in the summer. It took me back a good few years, as I used to work at Barclays Bank in Chiswick High Road in the late 1980s. The branch itself was completely unrecognisable, all shiny glass and automated tills, but the pub next door, aside from a refurbishment, hadn’t really changed at all. The Packhorse and Talbot was always a favourite haunt after work on a Friday evening when we’d all troop straight next door for a drink.

Hogarth's pug Trump

Hogarth’s pug Trump

 

However, outside the Barclays I found a gem that certainly wasn’t there back in my day – a statue of Trump! No, not the US politician and billionaire Donald, but a pug called Trump, along with his more famous master William Hogarth. The 18th century artist, and his pet dog, lived locally and you can visit Hogarth’s country retreat, but sadly I didn’t have time today so it’s one to stick on my list for another time.

 

 

Saturday
Spent the morning doing a final recce of my Shoreditch walk that I’m leading on Monday evening. It takes a long time to get a walk right – contrary to popular belief guides don’t just turn up and talk about anything (not professionals anyway), and I have my own method for creating a walk.

Pavement advert

Pavement advert

First I come up with an area or theme (this might be dictated by the client), then I research the area and potential topics and work out a rough route on a map before going out to walk the potential route. Then more research, finalise the stops, walk the route again, and again, and then walk it forwards and backwards making any final changes. The backwards bit I find is very important, as you will often spot something that you just don’t see while walking in one direction only.

Looking up at the tops of buildings and down at the ground also occasionally reveals an overlooked gem, which is how I found the advert about cows and fish on a paving stone in Shoreditch High Street. They sell hand-crafted shoes in a shop in Leicester (I googled them), but I have absolutely no idea what their connection with Shoreditch, or fish, is!

St Leonard's Church garden

St Leonard’s Church garden

 

Another gem, although thankfully easier to spot, was St Leonard’s Parish Church. The burial place of Richard Burbage, Shakespearian actor and the star of many of his plays, he was the first actor to play Hamlet, Romeo and dastardly Richard III. The church also has a lovely cottage garden complete with a wishing well and Shakespearian quotes. Not really what you expect to find at the top of Shoreditch High Street in amongst all the trendy bars and shops, but a pleasant oasis away from the noise of the traffic.

Sunday
Today was my first tour of the year at the National Trust’s Morden Hall Park – another oasis in London. I’ve been volunteering as a tour guide at what is effectively my local park for the past 5 years, and the history tours run every Sunday between March and October.

Morden Hall Park was a family estate that was left to the National Trust in 1941 when the last private owner, Gilliat Edward Hatfeild died – and no I haven’t spelt Hatfeild wrong, and no the family are not connected to Hatfield House (note the different spelling). Unlike most National Trust properties the park is free to enter as Hatfeild’s bequest stated the park should be run by the National Trust for the local people ‘provide a fee not be charged nor the gates locked’.

The park has a long history. First mentioned in the Domesday Book, the land was originally owned by Westminster Abbey before reverting to the Crown at the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. Bought by two merchants in the mid 1500s, it was then sold to the Garth family who owned it for about 300 years before selling the estate to the Hatfeilds. The Hatfeilds were tobacco merchants and it was the snuff mills in the park, still there today but no longer operational, that brought them to the area.

Heron on the snuff mill at Morden Hall Park

Heron on the snuff mill at Morden Hall Park

 

The hall itself has never been open to the public (no original furniture and no money to bring it back to life as a stately home) and, like many of the cottages on the estate, it is rented out to bring in much needed income to support the park and its activities. However, there are many interesting features that make for a great walk round the park; the aforementioned snuff mills, Mr Hatfeild’s rose garden, and the Victorian stableyard to name a few. Plus the River Wandle runs through the park and the wetlands area attracts lots of birds and wildlife.

Today I was particularly fortunate to catch one of the herons posing in the sunshine on top of the eastern snuff mill – looks like he’s waiting to catch a fish, or maybe he’s just hiding from Trump?!

Diary of a Guide…Murals, More Toilets and Tea

This week was full of murals, more toilets, and topped off with a splendid serving of afternoon tea.

Monday
Got a little side-tracked today while I was scouting a walk. Having mapped it out on paper and undertaken some initial research for the walk I’m leading in a few weeks’ time, my intention was to walk the route and finalise the stops I planned to make along the way. Just after setting off up City Road I took in Bunhill Fields, the non-conformist burial ground that houses the graves of John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress), Daniel Defoe (famous for writing Robinson Crusoe), and poet and painter, William Blake.

Dame Mary Page's Tomb in Bunhill Cemetery

Dame Mary Page’s Tomb in Bunhill Cemetery

But in amongst the famous are the not so famous; ordinary people who practised forms of religion that meant they could not be buried in consecrated ground, and some of the graves have interesting tales to tell. Especially, Dame Mary Page. The epitaph on her tomb dating from 1728 speaks volumes (or should that be gallons). Dame Mary, the wife of wealthy merchant, died aged 56 but was clearly a stoic woman who suffered greatly as ‘In 67 months she was tapped 66 times … 240 gallons of water drawn without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.’

The now disused cemetery is frequented by many City workers as a place to sit and eat their lunch, and most respect the peace of the graveyard. Apart from a builder who, as I was photographing John Bunyan’s tomb, was relieving himself onto nearby graves! Incensed I ranted at him about the desecration of graves and how would he like it if someone wee’d on his relatives. Think the whole graveyard heard me – as a guide I can definitely project my voice and went into serious ‘outraged’ mode!

Interior of Wesley's Chapel

Interior of Wesley’s Chapel

 

After that encounter, I popped into Wesley’s Chapel (www.wesleyschapel.org.uk) opposite for a little calm and, never having been there before, stumbled across an absolute gem.

Built in 1777-78 by John Wesley as the home of Methodism, and designed by the architect, George Dance the Younger, the chapel is full of light with a beautiful gallery running around the interior and just exudes calm. Free to enter, with an interesting museum in the basement, I also took a free guided tour of John Wesley’s house next door and learnt a lot about Wesley himself and the foundations of Methodism.

The man was amazing. He travelled the country on horseback covering somewhere in the region of 250,000 miles during his lifetime and preaching two to three times a day. When at home, he arose every morning at 4.00am to pray in the small prayer room off his bedroom – the rest of the household had a lie in and used to get up at 5.00am!

Thomas Crapper toilet in Wesley's Chapel

Thomas Crapper toilet in Wesley’s Chapel

Now the house is lovely, the chapel beautiful, but best of all though are the toilets! The Gents to be exact (knock before you enter), which still have the original Victorian marble urinals, mahogany cubicles, and Thomas Crapper toilets. I love a good toilet, and Crapper’s are the best (never was a man more aptly named). Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the flushing toilet. However, he did perfect it and became the leading toilet manufacturer of the day under the slogan ‘a certain flush with every pull!’

The Ladies loos are nowhere near as glamorous.

Wonderfully, Thomas Crapper’s are still around. Today, they have a great website where you can purchase all sorts of Crapper products online (www.thomas-crapper.com), so you can still buy Thomas Crapper toilets, washbasins and who doesn’t need their loo roll?!

Tuesday
This afternoon I took a train to the wilds of Dunstable to give a talk to their U3A History Group on the Great Fire of London. My ‘Follow the Fire’ talk and walk are proving very popular this year, as we commemorate 350 years of the Great Fire in September, and I already have a number of bookings with it hotting up in September – literally!

U3A groups are always a lovely audience, and this group was no exception as we took a virtual walk through the flames of 1666. From the baker’s house in Pudding Lane, we followed the fire as it devastated the City of London destroying everything in its wake – 13,000 houses, 51 livery company halls and 87 churches gone, including the great medieval cathedral of St Paul’s .

Just as I was dramatically talking about the lead roof of St Paul’s Cathedral melting, and flowing down the street like lava from a volcano, I heard…..a snore! As I carried on talking, studiously ignoring the snores coming from the front row, I could see someone out of the corner of my eye nudging the person next to them. Phew – it stopped. Only to start again, as I launched into the blame game that followed the fire (was it the Dutch, the French, the Catholics???). Now I like to think that my talks are quite interesting and entertaining and, in my defence, it was quite warm in the room, but occasionally people do nod off. The nudging started again as I raised my voice over the snores that were now reverberating around the room. People started to giggle, others were turning their heads to find the culprit and I was carrying on regardless with the execution of Robert Hubert, who had confessed to starting the fire (he hadn’t, but he was a convenient scapegoat).

The snores finally ceased, I finished my talk to questions and applause, and the person who had nodded off came up to me afterwards to say how much they’d enjoyed the talk!

David Shillinglaw mural at Zetland House

David Shillinglaw mural at Zetland House

Never really thought my voice was that soporific, but I am available for insomniacs and to get babies off to sleep!

Wednesday

Determined to complete my recce of the walk I’d started on Monday, I set off round Shoreditch in the icy drizzle and wind, and discovered more gems – murals to be exact. Shoreditch is very much an area for street art and you see it everywhere.

It’s hard to miss the colourful murals by David Shillinglaw on the walls of Zetland House, which was originally a print works for the Bank of England.

Mural on Horse and Groom Pub

Mural on Horse and Groom Pub

 

The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) hoardings on Curtain Road are easy to spot too. This is where Shakespeare performed in the 1577 Curtain Theatre, and where Romeo and Juliet was first performed. The remains of the theatre have been excavated by MOLA, before a new build goes up, and the website of the Horse and Groom pub next door reveals that the theatre was discovered under their Female toilets. They even have their own Romeo and Juliet mural on their pub wall!

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader mural

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader mural

 

 

Then on the side of a car park, just as I was seriously feeling the chill and planning to head home to warm up, I found Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Love Star Wars, so the sight of the Force battling the Dark Side in tiles for all eternity cheered me up, but the rain was getting worse so I took a quick phot and headed to the tube – hope Luke won!

 

 

 

 

Thursday

The Wolseley

The Wolseley

Today I finally managed to use the gift voucher I’d been given when I left the Museum of London (thank you to the host team) at the end of last year to become a fully self-employed guide, and headed to The Wolseley on Piccadilly for a spot of afternoon tea.

The old WolseIey car showroom from 1921 is now a luxurious restaurant, so afternoon tea was taken in the sumptuous surroundings of Eastern lacquerwork, marble flooring and impeccable service.

The Wolseley Car Company went bust in 1926 and the building then became an incredibly luxurious branch of Barclays Bank. Weirdly, I had spent time there in the 1990s when I worked for Barclays and had installed their new automated tills on the counter that was where the serving counters are today.

Tea was very genteel. Served in a beautiful silver teapot, with a silver tea strainer. The cake stand was filled with finger sandwiches (no crusts), warm fruit scones and dainty cakes and pastries. Absolutely delicious and it felt like I was back in the glamorous 1920s.

Tea at The Wolseley

Tea at The Wolseley

 

 

There’s something very decadent about taking afternoon tea, but John Wesley would probably not agree with me, as he hated tea and thought the drink ‘an abomination’!

Diary of a Guide…The Shard, Security and Stairs

This week I spent five days at The View From The Shard. Now, I haven’t worked five days on the trot since the end of the high tourist season in October – it felt like I had a proper job!

Monday
I started my week delivering landmark training for their new photographic team, Magic Memories, who are specialists in tourism photography.

Their strapline is ‘We Make People Smile’, and they certainly made me smile as the two managers, who were with the group of photographic hosts on their training, attempted to outdo each other in naming key landmarks. It was like having two naughty schoolboys on a school trip as first one then the other competed saying “I know that one” and “Ooh, let me try naming it”.

'The Spire' at The View From The Shard

‘The Spire’ at The View From The Shard

Like many visitor attractions, you have a photograph taken when you first enter The View From The Shard. However, the photographic hosts also roam the observation floors on Levels 69 and 72 taking in-situ photos with the view in the background. Many guests like to have a photo taken in front of a favourite landmark or iconic building, so as part of the training we not only discussed which landmark was which and which are the most popular (basically the big sexy ones like St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London), but also how to frame a shot from 244 metres (800 feet) up in the sky.

Of course the ‘spire’ is a key feature of The Shard, rising from Level 72 (the highest floor the public can go on) to the very top of the building at Level 95 (309.6 metres or 1,016 feet above the ground). It’s quite spectacular having a photo with the spire as a backdrop, especially when it’s lit up at night. So we finished the training crouching down pretending to take photos of the spire, much to the amusement of other guests enjoying the view. Of course, you can get an even better shot if the photographic host lays on the floor of Level 72 and shoots up towards Level 95 right at the very top – weirdly, the team didn’t seem too keen on that idea!

 

Tuesday – Friday

Following the classroom-based training a few weeks ago, the rest of the week was spent with my colleague Bruce assessing the practical skills of the guest ambassadors in delivering their tours before they are let loose on the public. 18 trainees meant hearing 18 tours, all covering virtually the same view. Now you would think that over the course of the week I would get fed up hearing about the view, the various landmarks, the story of the Shard and the building itself. But not at all, because each trainee put their own personality into their tour and the view of London changed constantly. Well, not the actual buildings obviously, but how they look and which ones you can see depending on the weather.

Smiles of relief all round as the last two Guest Ambassadors complete their tour training

Smiles of relief all round as the last two Guest Ambassadors complete their tour training

As a professional guide I recognise all the landmarks, I generally know a fair bit about them and I also know quite a lot about The Shard, but I was pleasantly surprised by the trainees’ depth of knowledge and turn of phrase. Some approached the tour as a key highlights tour, others focused on London’s history, one gave us an architectural tour, and another took us on a tour of film locations that can be seen from the top. He even likened the view to Mary Poppins flying over the church steeples and the chimney pots!

Along the way, I discovered that the lift speed is the same as a male kangaroo at full hop, the window cleaners are the ‘daredevils’ of The Shard, and the Tower of London houses ‘the Queen’s bling’. My quote of the week though was being told that when Renzo Piano designed the building, he (apparently) wanted something ‘classy and glassy’.

It was fun listening to the different interpretations, but not so much fun going through the airport style security all those times. On the plus side, I’m now on first name terms with the security guys, know that the metal plates in my arm (broke it badly a few years ago) set off their scanners and can disrobe in under 5 seconds (that’s coat, bag, empty pockets etc., but you do get to keep your shoes on!). By the end of the week, I had it down to a fine art and could scoot through pretty quickly divesting myself of my bits and bobs.

Internal staircase at The Shard

Internal staircase at The Shard

But the worst part of the week had to be trekking up and down the stairs. You don’t have to walk up to the top on Level 72 as guests get whisked up via two speedy lifts. But I was based in the offices on Level 3 for the week and the easiest way to get to the attraction entrance is via the internal staircase. As I trudged up and down between tours, I noticed the signs telling me how many calories I burned by taking the stairs (3.99 per floor). So how many calories did I burn walking between Level 1 and Level 3 all week? A measly 287.28 calories! Which doesn’t sound a lot – until I worked out that the number of times I’d gone up and down was the equivalent to climbing all the way up to Level 72!

It was only on Friday that I discovered that out of the 40+ lifts within the building, there is only 1 that goes all the way from the bottom to the top. Some of the guest ambassadors refer to it as ‘the Queen’s lift’. Don’t know about the Queen, but might have been easier if I could have used it!