Tour organiser Lesley Crombie has a passion for providing the insight and expertise that bring history to life. Her trips have a particular focus on art and rich historical treasures. Abbe Bates finds out more about her programmes for Study Tour Travel on the Wirral.
Lesley Crombie has always had a serious interest in helping people understand and enjoy cultural history. The seeds were first sown for the creation of her organisation Study Tour Travel when Lesley worked in adult education for the University of Liverpool. She spent 23 years as a co-ordinator within its Centre for Continuing Education, running adult education courses, not only for those based in Liverpool but throughout the north west, including Cumbria, Lancashire, the Isle of Man and Cheshire. “My job was to organise overseas study tours and residential courses in subjects including art history, history, country houses and stately homes, archaeology, geography and creative writing,” she explains. Lesley set up the overseas trips, engaging an expert each time, using university lecturers and other particularly well qualified people, though she wasn’t allowed to go herself at the time. But that’s something she now has the freedom to do! “The project was wound down eventually as it lost its funding as universities generally had to focus on more revenue generating activities, and the adult education centres were closing down and diversifing.” But the closure was her opportunity to do it herself!
HOW SHE DOES IT
Lesley has now run Study Tour Travel for seven years, planning trips from the Wye Valley to New York city from an office at her home in the historic village of Greasby. Her trips take an enthusiastic band of supporters around the UK and Europe, about once a month, specialising in art history, heritage and country houses tours. She now has a panel of talented guides to lead her trips.
She currently has 600 people on her mailing list, though most of her business comes from a hard core of enthusiasts. There’s an average of 25 to 40 on each trip. “I won’t go with less than 20 or more than 40, as that makes a nice, manageable group size,” says Lesley. “I very rarely have to cancel a trip, perhaps two trips in seven years have not been popular.” The age group of STT travellers is over 50 with Lesley describing herself as a “very active 67-year old, running a social enterprise.” Initially, all ex-continuing education students were from both Liverpool and Nottingham University, although now the reach is from all over the UK, and advertising is by word of mouth.
During the last seven years, STT groups have enabled ‘regulars’ to meet and catch up with old friends, and new members to be welcomed to the history, culture and whole STT experience.
“Our tours have covered subjects such as art in the Baltic States, Holland and France,” says Lesley. There are regular study tours to destinations such as Sicily and Berlin, as well as touring Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and numerous locations in England, from the Cotswolds to Hadrian’s Wall and the southern counties. “The trips are always in the company of dedicated tutors who impart their enthusiasm and knowledge in enjoyable and beautiful settings.”
“Course participants have all felt that real sense of excitement in discovering places not previously visited, and, in the process, learning and understanding in the company of great people.”
When travelling abroad, Lesley always uses a tour operator, and for the last three years has been very happy with StudyLink, part of the NST Travel Group, based in Cambridge. The company sends her details of hotels, which she can look at on the internet and make a choice from. “I found the company through GTO magazine and was attracted by their ABTA and ATOL membership,” says Lesley. “I do check competitors through GTO but can’t do better at present.”
StudyLink provides comprehensive packages for Lesley, which helpfully include city passes for each member of the group. “Typical examples of competitive pricing from StudyLink include the ‘Art of Berlin’ tour last year for five nights, which included flights from Manchester and the group meal that I organise on the first and last nights, for £445 each,” states Lesley. “We visited the galleries (the Altes, National and Pergamon) on Museum Island on the River Spree, formerly in East Berlin, and Adrian Sumner, who led the tour, gave talks about the art and artists. Berlin is definitely one of our favourite destinations, with its abundance of good art and wonderful architecture.”
The group got a similarly attractive deal when they went on the ‘New York, New York Art Study Tour’ for six nights in March, also with Adrian Sumner as tour leader.” This worked out at £970 each and I was pleased because we stayed mid-town and though it was only room-only, we had fridges and cookers in the rooms to cater for ourselves,” comments Lesley.
She continues, “My most outstanding experience though was on the ‘Krakow: Poland’s Ancient Capital’ trip a few years ago with Alan Crosby. I met a gentleman in the Remu’h Synagogue taking the entrance fees. He was in his 80s and had been ‘rescued’ by Oscar Schindler after being in three concentration camps at the age of 15. To talk to him through an interpreter and shake his hand was a very special moment”
CULTURE AT HOME
Lesley organises UK tours herself, booking the hotels and coach travel. She always uses the same coach company, Holmeswood Coaches of Ormskirk, who start the journeys in Preston and pick up at various points convenient to the motorway going north or south. Some people also make their own way to destinations. “One of our tutors, David Brazendale, recommended Holmeswood; they are reliable and competitive,” explains Lesley. “Our devoted coach driver Ken Robinson is retiring at end of this year, which is really sad, but we hope he might come on trips as one of the group in future.”
To choose hotels and destinations in the UK, Lesley has an annual planning meeting with the tutors, who put forward their ideas for subjects and destinations. “After looking through their proposals, priority is given to non-duplication of areas, unless the tour is complementing a previous tour, and to ensuring a variety of destinations and interests,” she says. “Once dates and tours are confirmed, I find an hotel in the tour area from which the trips can radiate. Due to the large number of single people who book on the tours, we mainly now use the larger chains such as Marriott, Mercure, Ramada Jarvis and larger Best Western hotels, all of which give competitive half-board rates.”
Many of Study Tour Travel’s UK trips focus on country houses and the group has travelled across the country from Gloucestershire and Somerset to the West and North Riding of Yorkshire. In fact, the first ever trip that Lesley organised for Study Tour Travel was to the ‘Country Houses of Cumbria & Dumfries’ for four days, led by tutor Roger Mitchell. “Highlights of this trip included the magnificent Drumlanrig, seat of the Duke of Buccleuth, which opened especially for us,” recalls Lesley. “We often try to arrange visits to private houses, not usually open to visitors, which allow us access for private guided tours by our tutors or experts from the property itself.”
Alan Crosby and David Brazendale also include these types of properties throughout their history tours, such as the ‘Three Rivers: Tees, Swale & Ure’ tour this June, and the ‘Hull, Hell and Halifax’ trip that the group has just returned from.
Coming up, the group has many more trips to look forward to. These include a five-day trip to Madrid in October focusing on art galleries and Toledo on the same trip. 2013 trips planned include ‘County Houses of Worcestershire’ in July and an ‘Art in Venice – La Biennale’ tour for the first time at the end of September. “Venice is always expensive but as 2013 is the year of La Biennale, a bi-annual art exhibition throughout Venice, Adrian Sumner felt that we should go,” explains Lesley. “I have been so very fortunate to continue my love of travel and organising tours on a freelance basis. I think of my work as a hobby, making so many new friends and visiting places that I would never have had the opportunity to see without the ideas of the course tutors.”
TALENTED TOUR LEADERS – Lesley’s expert guides
“The team of lecturer guides I use are experienced adult education tutors working in Lancaster, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Oxford universities,” explains Lesley. “All lecturers do excellent preparation and usually give a talk on the evening of arrival at the hotel as well as on the days they guide the group.”
Lesley does also use guides at particular attractions. “My tutors usually know just as much, if not more, but it provides an added element to a tour,” says Lesley.
The guides Lesley uses are:
Dr Alan G. Crosby, who has a doctorate in geography from the University of Oxford, and is now one of Britain’s best known local and regional historians. He is the lead local history contributor to the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are magazine. He has taught continuing education classes for the University of Liverpool for over 25 years and has led many study visits in the United Kingdom and Europe (specialising in Italy, Southern France and Poland). He has written over 30 books on aspects of social and landscape history. In September 2012, he was made a Guild Burgess of Preston for his services to the local history and cultural heritage of the city where he has lived since 1985. He has conducted a series of tours, of which the group will be in their fifth year in 2013, following the life of ‘Gerald of Wales’.
David Brazendale, who has had a lifelong passion for the history of Lancashire and Liverpool, with a special interest in the life of the area during the 17th century. David has long experience of adult education on behalf of the University of Liverpool for whom he is an accredited tutor. He has worked as a tour leader for STT for many years, planning and leading tours in all parts of Britain and Europe. David is the author of Lancashire’s Historic Halls, Georgian Liverpool and Brierley’s Liverpool.
Roger Mitchell, who describes himself as ‘a social historian with a particular interest in buildings’. A former college vice-principal, he now lectures for the University of Liverpool and NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies), as well as adult residential colleges. He has led country house tours for STT since its inception and has taken people to all parts of the United Kingdom. The tours often include a theme, with properties chosen from varying centuries. The country houses include National Trust properties as well as Historic Houses and English Heritage sites, with smaller private houses opening especially for STT groups.
And Adrian Sumner, who is a graduate of Liverpool College of Art. Currently, he is Arts Development Officer (Creative Economy) for Cheshire West and Chester Council, with a particular interest in Visual Arts. He has lectured in the History of Art for the University of Liverpool, and a variety of groups and societies.
“I’VE GOT A GREAT FRIEND IN HAYLEY AT STUDYLINK”
Lesley’s chosen supplier for overseas tours is StudyLink, part of the NST Travel group, a family-run educational travel company established in the 1960s. Lesley says, “Hayley Woodroffe, my contact there, is great. I leave everything to her and the company, but I give final approval to any recommended hotels.”
“By offering unrivalled customer service, our clients re-book with us year after year and recommend us to others,” Hayley comments. “Although primarily an educational travel company, we recognised a need in the market for adult group travel. We can assist by booking just flights or can book a group’s full itinerary.”
“We have all travelled to many of the destinations, and this knowledge gives us the ability to help plan a plethora of different styles of group tours. Clients then have peace of mind when faced with the seemingly daunting task of booking a group trip.”
One particular aspect that Lesley had found difficult in the past was booking flights. She discovered that the cost shoots up if you request a lot of seats online. Hayley advises, “With regards to getting low cost seating for our groups, a lot of the ability comes through experience and being pro-active in predicting market trends. We also have a dedicated air team and have therefore established many great contact links with airlines.”