Worldwide trips for the Exmoor Extroverts

One of Sue’s groups visiting San Gimignano in Italy.

Sue Shapland

During the 1980s, Sue Shapland ran a hotel in the Cotswolds before selling up and moving to Somerset. This has proved helpful experience when negotiating bookings with hotels. The name for the group – Exmoor Extroverts – was suggested by her second husband, Howard, because of the view over Exmoor from their former home. Now a widow, Sue continues to organise holidays and outings because she understands how difficult it is to go away on your own when your spouse has died. She is inspired to continue by the wonderful letters of appreciation she receives from members after a trip.

Sue Shapland became a GTO after joining the West Somerset National Trust Association in 1994, and she still organises several day trips a year for them. She ran their first holiday in 1996 and now organises four holidays of varying lengths for the West Somerset and neighbouring Quantock Association. But this was not enough for her incredible appetite for travel so she set up the Exmoor Extroverts in 1999 and focused initially on theatre trips, festivals and events, rather than the historic properties and gardens that are the mainstay of the National Trust programmes. On average, she now organises 50 day trips to a diverse range of attractions and 15 ‘stay-aways’ or holidays a year for the group, which has some 900 members.

Exmoor Extroverts began after Sue suggested to the chairman of the National Trust Association that members might like to go to the Bristol Hippodrome to see the Phantom of the Opera. This was such a success that she was asked to run other outings and, as Sue says, ‘The group has since grown like topsy from these humble beginnings. I think Exmoor Extroverts is popular because it’s run as a not for profit organisation so the prices for each trip are very reasonable, and people like the idea of going away with others as part of a big family.’ For the last two years, Sue has had help in organising the trips from Vickie Hickman, who, Sue notes, ‘has taken to the challenges of group organising like a duck to water’.

 

FROM THEATRE OUTINGS…

The programme includes a broad selection of day trips to local theatre such as the Hippodrome in Bristol, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Millennium Centre in Cardiff for musicals, dance and opera. Garden visits and trips to racing stables and racecourses are also popular, and there are several two-night weekend stays to London as well. For these trips, the group usually stays outside of the capital – at the Walton Cottage Hotel in Maidenhead – allowing a visit to the Mill at Sonning on the first evening, before venturing into the city the next day. In March, the London programme included a performance of Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn at the Mill, with a trip to the Tower of London on Saturday. Sue adds, ‘It was 15 years since most of us had visited this popular London attraction, and there was so much new to enjoy and see.’ The highlight of the trip was dinner at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by a performance of La Boheme, as Sue explains, ‘The show more than lived up to expectations – the set included a railway platform complete with restaurants and 100 performers in the centre of the hall – it was spectacular and difficult to take it all in.’ On the way back to Somerset, the group called at The Vyne, a National Trust property dating back to the 16th century, close to Basingstoke.

La Boheme was the fourth of the Raymond Gubbay operas the group has seen at the Royal Albert Hall and Sue has already booked for Madame Butterfly next March, and this is in addition to a booking in November for the Classical Spectacular, which Sue is offering as an alternative to the Christmas Spectacular at Thursford.

Like many GTOs, Sue works months, if not years, ahead in planning her trips. She says, ‘Theatres and venues such as the Royal Albert Hall will hold reservations for a few weeks, just long enough to allow me to inform the group, but generally seats have to be paid for well ahead of the trip. For example, in September, our visit to London will take in Buckingham Palace, The Shard, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Gielgud Theatre and a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, but tickets had to be confirmed and paid for by 10th April.’

 

…TO ‘EXTROVERT’ HOLIDAYS

Husky Homesteade

The Exmoor Extroverts getting ‘hands-on’ with the puppies at Husky Homestead.

After 15 years, Sue has found interest in joining her group remains as strong as ever. She does not advertise but new members frequently contact her to request to join the group. Sue has considered a cap on membership but when she receives an email from a recently bereaved person asking to join the group, she realises that this is not something she can do. However, she admits it’s a challenge to find enough good outings to satisfy the demand because expectations are now so high. This was one of the reasons she started to offer longer holidays. These vary from UK destinations such as Lincoln to further afield. In May, Sue took 79 members for a ‘Springtime Garden Cruise’ with Cruise and Maritime Voyages of Essex. Starting in Bristol, they visited Cork, St Mary’s, Jersey and Honfleur with an excursion to Monet’s Garden being a particular highlight. As well as France, the Exmoor Extroverts have travelled to Holland, Austria and Italy, with the most ambitious tour being to Alaska last year.

For these overseas breaks, Sue always works with a tour operator and finds The Travel Adventure in East Sussex a very good partner (see page 30). She finds the company understands the needs of the group and can come up with interesting itineraries and suggestions to complement her own proposals. For the Alaskan trip, she wanted to offer an alternative to a cruise following a trip she had done three years previously. Travelling by ferries, trains and coaches, 28 members took part in this trip of a lifetime. The 18-day holiday included Fairbanks, Mount McKinley and the Denali National Park with the chance to see grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves and Dall sheep, and a visit to Husky Homestead, where puppies are reared by Iditarod racing sled champion, Jeff King. Anchorage, Juneau and Skagway with excursions to Prince William Sound and the Mendenhall Glacier were also on the itinerary and there were optional helicopter flights to the ice-fields for dog sledding. A highlight was the breathtaking journey on the White Pass and Yukon Railway, travelling over immense gorges. The holiday ended with four nights in Vancouver.

Mount Denali

The spectacular views at Mount Denali, Alaska.

Sue recalls, ‘Alaska was really special and The Travel Adventure did us proud with all the arrangements. The most incredible thing was the weather; at11.30pm the sun was still shining and it was 80˚F!’ The holiday was voted an outstanding success by members, with Sue and Vickie’s hard work praised.

Forthcoming holidays for 2015 include an anniversary Waterloo and Flanders tour planned for June, a Fred. Olsen Baltic Cruise for July (with over 30 members already booked), and a two-week trip to Canada, travelling cross country from Vancouver to Toronto in late September.

 

PLANNING MATTERS

With so many day trips and longer breaks in the diary, Sue has evolved some efficient administrative techniques. She advertises trips in a newsletter, which is sent to members every two months for a £10 annual fee, alternatively it can be e-mailed, and booking forms for upcoming trips are handed out by Vickie during each trip. The website is also regularly updated with information.

Nowadays, Vickie looks after all the bookings so this frees Sue up for planning! Sue joins familiarisations visits so that she can experience an attraction or destination at first hand. She joined the ‘In Search of the Northern Lights’ familiarisation visit offered by Wiltshire-based Holidays & Cruises for You back in March. Having experienced the trip, which involved a four-hour round flight from East Midlands Airport to north of the Shetland Islands where the plane made circuits so that passengers could see and admire the incredible Northern Lights display, Sue will be including the trip in her itinerary for next winter. ‘It’s great to have an interesting outing in January and, even if the aurora is not on display, we will be guaranteed a brilliant view of the stars along with interesting insights and explanations from the on-board astronomers.’

Sue thinks attention to detail is very important so either she or Vickie phones everyone who has booked on a trip 48 hours before it departs to remind them of the details such as departure place and times. Sue explains why, ‘This saves embarrassed faces all round, and it means if someone has booked and they don’t hear from me, they know to get in touch as it may mean their original booking form has gone astray. This has happened very occasionally but, when it does, I book extra tickets and meals enroute and take care not to let the individual know.’

Sue has usually got her laptop with her so she can plan ahead and also reschedule excursions if an emergency occurs and something needs to be changed at the last minute. ‘I hate to cancel a trip,’ she says, ‘so I will pull out all the stops to come up with a new plan if an arrangement falls through.’

 

TRANSPORT CHOICES

Sue uses local coach company, Ridlers Coaches, from Dulverton in Somerset, for her day trips and, like many GTOs, she and the group have some favourite coach drivers. Ridlers Coaches is a family business dating back to 1945; it prides itself on its luxury coaches but also its personal service. In May, Sue organised a meal at the Hobby Horse in Minehead to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Exmoor Extroverts, and two of the drivers, the owner and manager and wives were invited along as VIP guests. Sue adds, ‘I wanted to include Ridlers in our celebration; the drivers have been so much a part of our trips over the years and, without doubt, their help and friendly nature has added to the success and enjoyment of our days out.’

If not many people sign up for a trip, then Sue suggests travelling with cars rather than hiring a coach, and this is the case with this year’s visit to the Three Choirs Festival, taking place in Worcester from 30th July to 3rd August. The festival celebrates the choral music of the choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester Cathedrals and has been running for 299 years. Themes inspiring music in 2014 include the centenary of World War I and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

 

UNDERSTANDING TRAVEL

Jane Kerr and Frans Leenaars

Jayne Kerr, from The Travel Adventure, receiving the award for sales growth from Frans Leenaars of Disneyland Paris.

Established for over 20 years, The Travel Adventure – one of Sue Shapland’s favoured partners for extended holidays with her group the Exmoor Extroverts – is an award-winning group tour operator and a regular finalist and winner at the Group Travel Awards.

Founder and managing director Ian Kerr explains that the vision for the company ‘has always been to ensure customers are treated with personal care, respect and attention. This has meant that many of our travellers come back to us again and again, and we continue to build on our strong working relationships. No two trips are the same and we are very able to tailor travel programmes to suit each group’s needs. Our guiding principle is big enough to operate – small enough to care.’

The Travel Adventure works with adult travel groups, schools and colleges, and their experience means they can create programmes covering every kind of break in the UK, Europe and further afield. ‘The trip to Alaska for the Exmoor Extroverts was an interesting one to arrange, requiring lots of research,’ says Jayne Kerr, Sales Director. ‘We are delighted to learn that the holiday was so successful and pleased to be working with Sue again on her forthcoming holidays.’

From an initial enquiry through to the return home, The Travel Adventure offers help and assistance whilst providing a competitive and reliable service. Each member of the team has a valuable travel sector background – Ian has an incredible 50 years of experience in the industry – which sets them apart from other tour operators.

Of particular importance is a strong working relationship with Disneyland Paris and, every year, The Travel Adventure takes many groups to the resort. In addition, for almost 20 years, the company has offered a resort-based College Convention, for students undertaking Travel & Tourism and Marketing courses. The convention allows the students to understand, at first hand, the sales, marketing and human resources aspects of the travel industry by getting valuable input from Disney professionals. In 2012, the company was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award by the resort, and last year they received another award for sales growth.

Gardens & Art inspire Jill’s trips

Grand Cascade

Spectacular grand cascade at Alnwick Castle, a highlight of a trip to Northumberland in 2012.

Jill Donnelly has put her enthusiasm for learning about art and gardens to good use by becoming Visit Secretary for Huntingdon DFAS. Val Baynton discovers more about her role.

Jill Eltham

Jill Donnelly
Jill became Visit Secretary for the Huntingdon branch of the DFAS in 2010 after working for 40 years in the NHS, 20 of them as a Consultant Paediatrician. She is also a non-executive director of the Hinchingbrooke Hospital Trust, and as part of the DFAS she has been working with the Young Arts subsidiary group. This group encourages young people to be involved with art and has led to a collaborative project between local schools and the hospital, with youngsters’ art decorating the otherwise blank corridor walls.

Jill Donnelly has been Visit Secretary for the Huntingdon DFAS, a branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, based in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, since September 2010. (For information about NADFAS see panel below). To date, Jill has organised nearly 20 trips for her members, in groups of between 20 and 85 people.There are one or two more expeditions to come before she hands over to another member of the group, Valerie Gentry, as she only agreed to take on the role for a maximum of four years. Jill’s trips have comprised a mixture of day visits and longer breaks to explore the arts, architecture and gardens of England and she has enjoyed the challenge of creating interesting trips for her fellow DFAS members.

Jill was very much the ‘new girl’ when she became Visit Secretary as she had only just joined the Huntingdon DFAS group. Her introduction to NADFAS was an unusual lecture by Jonathan Hinden on Carmen, during which he played a piano and sang, and from this point Jill was hooked. ‘I realised how little I knew about the arts and I was impressed by the depth of knowledge displayed by Jonathan’ she says. At her first meetings a request was made for a new Visit Secretary and, gamely, she volunteered. Jill explains, ‘I knew it was a role I could do, as for over 20 years I had organised annual summer camps for 20 to 30 sick children. I was attracted by the thought that I could, to some extent, choose where we went and so include a number of places I wanted to visit personally.’ The then Visit Secretary, Elspeth Gibbon, also promised to help her with the first couple of trips.

Her first solo trip was to the New Hall collection of art by women held by Murray Edwards College in Cambridge, which is the largest collection of its kind in the UK, if not in Europe too. The impetus to view the collection was the imminent departure of the curator of the time. ‘The art was amazing,’ Jill says, ‘and it was a salient reminder of what is often on your doorstep and can be easily overlooked. In fact, the DFAS group may be returning for a ‘study day’ with the collection later this year.’

 

MARKETING AND PLANNING TRIPS

Of the 250 members of the Huntingdon DFAS, around 70 to 80 regularly support the trip programme, Jill estimates. She mixes local trips with ones further afield as this helps to vary the cost, and she usually books a 52-seater coach and plans on breaking even at 75% occupancy – so around 40 people. The visit programme is planned in advance of each season, and trips are advertised before lectures. Jill adds, ‘Trips that complement lectures and study days with a visit to the relevant collection are well supported, as members enjoy seeing the objects they’ve heard discussed in the lecture.’ One such trip in July 2012 to the Gold: Power and Allure exhibition at Goldsmith’s Hall followed a lecture by curator Helen Clifford.

Planning tips Jill has learnt during her time in office include, ‘be sure to follow up all expressions of interest and scrupulously manage any waiting list.’ Jill also uses an annual questionnaire to find out what worked well and to gather ideas for future trips.

Occasionally Jill has organised two coaches to cater for all who want to join the trip, but she says this is very much more hard work and it’s difficult to be sure the second coach will be full. She adds, ‘With two coaches I need more helpers to make sure nobody gets lost!

Huntingdon coach company, Dews Coaches, is used for each trip. Drivers are reliable and friendly. ‘Having a good coach company really adds to the success of a day out,’ Jill says. She recalls how one visit to London coincided with transport strikes and road closures, which made getting around the capital very difficult, ‘but the driver and the guide from City and Village Tours, (C&V) were amazing with their knowledge of how to avoid the congestion.’

 

COMBINING GARDENS AND ART

Jill was keen to include more visits to gardens in the trip programme since prior to retirement she studied for the RHS entry diploma and this made her aware of the large number of RHS, National Trust and other gardens that were available for visits. As one of the sub-groups within the DFAS is concerned with Garden Conservation, and is affiliated to the Cambridge Historic Gardens Trust, Jill knew other members would share her interest. One suggestion made by members for the visit programme was for longer and overnight trips, so Jill decided to combine both ideas.

For these longer trips, Jill realised she needed professional help in planning the itinerary, booking hotels and with overseeing other logistics. Having travelled with Brightwater Holidays on personal vacations – to the gardens of the Loire and to the Patio Garden Festival in Cordoba, Spain – and liking the way the tours were tailored to each group, were well organised, had full itineraries and were not over expensive, Jill was happy to recommend the company to the society. The benefit of working with such a tour operator is that there are insurances and protection in place for monies as well as support for last minute hitches. A guide leader from Brightwater Holidays can also be booked to join the group, meaning GTOs like Jill can enjoy the trip too. Jill worked closely with Brightwater Holidays staff, including groups’ manager, Ellen Walker, developing itineraries for each of the breaks; typically Jill proposes a selection of attractions but the final programme is a collaborative effort.

In 2012, 20 members plus Michael Gill, the holiday leader from Brightwater, enjoyed the three-night Northumberland Garden and Castle tour. They were based at the four-star Marriott Hotel in Durham and visits were made to the Cathedral and the quirky, historic Crook Hall Garden in the city, as well as to Alnwick Castle. ‘This was a feast for the senses,’ Jill recalls, ‘the guide regaled us with horror stories of poisoners from history in the castle’s Poison Garden.’ The group also visited the remarkable quarry garden at Bide-a-wee where plants grow on vertical rock faces.

The Lost Gardens

Enjoying the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.

Last year 32 members travelled to Cornwall to study the art and gardens of the south west, and this time they were led by Sara Hunter from Brightwater. Highlights included Hestercombe Garden near Taunton, a welcome stopover en-route to Newquay and the ocean view, Sands Resort hotel and spa, where the group was based for the four nights. The Newlyn school of artists, the work of potter Bernard Leech and the Tate Gallery in St Ives were all explored during the trip and visits were made to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, and the Eden Project. On the return journey the group called at the impressive 65-acre garden at RHS Rosemoor near Great Torrington.

Jill has much praise for Brightwater Holidays, she says, ‘they take the hassle out of organising longer trips, and ensure they run smoothly. Working with the friendly team at Brightwater has been personally enjoyable and has allowed the DFAS to be far more adventurous!’ In April, the DFAS will venture to Amsterdam, again with Brightwater Holidays. This, their first overseas trip for several years, will take in the refurbished Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and the Hague as part of the five-night tour.

 

A VARIED PROGRAMME

Royal Opera House

Learning ‘Back Stage’ at the Royal Opera House, London.

Huntingdon DFAS regularly visit exhibitions in London’s national museums and art galleries such as ‘Pre Raphaelite Avant Garde’ at Tate Britain and ‘Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at the British Museum. For these, Jill usually arranges a special tour of the exhibition by the curator, especially if the subject has not been covered by a lecture to the group already.

Visits to more unusual attractions within the city include the London Law Courts. This was somewhere Jill had never been, but hearing a good report of a similar visit, when she saw a ‘Legal London’ walking tour advertised in the C&V brochure she thought she would offer it. Initially Jill was concerned how the logistics and meeting up with the C&V guide would work, but it all worked very easily, she says. The tour, in October 2011, included a walk through the Middle and Inner Temple courts and gardens, the Temple Church and Lincoln’s Inn. Jill booked through C&V again for another visit that year to the Olympic Park prior to the Olympics, followed by a Thames River Cruise from Westminster Pier to the O2 Arena. Other trips have taken in the Backstage Tour of the Royal Opera House and the Globe Theatre.

Middle Temple Courtyard

Fabulous vaulting in the Middle Temple Courtyard on the tour of Law Courts, London.

Sometimes Jill offers members different options for the day, this is complicated to manage but it means several tastes can be catered for, and the outing is more likely to be viable. After the visit to Goldsmith’s Hall members could choose a tour at the Bank of England or opt for an exhibition about Livery Companies at the Guildhall. A third choice to visit St Paul’s Cathedral was inspired by the voluntary work of the society’s President, Isobel Lattimore, a highly skilled embroider and leader of Huntingdon’s Textile Heritage Volunteer sub-group. Every week Isobel travels to St Paul’s where she helps to conserve the cathedral’s historic vestments, and so the tour included the Textile Heritage Workshop to see the work she was involved with. Jill says, ‘Numbers were restricted to 15, but I jumped at the chance to join this group. It was eye opening to see the skill of the embroiderers and also to understand the talents of fellow DFAS members.’ So that more members could see the important work of the Volunteers, a study day at St Paul’s took place earlier this year.

A trip to Eltham Palace and Gardens and the Rangers House in Greenwich Park last June was popular with members; the itinerary included a self-guided audio tour of the palace and a guided tour of the Ranger’s House. There was time to explore the gardens at both sites too and because both buildings are part of English Heritage’s portfolio, it was a good value day out for those who had membership. Jill adds, ‘It was fascinating because the two buildings presented such contrasting architectural styles.’ After studying the role of women in history as part of a Workers Educational Association course, for which she read a biography about Bess of Hardwick, Jill was inspired to arrange days out to Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire and to Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, which has links to Elizabeth I. For Jill, these two trips are her personal favourites of all the activity she has organised because of the history and connections with somewhat ‘determined’ female owners.

 

JILL’S FUTURE PLANS

Jill will remain a member of Huntingdon DFAS, and will provide whatever help she can to Visit Secretaries in the future; in the meantime she sees the trip to Amsterdam later this year as her swan-song. As part of Huntington DFAS Young Arts sub-group she is looking forward to developing the connections with the local hospital further and hopes it will lead to apprenticeships and other ideas that will further support and encourage young people to fulfil their potential and aspirations.

Giving Groups insight is Colin’s Calling

 

In this issue Val Baynton catches up with Leicestershire based Colin Crosby, a qualified Blue Badge guide with a difference!

 

 

Colin Crosby For 20 plus years Colin managed cinemas and theatres in his native county of Essex, in Kent, Hampshire and Leicester, where he now lives. Passionate about history, he decided to pursue his interest a little further by joining a course to train as a Blue Badge guide run by the former Heart of England Tourist Board. Qualifying in 1994, Colin now also organises tours all over the UK. He’s always looking out for new themes – and is excited that the recent discovery of the final resting place of Richard III has revived interest in this former King.

 

 

 

The Norman Castle in Colchester, Essex is often included in Colin’s tours around his native county (left) Jewry Wall, formerly part of Roman Leicester’s public baths (r­­­ight).

 

Detailed knowledge is one of the characteristics of many group organisers and is also a feature of Blue Badge Guides, but it’s not often that the two kinds of expertise come together to provide a particularly insightful and specialist type of group travel organising. Colin Crosby makes a speciality of taking people to areas he really understands, and digging out its distinctive features. He doesn’t have a membership as such but his customers very much enjoy his leadership and information driven approach, which comes from his experience and training as a Blue Badge Guide.

 

Learning the ropes­

Colin admits that when he joined the Blue Badge Guide course he was not intending to work as a guide. “I decided to study more as an intellectual exercise than anything else,” he says. “I wanted to learn about the history of Leicester and the surrounding area and I thought the course was as good a way as any of achieving this. But, by the time it finished ten months later, I realised that guiding and telling others about local heritage was something I really enjoyed, and something I wanted to do more of.”

Initially Colin guided in his spare time for a local civic society and for Leicester Shire Promotions. Gradually, however, Colin decided to take up guiding and organising tours on a full time basis so he developed his own programmes to reflect his interests and those of the groups who contacted him. Amongst Colin’s early schedule were two tours around Leicester city centre, themed walks including Richard III, and the routes of the former Roman and medieval walls, as well as churches, and pub names. He also added tours of nearby towns such as Oakham, Loughborough, Market Harborough and Melton Mowbray.

He now leads around 250 tours and walks a year around Leicester, the surrounding counties and further afield to North Wales, Yorkshire,­­­ Essex and London and all places in between! Typically he works with around 100 groups each year and he’s busy five days a week, including weekends.

 

“I very much enjoy working with each group and planning the itinerary.” COLIN CROSBY

 

Developing programmes

Colin finds that it’s good to refresh his tour programme frequently, “I added in a ghost tour of Leicester, which is now one of the most popular guided walks I do,” he says. Colin also reveals that he was initially reluctant to create the ghost walk, but realising how popular it was, he’s developed the theme and has devised several alternatives such as one for Midsummer’s Eve that starts at the 12th century Mary De Castro Church in the centre of Leicester as well as ‘Tales for Halloween’ running in October and ‘Haunted Leicester’ that runs throughout the year. Colin adds, “I’ve discovered that many age groups are interested in this type of tour and in February I guided about 20 scouts from the nearby village of Groby on the Haunted Leicester Tour. I had to tailor the route and my anecdotes to take into account their younger ages, although they do quite like the gory bits!” Guided walks usually last between one and two hours, and a full day coach tour – either to one destination or a three-stop tour – typically departs from Leicester at around 8.00am, returning for 9.00pm. Colin promotes his tours to groups in a variety of ways, including leaflets and posters in local shops and community noticeboards and, most importantly, he updates his website regularly. He finds enquiries for tours come from groups from all over the UK and from overseas too, he adds, “I very much enjoy working with each group and planning the itinerary to take into account each group’s interests.”

He recently led a walking tour for a group from Leicester City Council as part of Adult Learners Week. Aimed at extending the group’s local kno­­wledge, the walk took in the 14th centur­­y Guildhall, one of the oldest civic buildings in the country, the spot where Richard III spent his last night in a bed and the Jewry Wall. This is the largest freestanding wall of a civil nature surviving from Roman times in the UK. Colin included New Walk, a 200 year old footpath in the city centre that originally led to the racecourse, now Victoria Park. The route was once part of the Roman Road, Via Devana, which linked the cities of Chester and Colchester.

 

Research and planning

He uses his love of history as a starting point for each tour and before he visits somewhere new he reads as much as he can about the area tracing its development from Roman times to the present day. On his first visit to a town he walks around it, perhaps listening to a local guide, but primarily trying to get under its skin and discovering unusual stories. “I also consider restaurants, cafes, parks, gardens and shops, and try to build up an idea of what groups, with all their varied interests, will be able to do.” Colin takes advantage of familiarisation days that destinations and attractions hold for guides, such as one in May organised by Salisbury Cathedral to highlight recent developments such as a new display for the Magna Carta and historic artworks that are soon going on public display, as well as a visit to the stonemason’s yard and a climb half way up the cathedral’s tower. Colin adds, “I go to travel trade shows all around the country such as Excursions and BOBI too, and find these are great ways of finding out about what’s new for groups and meeting up with coach operators.” Colin also attends GTOA weekends and events to make and maintain contacts with other group organisers.

There are logistical arrangements Colin considers in his planning. Timing is vital and Colin generally works backwards from the time the tour ends, adding in visits, comfort stops and so on. Another consideration is coach parking, and Colin finds many towns are very welcoming providing free parking and other facilities for coach drivers, but, there are still towns that need educating into the needs of coaches and the importance of group tourism to the local economy.

On outward journeys, Colin plans a stop at an interesting town or village, where there are a variety of interesting things for the group to see or to do, whether it be a coffee or a look at a museum or castle or a stop at pretty riverside. “Sometimes I choose garden centres, as these also give choice for the members of the group,” he adds. On the way back it is different, however, and Colin has to use motorway services for a comfort stop because attractions are not usually open in the evening.

Once the itinerary is confirmed with the group, Colin books and pays deposits as necessary. He can invoice groups either for the whole amount of the day including coach hire, or groups can opt to pay this separately.

 

Flexibility is Essential

“Flexibility is an essential pre-requisite for my dual roles as Blue Badge guide and group organiser,” since you never know what will happen that might upset the most carefully laid plans!” Colin notes. He has to be ready to adapt tours to take account of traffic problems and the vagaries of English weather. For example, in March he organised a two-hour walking tour for 25 members of a Cambridge Walking Group around Market Harborough. The route included ancient coaching inns, the history of Thomas Cook, as well as the story of the Liberty Bodice and its connection with local corset makers R. & W. H. Symington. “It was a cold day,” Colin recalls, “and the group asked me if I could talk inside, so being always willing to oblige, I took them into the Sugar Loaf (a Wetherspoon`s pub), where I told them what they would have seen!”

Travelling the country

A selection of walks and coach trips on specified days is described on his website ranging from walking tours in Leicestershire taking place during the day, evening or at weekends, to all day coach trips. Groups can book into any of these, but usually, having contacted Colin, he develops a more bespoke and exclusive tour to suit their specific needs. To inspire GTOs, and revealing the breadth of Colin’s programmes, from Conwy in North Wales to Portsmouth, and from Aberdeen to Canterbury, the website gives an index of over 1000 villages, towns and cities each with a brief synopsis of its main attractions.

Colin regularly works with Woods Coaches of Leicester for his coach tours that depart from the city. He says, “Over nearly 20 years, I have built up an excellent relationship with Woods, they are reliable, flexible in approach and friendly. I know many of the coach drivers and nothing is ever too much trouble for them. The coaches are of a high quality and the service is excellent giving me real peace of mind.”

His relationship with Woods began in 1995 when Colin wanted to take part in the International Tourist Guide Day, which takes place every February. The aim of the day is to lead a free tour or walk so that groups can experience the added value of visiting an attraction or town with a professionally trained guide. Colin decided to run a coach tour instead and wrote to local coach businesses to see if any would sponsor the coach for the day. Woods were the only one to get back in touch, and Colin organised a very successful day out in partnership with them. For the next year or so, Colin concentrated on guided walks of Leicester, but as soon as he started to organise coach tours he contacted Woods and has used them ever since.

 

Blue Badge Guides: a continuing tradition

Colin guiding a group ­­
of his ‘facebook friends’ on an evening tour of Leicester
including the Mary De Castro Church, Leicester. 

 

Colin’s training to become a Blue Badge guide was thorough. He explains, “Although I had much experience in addressing people, through my ‘day job’, it was interesting to learn specific tips, such as where best to stand to talk to a group taking into account the direction of the sun, and the level of traffic noise and how to plan a tour to keep people’s attention for over an hour or more.” The examinations at the end of the course involved both theoretical and practical stages, with the practical exam involving four different tours around the area – a guided walk in Leicester, a coach tour visiting neighbouring towns, villages and countryside, a museum tour in Oakham, and finally a tour around Melton Mowbray’s Parish Church.

“For each exam we all had to learn the whole tour, because at any point during the test we could be selected to act as the guide, and we then had to demonstrate that we knew the history or significance of the feature we were standing in front of.” Colin recalls.

The Blue Badge is the internationally recognised benchmark of excellence in tourist guiding, which is accredited by the Institute of Tourist Guiding (ITG). This body sets standards, provides examinations and accredits courses for the tourist guiding sector.

The first Blue Badges were awarded to guides at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and there are now some 2000 nationally – with a large proportion of these in London. Throughout the country recruits undergo the rigorous training annually, and in Liverpool, after a gap of some 16 years, 22 new guides received their Blue Badges in May. Joining the city’s existing guides – who number some 90 individuals – the new guides are focusing on specific areas of Liverpool’s varied attractions such as the developing Waterfront, comedy tours, culture and architecture.

 

GUIDING WITH GREATDAYS

“WI’s, Rotary and social groups regularly contact me and my Taste of Leicestershire trip is very popular with them,” Colin says. He often liaises with other group operators for such incoming groups, and he finds Greatdays Travel Group is a good partner. They manage the transport arrangements and logistics of picking the group up in their home town, leaving Colin to plan the tour itself. One recent group was Derrington WI, and for this mixed party of 48 people from Staffordshire, Colin started the tour in the village of Hallaton, famed for its ‘Hare Pie Scramble’ and ‘Bottle Kicking’ competitions that take place every Easter Day before progressing to the elegant Scalford Hall, for lunch.­­

Melton Mowbray was the next port of call, where Colin explained about the town’s tradition of pork pie making and its links with Stilton cheese, with a visit to the Dickinson and Morris Shop to learn about pork pie making. Back on the coach, the group returned to Leicester via Oakham in Rutland, where Colin recounted anecdotes related to the quaint market town such as the story of Titus Oates and the fictitious Popish plot of 1678-1681, and there was time for a stroll and a cup of tea.

 

     Richard III – a new dimension 

 

Leicester has sprung to fame recently with the discovery of the final resting place of Richard III, but Colin has been giving guided walks about the King and his connections with Leicester for nearly 20 years. From his own research Colin was certain that Richard III’s burial place was within the city pointing to factors such as in the 17th century visitors to the town were still being shown the spot where he was buried – and he is delighted that his views have been confirmed.

Colin’s walk tells the story of the rise and fall of this tragic and much-maligned king, while visiting the many sites with which he is associated, such as the Bow Bridge and the White Boar Inn – where Richard III spent his last night before dying at the Battle of Bosworth. His body was brought back to Leicester, where he lay in state for three days at the Newarke Church, giving ample time for local townspeople to believe that he was dead, before being buried at the Greyfriars. The walk includes a visit to a temporary exhibition about Richard in the Guildhall, and next year will also take in a visit to Leicester Cathedral, where the King’s remains will be re-interred in May 2014. Colin now leads his Richard III guided walk monthly, (up till last year it was once a year!) and there has been much interest from groups both in the walking tour and Colin’s longer half day coach tour visiting the main sites in surrounding villages.

Leicester is fortunate in having several accredited Blue Badge Guides and variations of the Richard III walk are available with some options specifically for groups, contact the groups team at Leicester Shire Promotions for more information and see our guided tour feature on p32­­.