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.
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
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’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.