Pat’s passion gives her village group a great time travelling

After a refreshing cuppa in the Bat’s Wing Olde English Tearooms at Godshill on the Isle of Wight.

After a refreshing cuppa in the Bat’s Wing Olde English Tearooms at Godshill on the Isle of Wight.

Super-enthusiastic Pat King has turned her retirement into an opportunity to arrange group trips for her village in Cambridgeshire.

Pat King.

Pat King.

Pat King officially became a GTO in 2000, when she retired, and found that she’d already learnt many of the skills required for organising trips and short breaks during her career as a teacher and youth leader. As Outings Organiser for Buckden Friends, Pat’s programme includes approximately 10 day trips a year, as well as two five-day short breaks. Her group is made up of around 100 members drawn from Buckden Women’s Institute (WI) and friends from the village in Cambridgeshire, about six miles south of Huntingdon. Pat is helped by her husband, Brian, a retired electronics engineer and explains, ‘I couldn’t do it without Brian’s support; he shares the burden of organising the trips and is great at looking after people when we are away, making sure everyone is happy.’

BECOMING A GTO

Pat and Brian in New Zealand.

Pat and Brian in New Zealand.

When Pat and Brian retired, they decided that travel would be a key part of their new life and have since spent a lot of time exploring the world. One of their most exciting adventures together was in 2006 when they travelled to Australia from the UK, on a nine-month overland trek. They bring their love of discovery and of experiencing new places to organising trips for the Buckden community.

Joining Buckden WI in 2000, Pat discovered that the group rarely went on outings, so one of the first things she did was to organise one! This was for around 30 members to a recording of This is Your Life at the BBC TV studios in London, with actress Anita Dobson as the guest of honour. It was much enjoyed by the group and Pat found she had made a new role for herself as Outings Organiser! The success of the trip led to more days out and, as word spread through Buckden, Pat found that non-WI members wanted to come along too. Nowadays, the expanded group is called Buckden Friends. In the process, the WI recruited more members to its monthly meetings and activities, and it now has a healthy base of 70 people. ‘Word of mouth and personal contact are the best way to expand a group,’ Pat says and she continues, ‘I think there is a real demand for group excursions – both for days out and longer breaks. Many people, especially women, do not want to travel on their own and getting together with friends is the perfect alternative. If you are struggling for numbers for a trip, I recommend inviting other people in your local community to join in, as I am sure this will have a very positive effect.’ She assesses her contribution to the WI and Buckden Friends as one of an enabler. ‘I want to enable people to do things or to get involved in ways they might otherwise not have done, so that they can live their lives to the full.’

THE DAY TRIP PROGRAMME

The Day trip programme Pat ensures that the annual programme includes variety – both in places visited and in timings. During the year, there are weekday and weekend trips, and day and evening itineraries so that people who work can also take part. Generally around 35 members go on the trips, which are around 90 minutes travel time from Buckden, although occasionally the group goes further. For example, the group has recently been to Down House in Kent. This English Heritage-owned property is the former home of Charles Darwin and the group were thrilled to walk in his footsteps on the Sandwalk – Darwin’s famous thinking path – and see hothouses with carnivorous plants and exotic orchids, as well as tour the house. In the afternoon, the group went to another English Heritage property, Lullingstone Roman Villa, where there were dressing-up opportunities!

Pat always includes a refreshment stop on the way out and on the return journey. ‘This is a key element of the day, and members who have been on trips with other groups often come back complaining that there were no stops for a cuppa,’ she says. Pat chooses a variety of places for these short stops such as factory outlet stores, an interesting small town or a National Trust property, and avoids motorway service station stops. She says, ‘We often stop at a Wetherspoons, which offer good value for money and are in interesting buildings such as old post offices.’ The tea stop on the outward journey is particularly important, as it allows new members to meet the group and for bonding to begin; the same is true of the lunch stop at the start of a five-day trip.

The group learn about chocolate making at Hotel Chocolat.

The group learn about chocolate making at Hotel Chocolat.

Many of Pat’s trips include a fun element, reflecting her and Brian’s passion for trying new and different activities, but it’s an approach that is al­so much appreciated by her members. Hands-on experiences are popular and these have included chocolate making with Hotel Chocolat in Huntingdon. Pat says, ‘We had an excellent time here and felt like royalty! We came away with generous goodie bags.’ The group also enjoyed an evening trip to Edible Ornamentals, a chilli farm at Chawston in Bedfordshire. ‘It was a very well organised visit,’ Pat says. She also favours factory visits but these, she notes, are harder to book than they used to be because fewer sites now offer tours – either because they no longer produce goods in the UK or safety legislation has become too restrictive.

Like many GTOs, Pat tries to add value to each of her trips, to make sure there’s a benefit to going as a group that couldn’t be accessed by visiting on your own, such as a guided tour or a ‘meet and greet’ at the beginning of a visit. As she explains, a cheery greeting and a brief talk is an invaluable way that an attraction can add that ‘little something special’ to a visit. Some attractions only offer tours to groups – such as the gardens of Buckingham Palace and Cutlers Hall in Sheffield.

The group on a visit to the Sikh temple in Peterborough.

The group on a visit to the Sikh temple in Peterborough.

Other notable visits have been to a Sikh temple and to a mosque – both in Peterborough. ‘On each occasion we were made to feel very welcome,’ Pat says. ‘It was very interesting to have an insight into these religions and their traditions. After sitting on the floor for over an hour at the temple, some of the group needed aid standing up, but there were plenty of helping hands!’ she jokes.

Coming up for the group this year is a day trip to Norfolk, to the Davenports Magic Kingdom in North Walsham, followed by the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum in Horning. Whenever possible, Pat researches itineraries by pre-visiting an attraction to check the quality of what’s on offer and to make sure it will be suitable for the group. She also notes any steps or inclines that might cause a problem for her less active members. ‘This promises to be an exciting trip,’ she says. ‘I went on a familiarisation trip organised by the museum and was delighted in what I saw, and I am really pleased to support the Davenports in their new family business. The Radar Museum was fascinating too. It will be an early start for the group but it should be a ‘magical’ day out.’ The Davenports Magic Kingdom is part museum, with a large collection of magic-related memorabilia, and part show – with a 30-minute live magic show included. The Davenport family has been involved with magical entertainment since 1898.

SPRING TIME TRIPS

The group in Llandudno, North Wales.

The group in Llandudno, North Wales.

The May break for the group (see panel for autumn breaks) has taken them to many different areas of Britain such as Devon in 2012 and Llandudno in 2008. For the spring holiday, Pat works with a tour operator who can help negotiate the best deal for hotels and help with the single room challenge. For many years, Pat has used West Yorkshire-based Airedale Tours, whom she praises. ‘They are an excellent tour operator, and the team is always helpful and friendly.’ For this year’s trip to Morecombe and Lancashire, she is working with just for groups! of Norwich for a change.

The key qualities Pat looks for in a hotel are good food and friendly staff; the group doesn’t have any particular favourites and is happy to use local independents as well as the more well-known chains. Pat arranges the five-day excursion programme herself and for each visit she also tries to make sure there are options that will suit the less as well as the more active members of the party.

For last year’s holiday to Derbyshire, the outward journey was broken with a lunch stop at Nottingham’s Gallery of Justice Museum. This preserves Nottinghamshire’s old courthouse and county gaol and a vast collection of spine-chilling artefacts relating to crime and punishment. Costumed re-enactors bring the exhibition to life and, as part of the visit, Buckden Friends dressed up in wigs and acted out a trial. Pat says, ‘This was a brilliant lunch stop. One of the best we’ve ever done.’

The group stayed in Belper at the Clarion Collection Hotel Makeney Hall, the former home of the Strutt family, who developed the town from a small hamlet to a thriving industrial community. The five-day programme included a tour of Strutt’s North Mill, in Belper. ‘This was very good,’ Pat explains. ‘The group was split into smaller sets of six, allowing everyone to hear the guide and to have the chance to ask questions.’ They also visited Eyam, the Derbyshire village that sealed itself off from the outside world to prevent the plague spreading in the 17th century.

Pat is now working on her programme for 2016 and, following a GTO Readers’ Day event with Visit York in October 2014, she is looking at basing a five-day break around York, with a visit to Fairfax House, Pat and Brian’s favourite visit of the day, being high on the agenda.

PAT’S TIPS AND CHALLENGES

With years of experience behind her, Pat has some salient advice for GTOs:

• Always keep your members informed both before and during the trip.

• Smile all the time as this is infectious, and never ever look worried.

• Make sure you take care of the people on your trip – you will be sure they’ll book again.

• Preparation is everything! Pat advertises forthcoming breaks towards the end of each holiday; last October for instance, 34 out of the 36 members on the holiday signed up for next autumn’s break at Thoresby Hall.

• Pat’s challenge is finding hotels who can supply sufficient single rooms – sometimes between 16 and 20; she says there’s a big market for hotels who can work with groups in providing the required allocation at an affordable price!