Stepping behind the scenes

Tom Evans explores how guided and specialist tours can help to enhance a group day out.

Learning about money at the Bank of England Museum.

Learning about money at the Bank of England Museum.

A great way to get more from a group visit is to book a guided tour of your chosen venue, attraction or place that you are visiting. Not only will your party be able to get the most out of your time there, but experienced guides provide personal insight and anecdotes. New tours often go off the standard visitor route and give fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ insights into the way places operate and are experienced by those who work or live there, or in the case of entertainment venues, the stars who perform or provide the events you usually witness from the other side of the stage.

The entrance to one of the exhibition areas at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.

The entrance to one of the exhibition areas at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.

Tours of sporting venues

Following in the footsteps of your sporting heroes on a tour around one of Britain’s many sporting venues provides an unforgettable experience that is often enhanced by viewing memorabilia in connected museums.
In north-west London, the home of cricket can be explored on the Lord’s Tour. As one of the country’s most iconic sporting venues, Lords Cricket Ground has been hosting matches on its current site since 1814 and a tour with an expert guide gives a real insight into its history and that of the summer sport. It is easy to imagine yourself striding out to bat at a Test Match as you start the tour in the Pavilion with a walk through the legendary Long Room, which is followed by a visit to the Dressing Room used by the England team. Also included in the tour is the fabulous MCC Museum, home to the Ashes Urn and over 400 years of cricket history, and the futuristic looking Media Centre, where Sky Sports, Test Match Special and the written press report on the game. Tours can be tailored to suit different needs and special group rates are available.
Visitors to Old Trafford, meanwhile, can follow in the footsteps of Charlton, Best and Beckham and sit in the same dressing room as current stars on a tour of Manchester United’s famous ground. The stadium tour takes groups to the dizzy heights of the North Stand, Sir Alex Ferguson’s pitch-side dugout spot, the players’ dressing room and down the tunnel to emerge into the Theatre of Dreams. A visit to the Manchester United museum, which blends historical exhibits with state-of-the-art interactive experiences, adds to the experience and helps bring the club’s remarkable history to life. Group rates are available.

The Ashes Urn on display at the MCC Museum.

The Ashes Urn on display at the MCC Museum.

Those who enjoyed last month’s Wimbledon Championship can visit the place where all the action happened on a tour of the elegant grounds in south London. Led by a Blue Badge guide, the tour features a visit to the famous Centre Court, views of the capital from the picnic terraces and a look in the main Press Interview Room where the post-match questioning takes place. The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum is an integral part of the tour and hosts exhibits dating from the 1550s as well as a new exhibition ‘The Queue’, which explores all aspects of the famous Wimbledon queuing experience.
Minimum numbers for a prearranged group tour are 15 and discounts are available.
In Cardiff, one of the modernicons of Wales can be explored on a tour of the Millennium Stadium. The ground is a must see attraction for any visit to the city and groups can venture behind the scenes to experience the build up before a match, enjoy views of the pitch from a VIP hospitality suite and learn about the palletised pitch system and retractable roof that are used to transform the stadium into one of the world’s largest indoor arenas. Group bookings can be made by calling the stadium’s tours department.
The story of the world’s greatest steeplechase, The Grand National, can be explored with a tour around the Aintree visitor centre in Liverpool. Groups will learn of how the idea of the National was conceived by a Liverpool hotelier and run for many years by a gaiety girl, while the tour also includes a trip to Aintree’s Weighing Room, the famous Winner’s Enclosure and Red Rum’s resting place at the finishing post. All tour reservations must be made in advance and are available for groups of 14 or ore.

A Blue Badge guided visit with City & Village Tours

A Blue Badge guided visit with City & Village Tours

With the Olympics fast approaching, GTOs may wish to organise a tour to see developments at the various sites of the Games in East London. While access to the Olympic Park itself is unavailable this side of the Games, City & Village Tours offers a range of trips (with groups providing their own coach) around the perimeter where all the sites can be seen from elevated viewing points. Blue Badge guides, who are officially accredited through the specialist Olympic and Paralympic course, lead the tours and can bring groups right up to speed on all the latest 2012 news and gossip. The company also offers a range of other themed tours including: ‘A City Safari’, which looks at animal and bird life in the capital; ‘Cotswold Gold’, where the beautiful countryside of the South Western Cotswolds and the Gloucestershire Golden Valleys are explored; and ‘Sussex Coastal Curios’, a popular tour that goes off the beaten track in one of the country’s most beautiful counties.

Getting behind the entertainment

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the stage or wanted to find out more about a particular entertainment form, you could take advantage of the growing number of tours on offer around theatres and media establishments.
Groups can step back in time, as well as behind the scenes, at Shakespeare’s Globe, which is located on the banks of the River Thames. Expert guides can take groups on a fascinating tour of the iconic theatre and bring the space to life with colourful stories of the 1599 Globe, the reconstruction process in the 1990s, and how the theatre works today. Tickets for the tour are packaged with entry to the exhibition, which explores the life of Shakespeare, the London where he lived, and the theatre for which he wrote. When guided tours of the Globe are not possible, due to matinee performances or special events, visitors will be taken to the nearby site of the Rose, the only Elizabethan playhouse that has been excavated on a large scale by archaeologists. Groups of 15 or more receive a discount on standard rates.

Going behind the scenes with the Royal Shakespeare Company

Going behind the scenes with the Royal Shakespeare Company

In Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, GTOs could choose to take their party on a guided tour offered by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Starting in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre Cloakroom, the Theatre Tours explore the public and private areas of the theatre and provide the opportunity to learn about the history of the company and its theatres in Stratford. Those wishing to discover more about the Flower Family and their important role in the building of the Royal Shakespeare Company may wish to take the summer Open Air Tour. The tour lasts about an hour and uncovers the history of the 1879 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and the Courtyard Theatre. Group rates are available on both tours and tickets can be booked online or by calling the RSC box office.
Situated in London’s Covent Garden, The Royal Opera House covers an area of two and a half acres and tours of this iconic building provide an intriguing insight into the enormous world behind the stage. As the Royal Opera House is a fully working theatre, each tour is a unique experience and varies according to what is available on the day. Whilst access to the auditorium cannot be guaranteed, tours may include opportunities to see the Royal Ballet in class, a production workshop and the magnificent backstage technology used to move around scenery. The tour, which can accommodate up to 60 people, takes around an hour and special rates are available for parties of 10 or more.
Groups planning to travel to Paris and visit Disney land Paris and its Disneyland Park and the Walt Disney Studios could enhance the experience by booking a Disney Guide. The guided tours are a great way to learn more about Walt Disney’s legacy and, while being escorted around the sites, hear stories and secrets about the theme parks. In addition, Disney’s VIP Tour Service is available to those who wish to benefit from the services of a VIP guide, who will help plan a visit, and reserved seating for parades and live stage shows.

Artefacts in the National Media Museum’s Insight Collection and Research Centre.

Artefacts in the National Media Museum’s Insight Collection and Research Centre.

Those with an interest in home entertainment, meanwhile, may wish to explore the archives of the National Media Museum in Bradford. The museum houses a unique collection of television technology and cinematography and looks after the National Photography, National Cinematography, National Television and National New Media Collections. Only part of the vast collections is on show in the main galleries and further items can be found in the Insight Collection and Research Centre, which can be viewed on a fascinating curator-led group tour. These tours can be tailored to focus on particular themes, such as the history of television, soaps, advertising or early photography, and can be booked in advance by contacting the museum’s Collection Administrator.

Historic sites and collections

It is all too easy to miss out on certain items or important facts when visiting a historic site or museum, but taking a guided tour can ensure you get the full picture during a visit.
Open year round, Leeds Castle in Kent offers a blend of heritage and history, glorious gardens and a varied programme of events. The castle has been home to six medieval queens and was visited frequently by Henry VIII, notably with his Queen, Catherine of Aragon and their entire court on the way to the tournament of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France. The castle later passed into private ownership and today groups can explore over 900 years of its rich history on a pre-booked guided tour, which can be tailored to different needs and interests.

A view of Leeds Castle

A view of Leeds Castle

In Southsea, the D-Day Museum offers a range of tours and talks that cover aspects of the landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944. The museum’s centrepiece, the Overlord Embroidery Gallery, can be explored on a 30-minute tour with the option of an additional question and answer session with the guide. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, the Embroidery traces the progress of Overlord in stunning visual form, from its origins in the dark days of 1940 to victory in 1944. Also available are introductory talks about D-Day and a tour around the story displays. Group rates are available for parties of 15 or more, while tours and talks on other subjects relating to D-Day can be arranged.
Those looking for a unique experience in the City of London could head to the Bank of England Museum where cinema presentations provide an insight into its history and main roles. The presentations can be tailored to suit the interests of individual groups and provide a wonderful accompaniment to the museum’s exhibitions, which include a vast collection of bank notes and weaponry once used to defend the bank. Both entry to the museum and the presentations are free of charge.
Another institution in the capital that offers free tours and entry is The Wellcome Collection, which explores the connections between medicine, life and art. Knowledgeable Visitor Services Assistants lead tours of the exhibitions for groups of between 8 and 20, although up to 40 people can be accommodated by splitting the group. Tours last 30 minutes per gallery and GTOs can arrange to see one or two galleries per visit.
In the west of London, meanwhile, Christopher Wren’s twin domed masterpiece at the heart of the Greenwich World Heritage Site can be seen on a tour of the Old Royal Naval College. As well as visiting the main attractions of the baroque Painted Hall and neo-classical Chapel, the 90- minute group tour also takes in sites such as the Jacobean undercroft and Victorian Skittle Alley that are not usually open to the public. Groups can choose from a variety of itineraries and may wish to take advantage of a package deal that includes the tour, a two course meal in the historic King William Undercroft and coach parking.

Learning about the Overlord Embroidery at the D-Day Museum

Learning about the Overlord Embroidery at the D-Day Museum

Hosting the finest collection of American decorative arts outside the United States, the American Museum in Britain takes visitors on a journey through the history of the country, from its early settlers to the 20th century. The museum, which is located at Claverton Manor in Bath, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and has developed a Fab@50 trail that showcases 50 treasures from the collection. Private group tours feature the trail during 2011 and offer a great way to see the museum’s varied galleries and collections. The tour takes 90 minutes to complete and private viewings of this year’s temporary exhibition, ‘Marilyn – Hollywood Icon’, can be pre-booked in addition to the tour.
In Hertfordshire, The Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green looks after one of the largest artist’s collections in the world. On the site, groups will find Henry Moore’s former house and studios, as well as outdoor sculpture displays and galleries. Premium Guided Tours and a Behind-the-Scenes Experience are available to enhance a visit and give an extra insight into Moore’s creative process. Both options include a tour of the estate and a meal at the newly-refurbished Hoops Inn on the village green, while the Behind the Scenes Experience provides access to restricted collections areas that are usually not on view to the visiting public. Tours can be adapted to particular interests and group sizes are limited to ensure first-rate experience.

Inside Rangers House.

Inside Rangers House.

English Heritage operates over 400 sites that are open to the public and many offer a fabulous range of guided group tours. A visit to the iconic Battle Abbey in East Sussex, for example, can be enhanced by taking a tour that examines the famous ‘Battle of Hastings’ and the reason the abbey came to be built on the site. Another option for groups is an out-of-hours private tour at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens near Doncaster, which looks at Victorian life above and below stairs of this once opulent Victorian Hall. Carlisle Castle, meanwhile, offers groups an incredible 15 different themed tours to choose from that look at every aspect of the castle’s history, including one designed for visitors with walking difficulties. Those looking for a tour with style, meanwhile, may wish to consider the new ‘Glitz and Glamour’ package that takes in both Eltham Palace and Rangers House in south east London.

SPECIALIST TOURS

Whatever your interest there is probably a tour that can accommodate you and, if not, many venues and operators now offer specialist tailored tours to meet particular needs.
Film buffs will be spoilt for choice with the tours on offer around National Trust locations and landmarks that have ‘starred’ on the silver screen. One of the most splendid houses in England and the location used for Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters’ base in the Harry Potter films can be seen on a hall tour of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Scenes from the 2010 film ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, meanwhile, can be viewed on a tour of the 18th century Osterley Park and House in Middlesex whilst the setting of possibly the most iconic moment in BBC costume drama history, when, during a scene from ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Mr Darcy takes a dip in the lake, can be seen at Lyme Park in Cheshire. Sites used in films are dotted right across Britain and to make planning a group visit easier, The National Trust has recently developed a movie map that showcases its best ‘performances’.

The approach to Hardwick Hall

The approach to Hardwick Hall

James Bond fans, meanwhile, may be interested in the Intelligence Trail, which allows groups to become immersed in the world of espionage and counter-espionage on a spy tour of London. Key episodes in the history of Britain’s intelligence services from the last 100 years are unravelled as the mysterious tour guide, ‘Mr. X’, points out the key locations in the capital where intelligence decisions and operations were conducted. Groups will also hear about the activities, consequences and downfalls of some of Britain’s worst spy traitors and find out the location of two secret passageways. Other tours offered by the same operator include the Sexpionage tour, which covers some of the edgier and risqué aspects of the intelligence game, and more focused tours on key periods, such as the Early Years tour (1909-1945) and Cold War tour (1945-1992).

 Tour guide ‘Mr X’ of the Intelligence Trail.

Tour guide ‘Mr X’ of the Intelligence Trail.

Those looking to improve their camera skills may wish to consider a new kind of sightseeing experience from Viewfinder Tours, which combines a walking tour with a photography workshop. These half-day tours include photography instruction, from basics to advanced, and provide groups with the opportunity to take better pictures while walking in picturesque locations such as Stratford-upon-Avon, Oxford and London.
A behind the scenes tour of a local producer is a great way to learn more about a particular area or a manufacturing process. The group-friendly Shepherd Neame Brewery in Kent offers behind the scenes tours to see how their ales and speciality lagers are brewed. Starting in the Visitor Centre, which is set in a beautifully restored medieval hall house, the 80-minute tour explores the ancient art of brewing and allows groups to see traditional mash tuns, taste natural mineral water from the brewery’s well and try some malted barley. Also included is ‘The Vaults’, which is housed in the old wine and spirits store and features historic delivery vehicles, old pub signs, a recreated cooper’s workshop and a collection of hop picking memorabilia. Visitors are, of course, able to sample some of the produce and enjoy a fascinating tutored tasting session. Group rates are available and special packages, that include meals, can be arranged.
A tour of Shepherd Neame could be combined with a visit to the nearby Brogdale Farm, which is home to the National Fruit Collection. The collection is the largest of fruit trees and plants in the world and is open for guided tours and tractor-trailer tours between mid March and the end of October. The tours take in some of the most interesting parts of the orchards and offer visitors the opportunity to taste the fruit in season and learn historical facts surrounding the fascinating varieties. Tours can be arranged during the day or evening and can be tailored to suit the interests and abilities of group members. Talks and tasting sessions, instead of the tours, are offered during the winter months.

Sampling the beer at Shepherd Neame Brewery

Sampling the beer at Shepherd Neame Brewery

A number of venues have introduced tours that focus on specific elements of their offer and museums are especially good at providing opportunities to get behind the scenes and discover more about a specialist area. The British Museum, for example, has developed a new programme of tours that allows groups to explore specific areas of their remarkable collection, including classical Greece, ancient Egypt and way the world was understood by Europeans in the 18th century.
Salisbury Cathedral, meanwhile, offers a range of specialist tours that cover stained glass, architecture, embroidery, art and sculpture. Groups may also take the fabulous Tower Tour, which goes behind the scenes of the remarkable Early English Gothic building and gives an insight into 13th century construction methods. The tour takes around 90 minutes and takes visitors through the spectacular roof spaces, right up to the foot of the spire. A Cathedral Floor Tour, which includes the Chapter House with the Magna Carta, is also available to give an introduction to the cathedral and groups are advised to book all visits in advance.

Your guide to the Pendle Witches, Simon Entwistle.

Your guide to the Pendle Witches, Simon Entwistle.

The popular Ghost Tours at Hampton Court Palace explore a variety of haunted sites as visitors walk nervously through the half light and hear ghostly stories. Tours last for 90 minutes and sites include the infamous haunted
gallery where Queen Catherine Howard’s ghost has been seen on many occasions screaming after King Henry VIII!
Light refreshments are included in the tour and group rates are available.
Groups can also experience haunted happenings on Pendle Hill in Lancashire on the Pendle Witches Tour. The evening begins at Clitheroe Castle, which has watched over the town and the Ribble Valley for over 800 years, from where visitors are guided around the area by storyteller extraordinaire, Simon Entwistle. Simon tells ghostly tales of old Clitheroe and takes visitors to Pendle Hill to recount the story of the infamous Pendle Witches.