I haven’t written to this blog for while. I’ve been busy: walking, guiding and also trying to finish a book about teaching and travelling in China. This is a special year for me and one way to celebrate it is through walking. However, my first venture of the summer was, well, wet. Who would venture into the English Lake District with a tent and sleeping bag in what turned out to be the wettest June on record?
We had three good days though – and afterwards my companion forced me to watch the Olympic flame's passage through Keswick. What a commercial thing that was: an hour of artificially simulated hysteria followed by a crescendo as the Coca-Cola bus passed by, another peak as the Samsung bus blasted us with music and a declining climax as the Lloyds-TSB bus came by. Following this jamboree of noise and dancing, the crowd hardly noticed the torch as its adrenaline rapidly leaked away (the crowd’s not the torch’s). Still the kids of all ages enjoyed the whole thing, I think.
On my return from the Lake District I had to prepare a whole day tour of the Cotswolds for an American couple. I have only ever done a day tour of the Cotswolds once before and on that occasion it was for a busload of singles. This time I decided that I really must include Chipping Campden (my own choice for the ‘jewel of the Cotswolds’ award) in addition to Chipping Norton with its wonderful, unbelievable, wool factory (now luxury flats).
I do know Chipping Campden a little, but not enough to do justice to a tour so I began researching. Turning to the web for some nugget of information, I found myself confronted once more by that travelling torch. The Olympic flame was due to pass through the town on the very day of my tour! The bloody thing is everywhere, even as I write it’s passing through Oxford; one of the reasons that I am hiding away in my little flat in the north of the city. The Chipping Campden website contained a warning from the police: they planned to seal off the town once the car parks were full and further warned that all empty houses would be searched prior to the great day: empty houses in desirable Chipping Campden, surely not!
So I had to drop the jewel from my itinerary. However, despite the flaming flame my Cotswold tour was a great success, I think. Generally I have been kept pretty busy leading tours in my city of Oxford. I like the job – though a few groups that I meet are best forgotten and will have certainly forgotten me - I hope. There is a problem bubbling away beneath the rich surface of Oxford tourism. It is a lovely place, redolent with history, characters and stories. And it has depth: however much you know there is always more to learn. The problem is that it is being oversold, not deliberately, but dangerously. Its highpoint is clearly the university and colleges and, though there is plenty more to talk about, these remains at the core of any visit. But quite a few visitors want something else.
I made a vow when I first qualified as a city guide that I would not conduct tours based on fictional characters – it seemed to me that there was plenty to cover in the real world. Despite that I have, over the years, expanded my portfolio of tours by specialising in: pubs, ghosts, literature, science, rogues and architecture. Yes, I know that you unbelievers think that ghosts are fictional, but you must keep an open mind. What I do not do is Harry Potter, Inspector Morse or Alice tours – though the latter is tempting since a real girl forms the basis of the books.
I must confess however that I do admire the Harry Potter stories and am now coming to the end of the sixth book (hence currently grieving over the death of Dumbledore). My excuse for reading children’s fiction is twofold. First, I need some background for my general tours which do encounter various Potter film locations and many visitors are really interested in these. Second, I am reading the books in Spanish to try to improve my understanding of the language – and I can tell you something - it’s very hard going, especially the later books where the vocabulary becomes so much wider.
However, like Harry or hate him he is only a sub-text in the real story of Oxford, as is Morse and even little Alice. The real story is in the history and the buildings of this world famous city. Yet so many people are drawn to it by the fictional characters and have little interest in the real Oxford. The place is not Disneyland; it is essentially a city of learning and car manufacture. Many tourists come here for the right reasons and thoroughly enjoy it. Those coming for the Disneyland experience are inevitably bored by the very things that make Oxford what it is – the real Oxford.
All that said I have a break coming up. A friend and I are going to attempt to walk from Yoxford to Oxford in seven days. So I am just off to make an offer of appeasement to the rain gods.