Thursday, 4 May 2023

A day in life of an Oxford tour guide.

 Here you can read about three very different Oxford tours and then get a link to my latest video,  a pub one and just the place to go after these three tours.

Tour 1 Chaos

Four mature guides, including myself, were waiting for a party of eighty people on a company jolly to Oxford from a far eastern country which will remain nameless to protect the innocent. They arrived at the visitor centre of the college of Christchurch and the first requirement was - you’ve guessed it – toilets. That took a while. Then they had to be lined up in four different groups, single file, for the distribution of audio-visual guides – the staff members at the visitor centre are quite draconian about this. That too took a while. In fact half an hour had passed fruitlessly by before I could take my group into the college through the Meadow Gate. Inside they fiddled haplessly with their multiple language audio-visual guides attempting to begin the tour – many failed and I helped as best I could. I would much prefer to guide them round this top tourist spot myself, but the college no longer allows us to do so.

Their group leader was enthusiastic, but spoke little English. Nevertheless he managed to convey to me that the full tour was far too complicated so I suggested that we just visit the dining hall (he called it the Harry Potter dining hall) and the cathedral. So, we joined the slow moving queue on the famous (Harry Potter) access stairs then wormed our way slowly around the even more famous dining hall while they filled their phones with images of it all.

The next port of call was the visually striking Tom Quad, where more images were captured and the group scattered before we could herd them into the cathedral. Once inside I had just one follower – the group leader – he had lost the entire group.

Somehow we got most of them together in order to leave the college and as we left they dispersed. I explained as best that I could that it was now my role as the guide to take them to a number of interesting sites in the city. Their leader smiled tolerantly whilst continuing to send them off, unaccompanied, with instructions to meet at McDonalds at 4pm. Soon he was the only person left – so I went home. An unwanted and useless guide.

Tour 2 The donor and family

Many people give money to Oxford University and its colleges. The most recent big ones are: the Blavatnik School of Government, Reuben College and the nascent Schwartzman Centre for the Humanities. Many other philanthropic gifts have been provided and donors seem keen to oblige.

This tour had been arranged by the University and I was the guide. My role was to show the potential donor (PD) around the central buildings, explain the way the University and Colleges interwork and so on – the usual stuff. The group consisted of the PD and wife, their two teenage sons and a younger daughter, an Oxford graduate who worked for the PD and a young lady who worked for the University and who had the resources ready to pay for any entry fees.

I was a little nervous, this was not my usual group by any means, and people with huge amounts of money can often be egotistical and demanding. This PD was not; in fact he was quite pleasant, fairly knowledgeable and engaged. After him my main worry was the Oxford graduate.  How dare I, having finished school at the age of sixteen, explain the intricacies of the top University in the world when he had just recently been though the mill? In fact he was delightful, telling me in an aside that he had not yet experienced the graduation ceremony. Then there was the PD’s wife, she was not happy and her face portrayed that. I have no idea why she was not happy, but she contributed little to the proceeding and did not sour them. Then there were the two lads. They were at the age where showing interest in something said or shown by a person of my age would be devastatingly embarrassing and they mostly avoided eye contact. The daughter was rather sweet, and responded well to my asides about the locations used in the Harry Potter films. I believe the high point of the tour, the thing which really grabbed their attention was the long list of past donors which is displayed within the Clarendon Building passageway.

The tour done, the PD took me aside and said that on the basis of my tour he had decided to donate a huge sum of cash to the University and then requested a visiting card from me. I hasten to add that only the final part of that sentence in true. But he seemed happy enough and walked off with his minders to a busy day where he would see more of the university and its colleges than a humble tour guide ever would. 

Tour 3 The American Indians

This was a tour that had all the hallmarks of failure. It was in my diary as a group of Indians arriving at a certain time date and place who had prepaid for a visit to New College. Well, first the booking had two different dates, second the group were American not Indian and third the college was closed on the day of the tour! I thought the second date the most likely but went along to the meeting place on the first just in case. Just as well, there, at the Martyr’s Memorial I was approached by Bob and his eight or so companions. They were my sort of age and enthusiastic about Oxford, though they had very limited time to spend with me.

I whizzed them round to St John’s College which was open and free to enter and there gave my potted version of what a college does in the Oxford scheme of things and then what was left for the University to do. They were hungry for details. The questions kept a ‘coming and I did have all the answers for them. They particularly liked the chapel and the magnificent Canterbury Quad. After that we ventured into the city proper where we shared the wonder of the Divinity School, the Sheldonian Theatre and Old Schools Quad followed by the majesty of Radcliffe Square and its dominating Camera.

They appreciated the whole thing so much and my delivery was much enhanced by their obvious appreciation. There was talk of return trips and a general ambience of a good experience shared. I cycled home a happy man and a contented tour guide.

That was quite a day. As you know my other thing is making videos for my YouTube channel: Rob’s Oxford. Here’s the latest, fresh out of the “studio”.  It’s about the Harcourt Arms, one my and Margaret’s favourite pubs. We go along most Sunday’s for its excellent open mike night – and beer.