Anne Bartlett

Anne Bartlett is a Blue Badge tour guide and tour director. She takes coach tours all around the Great West Way, telling them about its history, culture and heritage. She lives in Cheltenham with her husband, who is an architect.

What’s so great about a coach tour?
The itinerary is all planned for them and it is great because they don’t have to worry about the driving, they know where they are going. They can look out of the window of the coach and see over all the hedges. They don’t really have to think because all the planning has been done, all the people are ready to receive them, they can look around the gardens or the stately home at their leisure and they finish at a particular time. I think that’s a great holiday.

What is a Blue Badge guide?
A Blue Badge tour guide has been trained and examined on the area that they are touring. A tour director manages the group and shows them around. I do both.

How did you become a Blue Badge guide?
I trained as a teacher in Gloucester and taught in Cardiff. After I had my family I worked in the water industry for Severn Trent Water for 11 years. It was just after privatisation and I was educating groups about how water is treated. As I was going round, I was learning about the history of water and of the local area, I just found it fascinating. The programme came to an end so I thought ‘what can I do now?’. I had become fascinated with travelling around various towns and the history so I made enquiries about tourism. Someone told me about a Blue Badge guiding course so I put my name down.

Is it hard to qualify for a Blue Badge?
I did my initial training in Birmingham in 2000. It was a part-time course, very intensive. We went up for classroom sessions once a week and then we had practical work at the weekends. Our training was for the whole of the Heart of England region. The exams - and I didn’t know there were exams, that came as a bit of a shock - were written papers and practicals where we were examined on a coach tour. We had to sit at the front with a microphone and give a commentary of where we were going. But we didn’t know which part of the route we were going to get.

Have you continued training?
Yes, I have just completed my training for all of the South West. We had a county to do each month. We were told which coach route, we would prepare that, and then we get called up to give a commentary.

Roman Baths

Do you need to prepare much for a tour?
I have a whole room of books upstairs that I have collected about the areas I work in. What you want to be able to do is tell stories, not get heavily into history and dates. When I prepare for a route I will do it quite a few times and if I pass a church I will pop in to see if I can get the local information that would relate to the group that I am taking around.

Do you tailor your content to the type of people on your tour?
Yes, you try to so that involves your audience. I know that when I have been abroad, guides drop in names or places that mean nothing to me. So that’s why I try to tailor it to the group.

Do you draw on your own experiences to add some colour to your commentary?
Oh yes often. For example, recently I picked up a tour of Americans at Heathrow and as we passed Windsor Castle I spoke about the Royal Wedding and linked it to America and Meghan Markle staying at Cliveden. I had also completed a course at Windsor Castle as an endorsement to my Blue Badge. I was able to talk to the group about how we saw the staff preparing for a state banquet and putting out priceless hand-painted porcelain dessert plates. I told them how they had rubber sinks for washing up to protect the plates. It’s those little stories like that they like.

How do you get tours?
I am self-employed. I get to know the operators who book tours. I’ve got my own website and I belong to the Guild of Tourist Guides and the Institute of Tourist Guides.

How often do you take tours?
In summer it can be very, very busy. I’ve just done two 12-day tours almost back-to-back and I’ve got another one starting next week. We wind down in late autumn and winter time.

Do you go to the same places all the time?
It varies such a lot. One year I can be doing Bath on a regular basis, on another year once or twice. Then I can be doing lots of Cotswold tours or Oxford. It’s all around the Great West Way and beyond.

How long are tours?
They vary wildly. The Australians I had recently were over for three weeks. Then there are 12-day tours. I met a Blue Badge guide who’d just finished the ‘British Isles in Eight Days’. They’d done England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland! I prefer a slower journey, less is more. This is why the Great West Way is so good. Take Wiltshire, you’ve got the Kennet and Avon Canal, and you’ve got Stonehenge and you’ve got Avebury. You’ve got the whole of civilisation from Neolithic Man to the present day.

Stonehenge

What’s a typical day like?
I start around 8.15am. I stay in the same hotel as the guests so I am there for them first thing. Then I get them on to the coach and I am careful to make sure everyone knows where they are going, who will be taking them round and what time they need to be back. You can’t tell people often enough. The important thing when they get off the coach is to be clear what they are doing. If they are not clear about the programme that’s when chaos ensues. If you have people getting off the coach and wandering around and getting lost then it’s a nightmare. I will eat with the guests in the evening but they will have heard from me all day so I try not to say too much. I answer questions of course but I don’t try to dominate the conversation! Then at bedtime I will be up late be checking my notes for the next day’s tour. It is a long day, and if I’m tour director I am on call all the time.

Your guests have paid for a cultural and educational experience. That puts the pressure on you to know your stuff
Oh yes. That’s why I prepare. I’ve got notes and that’s why I am working late at night to make sure the next day goes well. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail as they say!

Is it tiring on a tour?
I can be a bit sleep-deprived! I think every Blue Badge guide will admit that by the end of the season we are tired. Our guests probably won’t come to this particular area again so you want them to get the very best experience. We all want them to go away with lots of fond memories of the place to pass on to their friends.

Have you had any difficult guests?
Oh no! Although I once had to pass on a tour to someone else because I couldn’t do it and someone later told me ‘thank goodness you didn’t do that one, someone was caught shoplifting’. We aren’t trained for that sort of thing!

What myths about the UK do you regularly bust?
Afternoon tea is one. It’s a big thing for visitors now and they ask ‘why aren’t you bigger if you do this every day?’ They think we eat afternoon tea every day. Food is another one. We once had a very bad reputation for food and even now Americans come here and are surprised at the quality of the food. They say they hadn’t expected it.

Do guests give you unusual tasks?
I had a gentleman just recently who lost a tooth. So I had to go and find an emergency dentist for him. It was just before a bank holiday weekend so it was a bit of a challenge but we got him sorted with a new one and he was thrilled because the dentist even matched the colour with his other teeth.

Do you get feedback?
I get lovely letters back saying how they’ve appreciated the care that’s been taken, that I have gone that extra mile. That’s very rewarding. The thanks and the appreciation spur you on.

What’s your favourite part of the Great West Way?
I love it all! But I particularly like the industrial revolution and when we come out from Heathrow I’m talking about the Great West Way and the Great Western Railway and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. STEAM Museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon is fantastic and the story is incredible. If we hadn’t had steam we wouldn’t have had the industrial revolution. I love to talk about the Box Tunnel and the number of labourers working on that. And then there’s the SS Great Britain at Bristol and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is all magnificent.

What part of the Great West Way captivates your guests?
The landscape just amazes people, the greenness, the flowers. They ask about the trees and the birds. There are so many unplanned things you come across that make lovely memories. Recently we came across a farmer and his sheepdogs rounding up some sheep. I stopped the coach so everyone could get off and watch, it was just wonderful. Afterwards a lady said to me ‘gee Anne, this is better than TV. Is there anywhere more beautiful this?’. What do you say to that? I said ‘yes, wherever you go in England you have some wonderful places’.

You’ve been doing this job a long time. Any sign of you giving it up?
Golly no, I’m still training! I absolutely love it. It is jolly hard work but you get such a lovely sense of achievement.

Windsor Castle

To find out more about tours along the Great West Way and attractions to visit, take a look at our See & Do pages. 

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