What’s a Blue Badge Guide?

Institute of tourist guiding, London tourist guide badge.A potpourri. What’s a Blue Badge Guide? How do you become an award-winning Blue Badge Guide? The new 20th-Century London Virtual Tour series. A new guide. Six award-winning guides. What sets London Walks apart? Some history. Some personal stuff. May we see you soon. Good night. Happy Inauguration. Good London-ing, one and all. Good everything. 


London calling.

David here. 

Houston. We have lift-off. 

The Story of 20th Century London is underway. 

Talking about our Virtual Tour series created and guided by “the Fab Five.” 

The Fab Five being star guides Karen, Fiona, Simon, Russell and Adam.

All of them top drawer. All of them very experienced. All of them professionally qualified.

Not just professionally qualified: award-winning. 

I was thinking about the matter of professional qualifications earlier today right after I finished a Zoom interview with Hannah-Rose, who’s going to be doing some Virtual Tour guiding for us, in her area of expertise. And then maybe translate her Virtual Tour – usually it goes in the other direction – to a shoe-leather-on-pavement tour, when we reach the promised land. Hannah-Rose doing a shoe-leather-on-pavement tour would have to be a Tour du Jour because she’s a research fellow at Edinburgh University. So, talk about qualifications: Ph.D. in her London area of expertise. And I’m keeping that under wraps until the actual roll-out. But the guiding point here is, Hannah-Rose has got it: bright as can be, knows her subject inside out, lively, warm, enthusiastic, articulate, great voice, witty, vivacious – the whole package.

And having – 48 hours earlier – watched Karen’s Edwardian London Virtual Tour – which got the 20th Century London Virtual Tour series underway – it was borne in upon me yet again, “my god, we’ve got the creme de la creme of guides.” Borne in upon me yet again because Hannah-Rose has, in addition to the professional expertise, the same indefinable something – star-power, for lack of a better word – that Karen and the rest of the Fab Five have. They all have elite professional qualifications, they all won awards in their year. And some awards, I mean Karen and Fiona won the Guiding equivalent of the MVP award that gets awarded every year to the best player in the American National Football League.

And that got me thinking about the award-winning guide under my roof. I’m talking about Mary. 

I wanted to revisit Mary’s doing the Blue Badge course and coming out of it with a top award. Revisit it because: 1) it’s a good memory; 2) I was pleased that we’ve just “signed” another great guide; 3) I had the star power, yet again, of Karen on my mind because, look, she didn’t just inform the 85 people in her audience on Sunday night, she held us spellbound, she dazzled us; 4) that thing of wondering, what year was it that Mary finished the course? Where’s she at now on her top-flight professionally qualified guide trajectory; and 5) lots of “civilians” – as we sometimes affectionately describe our walkers – ask us about that Blue Badge qualification. So why not at least a little something about it? 

And of course given the configuration of those five points, I had to, well,  start at home. Start with Mary and her Blue Badge. So I rummaged around. And sure enough, turns out I wrote a little something about it when she got her Badge – and her Award – a few years.

There are one or two spots in the piece that are specific to stuff that was going on then. But there’s nothing untoward about those two moments. So I’ve left them in. 

You can hear my delight in the sentence that opens the piece. And just let me explain the nickname: “Poppins”. This is personal but so what. Mary’s a dancer. Classically trained. Ballet. And she still goes to professional classes, three times a week. These days they take place in our sitting room, via the Internet. The nickname – Poppins, it’s of course short for Mary Poppins – comes courtesy of a bunch of 14-year-old French girls in her, Mary’s, trapeze class on a Club Med holiday a few years. Yes, you heard right, Mary – this of course has to do with her ballet dancer fitness – took up the trapeze 15 years ago or so and in consequence our summer holiday always has to be a place where she can work on her trapeze routine. Now as you can imagine, a trapeze course on a Club Med Holiday – the uptake is going to be, for the most part, 12, 13, 14-year-old girls. And suddenly, in amongst them, and outperforming them, was this English woman not far off from being old enough to a very youthful granny to them. So, older English woman, supremely capable English woman, who can do amazing things all things considered, who can, well, fly through the air – it was inevitable, wouldn’t you say. Mary Poppins they called her. And the nickname has, well, stuck. Mary, the “practically perfect” poppet, is Poppins.

Ok, that’s enough footnotes. Here’s the piece from a few years ago. And yes, you can say, I was excited, proud, jubilant. The title of the piece was Mary’s Got Her Blue Badge.

Goes like this:

You better believe it, the “practically perfect” poppet – aka “Poppins” – has done it! 

Done it in spades: because she’s won the BCP – one of the top two awards! 

It’s got an ungainly name – Best Combined Practical (ergo the acronym) – but it’s the ultimate professional accolade: the guiding equivalent of Baseball’s Triple Crown. 

Practical refers to doing it for real – as opposed to theory (i.e., written exams). And Combined refers to the entire range of “on site” “practical” exams – i.e., the Tower, St. Paul’s, the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the coach tour, the walking tour. Best means exactly you think it means – in short, being top of her class across that whole range of “practicals” 

Mary took the honours. Not bad, eh?

So what’s the Blue Badge? What’s involved? What does it mean? And – yes – what’s the “back story”?

The Blue Badge is the gold standard of professional guiding qualifications.

It’s the guiding equivalent of a hallmark – a guarantee of professional expertise and quality. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, Blue Badge Guides know their stuff. 

They know what they’re doing – and how to do it.

They know what they’re doing because to get the badge – to earn it – you have to complete a fiendishly demanding two year course. 

And pass a battery of really tough exams at the end of it.

Lots of London Walks guides – well over half of the team – are Blue Badged. And the ones who aren’t all have equivalent qualifications. Or indeed, in a few cases, even more impressive ones. 

To put it bluntly, you don’t catch on here unless you’re “top-flight”. 

Because of the way we’re “structured” – London Walks essentially being run as a guides’ cooperative – we’ve always been in the happy position of being able to attract – and keep – the very best guides in London.

As an American journalist once put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide”. 

That lapidary enough for you?

Which is all by way of saying, Noel Coward’s advice to Mrs. Worthing – “don’t put your daughter on the stage” – is equally applicable to our “stage”:  the London walking tour scene. 

There are lots of knock-offs who, alas, put one in mind of Dr. Johnson’s dictum about dogs walking on their hind legs. 

“It is not done well. But you are surprised to find it done at all.”

And for that matter, all of the above is the principal reason why we’ve had so many problems with our name, London Walks. 

We’ve got the 24-carat reputation. We’ve earned it. Knock-offs who don’t have it – and in fact couldn’t earn it – have tried to filch it. 

They try to filch it by making free with our name. It’s a con – as contemptible as a pea and thimble hustle.

Now I mention all of that because Mary‘s getting the badge is part and parcel of our bid to shore up our defences against that kind of chicanery. 

Mary will be joining the Institute and the Association of Professional Tour Guides and the Guild of Guides – the APTG and the G of G – are the two unions that professional guides belong to – and – where it’s applicable – enlisting their good offices in helping us to put an end to this nonsense once and for all.

Though as important as all of that is, it was – this should go without saying – by no means the main matter.  In short, the principal reason

she took the course was for the best of reasons – for the love of it, for what  she’d get out of the course “avocationally”, what she’d learn

from it, etc. etc.

And the “back story”? Has to do with our Westminster Abbey* walks. 

*To guide in the Abbey – and indeed in the Tower of London – you have to have the Blue Badge. It’s a useful litmus test, that. You come across a walking tour company that’s not doing a Westminster Abbey Tour – or a Tower of London tour – that’s a walking tour company that does not use qualified guides, professional guides. Sheep from the goats and all of that. Caveat emptor – you have been warned. 

Anyway, the Abbey limits group sizes to 26 people. And because we don’t operate a booking scheme for our public walks all of that can get rather tricky. 

Do we put two guides on? Or three?

And of course – again, because of the way we’re structured – it’s actually better for the “main” guide to have 26 people than, say, 28. 

Because if there are 28 people the second guide has to jump in and that divides the “gate” by two. 

The “main” guide finds that he’s got a group of 14 people rather than 26 – it’s quite a financial “hit” for him or her. 

Mary’s being Blue Badged means that she’ll be able to go along and take the overspill when the turnout is larger than 26. 

She’ll take the overspill – and, yes, the groups will in fact still be split into two roughly equal sizes – but the “remuneration” won’t be a 50:50 split. It’ll be – if there are, e.g., 32 people who turn up for the Abbey – a 26:6 split. 

Twenty-six to the main guide – and six to Mary. You might just think about that for a minute. I think you’ll readily agree that there aren’t many “bosses” – many work situations – where it works that way round. 

It’s another reason why London Walks is able to attract – and keep – not just Blue Badge Guides, but the very best Blue Badge Guides!

C’est tout. 

Well, not quite tout. Seven years down the road we are now operating a booking system of sorts. Because of Covid we’re now obliged to have you hit a button and book your place. But sod that virus, that monstrosity. I’m not going to end on that note. Not on any night. But especially not on January 19th.

Going to end this way.

May we see you soon.

Good night. Happy Inauguration. Good London-ing, one and all.

Good everything. 

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