Friday, 7 November 2014

The Bath Tour of All Tours

After a hard Summer of intensive tourism in and around Bath, it was finally time to offer up my tour of the Bath tours in response.

This is not a critical review of the tour, like the majority of the posts on the blog are, it is something simpler: some pictures of the tour and descriptions of what they are or what they remind me of. So, to begin, this is us in front of the Abbey where a moment later an official emerged and shooed us away with the choice words, "This is not a theatre, it's an abbey!" 

Here I am describing the horse drawn carriage tour of Bath. The carriage wasn't doing the rounds during the morning tour but in the afternoon we did cross it more than once. As you can see the group is very mixed with younger and older people, residents, students, strays and visitors all tagging along.

The City Sightseeing Bus is parked in the background and one afternoon an actual guide who gives tours for the company joined us. I make a point of only saying things I would be fully prepared to say to the people who give the tours I am talking about, but I must say that of all the stops this is perhaps the one where I give the most critical comments so I was unsure how they would be taken. I need not have been so concerned; the guide turned out to be openminded, amusing and not at all like the colleague of his I talk about on my tour. There were in fact a number of interjections from different people I talked about at different junctures of this tour. 

The tour is not all ironic jokes, as might be expected from the description of it. Whilst there is an obvious humour to the proposition of making a guided tour of tours, the tour would quickly exhaust itself if it only used the idea as a platform for gags and nothing else. Rather, the format offered a readymade way to talk about the city and its users, tourists and locals alike. I felt this tour was rather conventional, formally speaking, and it was the subject matter that marked it out as different. I suspect I'll want to stretch the formal boundaries of what constitutes a guided tour a bit further with subsequent tours, but making this one within a stricter frame was a good challenge and seemed to work well for the location.

I was particularly happy with the last minute addition of the sign on a stick. It is so simple a form of advertising that it is easy to overlook and immediately focus at online platforms and suchlike. The sign on a stick, however, did bring some people to us and, just as importantly, it provided a nice presence throughout the tour reminding us of what we were doing and announcing it to passers by too.    

Speaking of simple technology, the other item which proved incredibly useful was the portable speaker I wore around my waist and was connected to by a hands free microphone. It allowed me to be heard easily above the passing traffic in places like this stop opposite Nelson's former residence. When I took the People Behind the Plaques tour, which stopped to talk about the same building, they had to withdraw round the corner where Nelson's old digs could barely be seen, just in order to be heard. I do turn the speaker down when it is not required, it can be off-putting to be barked at unnecessarily, but more often than not, it was useful to raise the voice above the traffic and crowds that flood the city centre at weekends.  

Opposite Thermae Bath Spa I shared my experience of the Spa Audio Tour and this was interesting for the fact that people did indeed have their own opinions about the spa, its history and the process of privatisation that I introduced. What's more, they have quite different opinions with some regarding it far more favourably than others, who consider it plain robbery. One lady was so animated by the subject that she took the opportunity to go not only into the history, at some length, but also into the current campaign to heat the swimming pool with the thermal water which, she finally told us, she was one of the moving forces behind.

We cut a tourist picture walking through the streets looking for all the world like just another group on the UESCO merry go round. This forward progression came through in what I said too. Unlike some previous tours which were more episodic, this one really tried to build a narrative as it went along, drawing upon previous spots and constructing a history and frame of reference of its own. This history was not anything like a chronological one giving a history of the city or of a person, it was restricted to a history of our tour. It self-consciously built up a story of sorts from the tours, a story in which the city itself is the chief protagonist with additional voices provided by tour guides and tourists alike. 

Here we are looking at the City Trail which, I was surprised to discover, one or two people were aware of. Inviting the group to follow the trail and placing myself no longer at the front was a way to let the group play a more active role in the tour, something I liked because it got people talking to one another. This gentle encouragement to interact was effective but was always delicately balanced with a desire to avoid contriving embarrassing situations. Street entertainers tend, too often for my liking, towards the latter so I was careful to create space for those who wanted to watch in silence while setting the general tone as one that encouraged interaction between me and the public and within the tour goers too.

Here we are dowsing. I was intrigued to notice how this works for some people and not others. From observation, about two thirds of people got a response from the dowsing rods. There were one or two who were keen to make it not work as they were skeptical about the whole procedure and it seems mind might have been able to suppress the movements of the rods. What this all means I cannot say, it will have to rest as an observation.

A proper Bath weekend moment came towards the end of the tour when we were asked to bulk out a group photo for a hen party.

Finishing up at the Royal Crescent seemed to work fine and it offered us a gentle stroll back into the city centre where we repaired for food and refreshment. Over the three days I had a number of interesting conversations with people who were on the tour, each had their own take on it and on the city itself. I am fortunate to have had such generous people come along and even more so to have had one, Richard White, write about the tour on his blog, which is worth looking at more generally being based around landscape, arts and walks. He concludes, "A wonderful and surreal experience" which is in no small part due to the interventions of all the various people we encountered along the way who somehow became a part of the tour. I should conclude however, by thanking not just the inadvertent participants but also the very steady and significant practical support and advice from ICIA who commissioned the tour and visitBath who supported the project too. Thank you and see you on the next tour!

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