What We Do
Why aren’t there more guided tours in Birmingham?
The guided tour is usually an independent business that needs to pay for itself. Overheads are low – there’s no product and no usually no venue: you just need enough people to turn up to make it worthwhile. That means having a broad appeal to hook people in, and the standard guided tour is usually a round up of the top 5 buildings, biographies of the civic dignitaries of yesteryear, then a visit the commercialised canal areas in time for lunch. There’s also the ghost tour.
The Still Walking outlook is that there are plenty of other subjects suitable for guided tours. And rather than train established tour guides to be knowledgeable or passionate about those subjects, it makes more sense to help people who are already knowledgeable in their subject to develop a guided tour. These then become genuinely revealing introductions to how the various layers of the city work, and we have found that people enjoy rediscovering their city. There are usually plenty of surprises and subjects covered that people never guessed were subjects. The process is pretty open and anyone can get involved (click on the mentoring tab above for more information about how this happens).
It also turns out that there are plenty of walking events going on in the city that don’t have a central point to be listed and experienced. I’d love to see Birmingham have a huge calendar of walking events that covered the whole range of experiences that walking can be about: people walk for exercise, as a social experience, as a means to explore or learn new information, for mental well-being, for performance or artistic reasons and of course as a means of transport. It’s usually very cheap to do, involves no overheads or special equipment and is generally a very sustainable activity. There’s a passing-on quality too: people are often inspired to share what they learn or experience themselves.
The key to making this happen is to work with partner organisations and funding bodies who want be involved with the kind of work that Still Walking creates. This year, Still Walking is funded by the Arts Council of England for the first time, and the event will see artists and creative people from different backgrounds developing and adapting their work specifically for Birmingham. The festival is equally about developing audiences. The mixed programme can introduce an audience from one background to a new area or experience via the focal point of walking. Thus an arts audience may be introduced to aspects of town planning, or heritage buffs may be introduced to a performance piece by a movement artist. Wherever you have come from, Still Walking dares you to stray from the path.
Still Walking is also available for consultation. The audience for any guided tour assembles curious and active individuals keen to explore and learn as a leisure pursuit and represent a key audience demographic for many organisations. The audience also tend to perpetuate the experience of the tour by subsequently sharing what they have learnt with other people. Knowing which moments are likely to engage a group and keep them interested during and beyond the tour is a specialist skill that can only be gained from experience. Recently, Still Walking has advised on creating new guided tours and walking experiences from a variety of organisations across the country. This might involve working with locally knowledgable people and volunteers to create a package of tours, advising on researching, learning, promoting, training and rehearsing. Still Walking has also been running “seeing” workshops: short courses in learning how to notice intriguing moments and teasing out narratives from the urban fabric, whether by slowing our pace, altering our gaze, allowing ourselves to be baffled, asking questions and then following them up with research, answers and perhaps more questions.
“Nervous but excited!”
“I’m not an expert.”
“I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”
In What We Do I give the background to festival: its aims and activities. But what actually happens when I help a guide shape up a tour? This section describes the mentoring process a bit more and uses a recent tour as a case study.
There’s a moment when I’m talking with somebody when their regular referencing of their fascination with something sounds a klaxon and I realise that their knowledge might make an excellent guided tour. I usually ask outright if they are interested in creating a guided tour for Still Walking. If they immediately sound interested, intrigued but slightly apprehensive, I know the tour is going to happen. The experience allows you to share your knowledge, meet like-minded people, sharpen your communications skills and try out something new that will challenge yourself. But like anything, doing it for the first time can be a nerve-fraying experience.
Once they ask what it would involve, I know they are visualising the walk already and that alone can make it a reality. I explain what my support role would be and what my motivation is. The first step is to work out exactly what is needed for the tour to happen. Can the guide identify enough nearby examples of the subject to allow a 90 minute exploration on foot? Too few and it could be a problem. Too far away might also create difficulties. 8 – 10 different examples within a mile radius is ideal.
How well does the guide know the subject? Is any extra research necessary? Has the guide already done some new (and exclusive) research into an aspect of their interest? I do a lot of research and can help the guide find answers. I ask to see the various locations with the guide and suggest how they will be seen by the audience, and also how I see it. It’s surprising what people actually find intriguing – seemingly slight, insignificant details are often the most memorable. And it’s often those details that I notice first. In this sense, I’m challenging the guide to rethink their subject from another perspective.
Sometimes guides want to start at the deep end, with very specialist knowledge that skips the backstory. I encourage them to provide the backstory and occasionally lead into advanced areas later on in the tour. Guides sometimes want to include everything they know (sharing knowledge is addictive) and I encourage them to edit their content. A few diverse examples within easy walking distance and over about 90 minutes is about right. Choosing a route is a skill in itself: it should be evenly spaced, the route should never double back and it should last about 70 – 90 mins. If possible, to minimise road-crossing. It is a sweet moment when this falls together naturally but it usually requires some shaping and ruthless editing.
The style of delivery depends on the character of the guide and what they actually want people to get from the experience. Some want to raise awareness, others want to teach specific information, while another guide’s approach might seek to entertain a group as much as inform. I generally like to see a mix – the guided tour can be many things.
Once a theoretical route is in place, the guide can get on with researching some of the content as necessary. Sometimes the route may need to go into private land or even indoors so I try to facilitate access and approval from the owner. When the content is in place, we can test the tour on a small group of friends. This can still be an anxious moment but usually takes the edge off doing the public event for the first time. The practice tour allows an opportunity to test the content – sometimes what the guide and I think is strong material actually falls flat. It can help determine the best place to stand for the group to all be able to see and hear. How long it actually takes to do can be surprising too – it usually runs over. Most guides report that once delivery was flowing and people showed their interest it became easier to do, but that more conversation meant it laster a lot longer.
It’s important to know how to pitch and promote the event. It’s fine to announce that the tour is an exercise in sharing moments of personal interest, rather than meeting an expert. Many people will feel they have met an expert by the end of the tour. The programme and website event descriptions should be clear and inviting.
There’s another level to know about too: the managing of people. Ticket holders may not reveal themselves at the beginning of the tour. They may stand at the back but not be able to hear. They may stand in the road rather than on the pavement. They may correct you with misinformation. Other people may join the group en route. Some may disappear without explanation. Someone may disrupt the event, either intentionally or not. What to do then? It’s worth being prepared. At the end of the tour, there is a social moment which can be treated as a networking opportunity. And beyond the tour, there is the question of what to do with it next and following new directions inspired by the event. A tour can often form a focus for new research and information coming to light. I’m there to help the guide get the best out of the experience at each stage.
There are many forms of walking event; the guided tour being just one. Some are more like themed journeys by foot where exercise or a social moment is the focus, the content merely shaping the route. Performance events by waking artists are another area again: the current festival will see events by sketchers, movement artists, composers and creative industry professionals, all looking to expand their repertoire. Me offering some local knowledge can help them get the most from their event . It’s rare I don’t offer anything at all but sometimes all that is needed from me is to stage the event. It’s also rare that I co-ordinate the entire walk for somebody else but in the right circumstances this may be what needs to happen. I generally seek to facilitate them creating the tour they want to do without it appearing to be shaped or devised by me.
I recently asked Neil Holland, who led the recent “Hidden in Plain Sight: the Sculpture of William Bloye” walk if he would write a few notes about his experience. It was a wonderful tour with plenty of genuine discoveries and I felt it exemplified the Still Walking experience.
A few years ago I stumbled across this book in my local library. I was doing some work with the local museums and was brushing up on a bit of local art and history so borrowed it. One of the things that struck me almost immediately was that a staggering proportion – nearly one in five of the 270 works listed were by one man, and a man I’d never heard of. William Bloye and his workshop were tremendously prolific in the work they produced, predominantly as architectural adornment and mostly for buildings within Birmingham.
I then made it my mission to track down as many of these as I could, using my lunch hours from working in the Alpha Tower to walk round small clusters of the sculptures and take quick snapshots of those in the city centre. Occasionally I wandered further afield when I got the opportunity.
I wasn’t able to attend any of last year’s Still Walking festival because of family commitments but followed the goings-on via the blog and twitter. I saw mention of one of the Bloye sculptures in the post on the Birmingham Gothic tour and left a comment clarifying what a part of the sculpture is.
It occurred to me at the time that a tour of Bloye’s work might make an interesting tour, but again that was as far as the thought progressed.
Fast Forward a few months and I noticed the Still Walking Twitter account had posted a couple of pictures of Bloye’s pub signs along the Stratford Road – I replied pointing out that I’d considered a pub crawl of those bearing his work could be quite interesting, and sent over a link to the google map I’d put together.
When Ben contacted me to suggest turning this into a tour for a future Still Walking festival I was very excited, but also very nervous. I’m not an expert on sculpture or architecture or Birmingham history, only having what I’ve picked up in the last few years. I wasn’t sure that I’d be sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to get away with putting myself forward as a tour guide. And would anyone even be interested in coming?
I agreed to meet Ben to discuss this as an idea having thought about it quite a lot, about the possibilities of how it could work but wasn’t really confident that it would work.
When we met we discussed options, Ben talked me through what a tour guide could or should actually do and some of the obstacles that can be faced and how to deal with them. Stragglers, hangers on, and countless other things that could crop up mid-tour. Ben also pointed out a few issues to consider that probably wouldn’t have occurred to me, things like accessibility, the best times and days to run the tour.
He helped me focus the tour on a specific area and we settled on a rough route to take. Talking it through reassured me about the subject matter and also my knowledge of it – having to talk through it all and answer questions (or of course admit I didn’t know something) was really useful. The fact that I knew things that someone I considered to be a bit of a Birmingham buildings expert didn’t was a bit of a boost too!
So we progressed from there, batting backwards and forward ideas over the next couple of months before the 2013 SW mini-fest came to be and Ben asked me to run this as the opening tour of the weekend.
A couple of weeks before it was scheduled to take place I became quite ill. Ben was very kind and made it very clear that we could easily postpone it, and that would be no problem. I probably should have taken his advice and not gone ahead with it but the weather looked like it was going to be nice and I didn’t want to let people down. Plus, I was still nervous and knew that postponing that would probably make it worse!
I was really pleased that it was a sell-out, though I must admit I didn’t think that was going to happen! Ben and I did a run through beforehand and talked through all the details, making a final few tweaks. And in the end it all seemed to go well – the sun shone and people seemed to genuinely enjoy it. I was nervous to start with but as we moved on I got into my stride a bit.
Ben’s input was really useful – it gave me the back-up and support I needed and the confidence to actually go ahead and do it without being overpowering or forcing me to do the tour in any particular way. It felt very much like it was his festival, but the tour was mine. His was a curatorial/ supportive role and having his knowledge and experience behind me was very inspiring.
As a result of doing the tour I’ve made a few contacts to be able to do further research into Bloye’s work and his life and very much hope to carry that forward into potentially further tours and writing about Bloye to boost public knowledge of him and his work. This is something that had been in the back of my mind since early on discovering his work in the public sculpture book, but without Ben’s support I probably would never have taken it any further.
I’m also half on the lookout for other subjects that would make interesting tours. I genuinely enjoyed passing on knowledge to people and would like to think I could do it again. Walking the tour through with Ben beforehand was also really useful as he would notice things I hadn’t, and I find myself now picking up on things I’d have perhaps missed in the past.
Many thanks, Neil! I’m certainly not an expert; like you I just enjoy sharing stuff.
There are several different ways you can get involved with Still Walking.
The obvious one is to come along and take part in one of our events. We find that the participants often have interesting things to contribute to the tours as we go along. Sign up to the news mailing list for notifcations of up-coming events. Once you’ve been on a walk, the conversation doesn’t have to end there. We are @StillWalkers on Twitter and will be looking out for use of the #StillWalkers hashtag. We also have a Flickr group if you’d like to share photos with us: www.flickr.com/groups/stillwalkers/
If you’d like to support the festival by volunteering, then get in touch. We generally appreciate offers of assistance in helping distribute programmes, collecting in tickets at the start of events and writing articles for our blog. Do let us know if you think you can help out in other ways!
If you’re harbouring a tour or other walking experience that you’d like to run as a guide at a Still Walking event, then we’re also keen to hear from you. As you may have gathered by now we have a pretty open definition of what we think is interesting, so contact us and pique our curiosity. Don’t worry if you’re new to guiding – we run a mentoring scheme and are happy to discuss ideas and work with you to develop the piece. We have a mailing list for Guides – sign up to this if you want to receive our calls for new walks and events.
In the lead up to the festival we are running a Kickstarter campaign. This allows you to invest in the festival and receive rewards such as thanks, Still Walking art prints, special exclusive walks and other exciting personalised events. All the funding raised goes into supporting and shaping the work of the guides.
Last, but by no means least, you can make things happen by donating some money. Still Walking is run on a lot of good will, but there are some things that require cash. Any contribution you make will be gratefully received and put to good use supporting more great stuff in the future. Just click on the button below to be taken to a Kickstarter page where you can make your donation.
Still Walking was conceived in 2011 by artist / historian / typophile / tour guide guide Ben Waddington after it became apparent that if he wanted a festival of interesting walking tours he would have to organise it himself. Still Walking is also made possible by a legion of guides, a cohort of volunteers, generous support from various organisations and of course everyone who attends the walks.
Not yet a Still Walker? Join us!