Chair of the Guild of Chester tour guides Liz Roberts has been guiding visitors and residents around the city for over 15 years.
Liz is a registered Green badge guide and became a guide when her children were young. “When we moved over to the area, they were advertising for people with languages to become tour guides.” Encouraged by her husband she passed the interview and then underwent a rigorous training programme. “Originally you could only qualify as a blue badge, it was the only available qualification. But in the year 2000/1 when I trained, it was one of the first Green badge courses in the country. To get a blue badge
it was very expensive and it covered a massive area, but the green badge covers a smaller area – a lot of people just want ed to guide locally ”
She says that training was “very solid… you can’t just turn up and be a guide. Courses have to be registered with the ITG ( Institute of Tourist Guiding) based in London. Basic training takes up to a year, but we are constantly learning new stuff – the course is just a starting point. ” Specialist training and knowledge was provided by people like Nick Fry from the Cathedral.
Liz and the guides offer two strands of guiding in Chester. The first are the public tours which take place every day of the year.
“A long time ago the tours were run by the TDU (tourism development unit) which was part of the council. The idea was , it was a service. We do a whole variety of tours where people can turn up and buy a ticket on the day and go on a tour. We do a general one, the Chester tour, we do a secret Chester one, we do the Rows tour- this is the one locals might like to go on because we go in all the hidden places, such as to the Roman mosaic in Castle gallery, all sorts of things that people either haven’t been aware of , or might have seen and wondered “what on earth is that?” We also do the walls walk which is quite a nice way to interpret the city. Its nice to have someone pointing out significant things…”
Liz also regularly delivers the popular ghost tour. I asked if she had ever seen a ghost ? “I’m not sure, things do happen on these tours!” she replies. ” That’s the whole point of ghost tours, you can never be sure. If you could prove it, there would be no mystery. You can’t prove it one way or another.. ” She says that one of the most common and famous occurrences is the rapidly changing freezer temperature in Thorntons on Eastgate st.
“That has happened a lot. People also claim they have seen things on various tours. Someone was convinced they saw the monk wandering through the ruins of St Johns.. We walked away rather quickly that night! ” Liz also remembers giving a tour to a group of scared Brownies near St John’s Church. “Just as I was starting the story the light went off…I can explain a light going off, a lightbulb goes or something, but as we got to the end of the story the lightbulb came on again. Now that I can’t explain…”
The second strand of touring covers group bookings of any kind, from schools, Women’s Institute, hen parties, businesses groups etc. These tours are pre booked and can be tailored to individual needs. “We research anything, whatever anybody is interested in, we can do a tour on.. We also do a lot of tours with the Museum and history and heritage services. This spring the museum is doing a Gothic exhibition and we always support what the exhibitions are doing. We are doing a couple of tours inside the town hall and we are also doing a couple of walks around the city. We support anything that is going on – when the Grosvenor Park reopened we did a special park tour. ” Liz says that the Guild sees itself as an “add on” to whatever is going on in the city: “When the mystery plays are on, we do Mystery play tours, anything! We always support heritage open days with free tours, and we give up our time freely. ”
Liz has also been involved in consultation over the city’s coach strategy and has drafted a 4 page document in support of this. She says that a previous Chair was involved in the Portico project which improved several aspects of the walls.
“We get asked for our input. I see ourselves as the face of our city , we interpret things and bring them to life. We pinpoint and highlight the good things, try and stay away from the bad. When things go wrong in the city, we see it. We are there every day. We report things like dog muck on the walls, dodgy handrails …We are an underused resource, but its getting better. We were pleased to be invited to the opening of the King Charles tower gardens- we meet a lot of groups from the Queen Hotel and the Westminster hotel but its a pretty ropey walk from there into the centre. You can go along the canal – it was always very scruffy approaching the walls, but now it looks fantastic.”
Reflecting on the lack of a night time economy, she says that Chester seems to be a city of two halves. “It buzzes and thrives in the day, with all the tourists and coffee shops. Then there’s a twilight period before the night life gets going- it’s when we do our ghost tours and I do notice it’s very quiet. I often think it’s a shame, because tourists come from other countries, where there’s lots going on – there’s a whole evening culture, families go out, but here it’s not the case. It would be nice to see a few things open in the evening other than just restaurants and pubs.”
There are 36 guides in Chester.. “Some more active than others. We are from all walks of life, we have so many characters, some are ex teachers, some do it as well as a full time job. You can go on a ghost tour with me, and hear my stories, then you can go on a tour another night and hear a completely different set of stories with another Guide. We all have our favourite stories, and different ways of telling things, every tour is different. There is no set route or set spiel, we just do what we do.”
“The most underrated attraction, which frustrates us, is St Johns Church. Everyone knows the Cathedral and the Clock and all the famous things. St Johns was the original Cathedral in the city going back to the 11th century. Pevsner, the great architectural writer, he absolutely raves about the arches inside the Church believing the Nave displays the finest European example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. Very few people actually venture out there. As guides we mention it on tours and on coaches. There’s so much in there – the organ is the one used at Queen Victoria’s coronation, there’s a rare wall painting of John the Baptist from the 1300s. There are some rare Saxon stones, and Rev Chesters is working very hard with little or no funding to get things displayed in a proper way. We love taking people inside.”
Liz fondly remembers her meeting last summer with the late Terry Wogan.”I always say that as a tour guide, you have to have very thick skin and be prepared for the unexpected. One of the nice treats was meeting the legend Terry Wogan. ” Liz was contacted by researchers who had been speaking to the manager at Spud-u-like. ” We work very closely and take visitors into the cellar to see the Roman hypocaust. The researchers asked me to do a piece and I was all prepared to talk about the history but I just ended up doing a promenade along the Rows with Terry and Mason!” she laughs. “I’ll never forget it, he was such a lovely man. All of the tributes that came in, I think that epitomises his character. I had just met him for the first time, I told him I was so pleased to meet him. He was so warm and such a nice character.
Liz has also featured on Escape to the Country and Radio Merseyside as well as providing “facts of the day” for Dee 106.3. “One time I was asked to do a talk at the Grosvenor hotel. I didn’t know what to expect.. and it turned out to be the Department of Trade and industry! There were people from the British embassy encouraging overseas people to invest in this country, and I was the after dinner speaker! You never know what you’re gonna get! ” she smiles.
She says that she has met so many memorable characters over the years.”Americans are my favourite, they will ask you anything, be your best friend after half an hour! They expect you to know literally anything, they even ask you what they should buy for their aunt Jess. ” She remembers a time bringing a group back from a trip to Llangollen, an elderly couple had been confused about what time to return to the coach. ” We were meeting outside the Crowne Plaza, so they knew to head back to the town hall, but they couldn’t remember where they were. It was race day, and they ended up far away by the racecourse! But they didn’t panic, they jumped into a taxi and asked to go to the Crowne Plaza. The driver gave them a very strange look: they had jumped into the back of a police car! I got a call from Inspector Brian Greenall of Chester constabulary telling me he had two confused Americans in his car. I love the people we get on tours!”
Liz admits to feeling a certain sense of frustration with the delivery of the city’s tourist offer. “Like every other walk of life there are challenges to be met in the current economic climate and we are finding new ways of making things work. I think Chester has been a little bit complacent in the past. It’s maybe taken its heritage for granted, you have to work at it. When visitors get here, you have to make sure they have a really good experience, otherwise they’ll go to York, to Edinburgh, anywhere else – we have to make sure the welcome’s here. We have the guides, the Town Crier, the Roman soldiers, we’re all part of this welcome and this interpretation. I think people have maybe worked in isolated shells, so it’s nice the city is coming together more. We are starting to appreciate each other more, and seeing what each other can do. If everyone works together, you’ll end up with a much better experience. The tourists just want a nice day out.”
She says if she could select one superpower to have, she would opt for “endless pots of money so I can get anything that needs doing, done. Its so frustrating to see buildings like Dee House falling into ruin – it could be something like the Yorvik Viking centre in York, it would be so lovely to see it as a Roman centre. We’re not making the most of what we’ve got because there’s not enough money. If I had an endless pot of money it would be so nice to put Chester where it should be!”
“15 years ago, I thought “no way, I can’t do this job” but I am so glad I did it. Its the best job in the world, I meet people all the time, and get to know everything in the city. I love seeing people’s faces, when they come to Chester and they marvel at things – it makes me look at it afresh from a new perspective. Locals get jaded, maybe take it all for granted. But just stand and take the time to look properly as if you’re visiting for the first time. It’s a great place to be!”
Thank you Liz