Everybody thinks they can tour guide!

I was born and grew up in the heart of Belfast: Railway Street to be precise and was able to see the Blackstaff River from my bedroom window as it meandered alongside the railway track and under the Boyne Bridge. The sound of the shunting of the railway was our bedtime lullaby and when I say ‘our’ I mean my brothers and sisters. There were five daughters and four sons and of course my mother and father all living in a two bedroom house, I know, but don’t ask! And we all ended up reasonably normal! We had a happy childhood and my mother was one of ten children and my father was one of twelve, which was not unusual for the times. The reason for this disclosure was that we had plenty of relatives to visit all over Belfast. And I loved it! The maze of streets leading in all directions meant an unceasing set of questions going through my head such as: Why was the Boyne Bridge called the Boyne Bridge when the river underneath was the Blackstaff? Why was it called the Blackstaff? I went to Kelvin School, but nobody informed me who Lord Kelvin was, although I could see his statue in the Botanical Gardens. I knew nothing about the Irish side of things in Belfast other than Ruby Murray singing ‘If you’re Irish, come into the parlour, there’s a welcome there for you’. So my curiosity was aroused with every street name, every odd building, from the G.N.R. to Christs’ Church and with every statue from the Black Man to Roaring Hanna. But I soon learned.

I became a professional tour guide about 12 years ago, with a desire to impress tourists with my knowledge and ultimately became the Chairperson of Tour Guides Northern Ireland (TGNI). In that role I went on a bus-run to L/Derry last Saturday, with about 20 trainee tour guides on what we term a familiarisation tour, to update the newer guides on what was along the route to Derry. As well as Derry itself of course. Now you would think that getting people up to speak on a coach would be easy, especially trainee tour guides, but you must remember there were a lot of ‘know-alls’ on the coach. In particular me! Well I was the warm-up act, I never start with a joke, you never can tell who won’t get it, just to say Derry filled me with dread that someone would shout out LONDON-derry! And they did! An injection of humour is OK especially if it’s aimed at yourself. I guided as far as the Castledawson roundabout when one of our trainee guides then took the microphone, this was Aidan Crean bird ringer extraordinary. There are a 100,000 birds that overwinter in the Lough Neagh basin and the Sperrins and honestly Aidan knew them all – well nearly them all! The narrative was riveting, the descriptions colourful although I was glad he didn’t do any bird calls. As we crossed the River Roe just past Dungiven the views were spectacular and again Aidan brought our minds and eyes to focus on the traditional way of life that still exists, such as the cutting of turf and the local Gaelic games. As we passed through Drumahoe we witnessed for ourselves the destruction wreaked upon Institute’s football pitch by the floods a little while back. And in no time at all we were parked beside the Guild Hall.

Time to eat!

TGNI have guides that work everywhere and we were fortunate to have John McGillan a local born Derry man to take us around. He didn’t disappoint us! We walked the walls, we talked the Fountain, and we nearly jogged the Bogside there was that much to see! From the old gaol to the Museum of Free Derry, who gave us a wonderful warm welcome by the way, as did St Columb’s Cathedral. The streets themselves are a marvel just to walk around taking in the Presbyterian Church, the Siege Heroes Museum and to see the walls from both sides accompanied by John’s narrative meant the time simply flew by. We made our way to the Craft Village which is an eye-opener creation right inside the City walls heading in the direction of the Diamond and downhill back to the Guildhall.

Time to eat!

There was so much to see, I nearly said eat and I haven’t time to describe the full itinerary here but one of our guides Joe has kindly gave us a video of the day in Derry which you can see on our facebook page. However I have to end on this, John took us up to Gobnascale to finish off the day and give us a panoramic view of Derry and its surrounding hinterland, and the sun had just come out and was shining in the right direction. Now I love Belfast and the view from Divis is impressive but this view was sensational indeed, it was literally breath-taking. And for a few seconds all of the tour guides were silent. Although it was only for a few seconds as each and every one of us expressed our gratitude to John for a great end to the day. Back on the bus John informed us that the viewpoint was where he normally took American tourists and when they ask John if he was born in Derry he tells them ‘No, he was born in the U.S.A.’. Up Stairs in Altnagelvin’!

The trip back was hilarious! The shyness had gone and the craic was great! Too many stories to tell and perhaps for another time. So if you think you can tour guide feel free to contact TGNI.

Ken Martin

Chairman of Tour Guides NI