With restrictions easing, but overnights stays still off limits until April 12, I made a day trip to the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA), the year-round centre for remembrance in Staffordshire.
As an outdoor attraction, the Arboretum has managed to remain open throughout lockdowns and, with the Rule of Six back in force from yesterday, it’s a good place for socially distanced small gathering.
Many of the memorials, such as the Shot at Dawn memorial [pictured above], are thought-provoking and rich with symbolism.
More importantly, it offers a tranquil place for reflection set in nature to digest the events of the past year that have changed our lives beyond measure.
That could be why the Arboretum has been mooted as a potential site for a new national, government-led memorial to recognise all those who have served their community during Covid-19 pandemic, including NHS keyworkers.
The Arboretum celebrates its 20th anniversary on May 16 and I have a feature coming soon in the i newspaper — look out for details.
It’s like Chris Ansell, the Arboretum’s Head of Participation and Learning, told me this week:
“We have a responsibility to those who have given their lives for their country but also a responsibility to ourselves to take time and reflect in order to look forward with hope.”
Normally I’d be raising a glass of the black stuff to celebrate. But, like everything else, it looks be a bit different this year with Visit Ireland live streaming the craic via YouTube.
But, pre Covid, I had celebrated the big day in the west of Ireland, joining walking guide Ged Dowling to climb Croagh Patrick, the holy Irish mountain towering over County Mayo.
I had gone to discover why some 120,000 people hike the treacherous trail to the summit each year, and to learn more about the man behind the folklore-shrouded myth of St Patrick with which is it so closely associated.
Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights atop the summit of Croagh Patrick in 441AD, fasting, praying and communing with God in a lonely vigil, which established this formerly pagan peak as the new summit of Irish spirituality.
Ever since, the annual Croagh Patrick pilgrimage for St Patrick’s Day has felt like walking in his holy footsteps.
“Croagh Patrick was revered as a place of ancient spirituality long before Patrick was in town,” says Ged. “To me, it feels reassuring — like visiting an old friend.”
I made a pre-lockdown pilgrimage to Bardsey Island [pictured] in North Wales to follow in the footsteps of the ancient saints.
Here’s an extract from my latest travel-writing feature, published today.
When Pope Callixtus II decreed three pilgrimages to Bardsey to be equivalent to one to Rome, it sparked a pilgrim scramble to the remote Llyn Peninsula that lasted until The Reformation.
The medieval writer Gerald of Wales first noted the large number of pilgrims blazing a sandal-clad trail to Bardsey in 1188, many of them believing to die on the island idyll would guarantee them a place in heaven.
That’s why Bardsey is still known as the isle of 20,000 saints.
“Bardsey comes at you with all the senses: the sound of nature, the view west across the sea with the mountains behind, and the sense of ancient spirituality,” says Peter Hewlett, who arranges walking trips around the Llyn.
February 21 marks International Tourist Guide Day, celebrating tourist guides as cultural ambassadors for their home regions.
But guides — and that’s me pictured above, leading a ghost tour of Chester — haven’t had much to celebrate of late. As tourism fell victim to the pandemic, many guides found their livelihoods taken away overnight.
Some refused to give up, however. They adapted their craft for virtual tours and continue to embrace evolving technology to reinvent tourist guiding for the post-Covid recovery.
London Blue Badge Pepe Martinez was an early adopter, reimagining his themed walking tours, such as London’s old East End and Street Art, for a locked-down audience last spring.
He has since trained over 400 guides in technology-enhanced guiding skills. “I’ve guided more people in the last year than I had in the last ten. It has really opened my eyes to the value of virtual tourism,” he says.
“While they can’t recreate the visceral experience of face-to-face tours, virtual tours do offer a unique level of connectivity and interactivity that my clients have readily embraced.”
Another convert is Bath-based Fred Mawer, a Blue Badge Guide to the Southwest of England.
Fred, who is developing new, themed walking tours around Bath, sees the value of virtual tours both in their own right, and as teasers to entice potential clients.
“Virtual tours can sometimes be more effective than live tours, for example bouncing people around between locations, or zooming into details,” he says.
He has also found new practical applications having honed his virtual skills. He was recently approached by a company to conduct virtual tours of the University of Bath campus to prospective international students.
“Even when so-called ‘normality’ returns, I expect to see sustained demand for virtual tours.”
As well as the professional guiding skills of local knowledge and engaging storytelling, the secret to successful virtual tours is to keep the technology relatively simple.
While some tourist boards have invested in VR technology, Pepe guides with just Keynote (for presentations) and Zoom loaded onto his iPad. This even works for live-remote tours, such as broadcasting live from a museum.
“VR is phenomenal,” he says, “but it’s still three steps ahead of where my clients are right now.”
For Emma Fox of Manchester Guided Tours, pivoting to online tours required a new skillset.
“Keep it concise — 45 minutes with a Q&A to end. I use strong, engaging visuals, and like using Google Maps and Street View to add value,” says Emma, who is currently planning virtual tours of Worsley village in advance of the opening of RHS Garden Bridgewater in May.
“While I miss the chemistry of live tours, I’ve found the format allows for more creativity and flexibility.”
There will always be a place for the eye-to-eye contact of guides in situ of course.
Indeed, the Institute of Tourist Guiding (ITG), which represents members across England, Northern Ireland and Jersey, recently launched a pay-it-forward Blue Badge voucher scheme to gift a tour to friends and family once restrictions ease.
But, at a time of vaccine passports and £1,750 hotel-quarantine bills, technology-enhanced tours are more than just a stop gap, relieving pent-up demand for travel experiences.
Is this a chance to reinvent tourist guiding for a whole new chapter in the travel journal?
I believe so. I had started training as a Green Badge Guide to Chester and North Wales, combining my love of storytelling with street-level knowledge of my Roman-heritage home patch.
With UK staycations set to be popular again this summer, I’ve used my time during the current lockdown to develop a VoiceMap audio tour, Haunted Chester, to download to smartphones.
“Looking to the future, I think guides will work with fewer large groups and be busier in the winter months as virtual tours evolve,” says Pepe.
“And I guarantee that delivering virtual tours will be included in most, if not all, guide training in the future.”
As one of the new-generation trainee guides, it feels like guiding is overdue for a major shake-up. So, park the coach and retire the giant follow-me umbrella, the future of tourist guiding is a blended approach.