The Duke of Edinburgh once heard a visitor to Windsor asking: ‘Why did they build this castle so close to Heathrow Airport?’
Veteran guide Warren Grynberg, one of the elite Blue Badge holders who has undergone rigorous training to qualify, is not surprised. ‘I have been asked the same question myself on several occasions.’
City of London guide Yvonne Jackman was explaining the work of the St Paul’s Watch at the cathedral during the Second World War. Visitor: ‘I understand that you took down the dome and stored it in the crypt for the duration of the war?’
‘No, madam, we spent most of the war trying to keep it out of the crypt.’
Another tourist, descending from the Golden Gallery, exclaimed: ‘The view from up there is amazing – you can see the Eiffel Tower.’
‘No, sir, that is the Crystal Palace TV mast.’
Guide John Harrison overheard a colleague being asked: ‘How much does St Paul’s Cathedral weigh?’ Ever keen to help, the guide responded: ‘With or without people inside?’
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Disney does it better
Sally Empson proudly watched the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace with her tourist group. ‘After which one member commented, “Is that it? Disney does it much better!”’
Occasionally a language misunderstanding can be to a guide’s advantage. Marilyn Collis says: ‘Because Americans don’t have portcullises, they don’t know what they are. I was trying to explain it to one family by pointing to an emblem of one on the ceiling of the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey. A child piped up, “Oh, you mean that waffle thing!” So now that’s how I describe a portcullis – a “waffle thing”, only bigger!’
Then there was a German tourist who, consulting his dictionary, asked for directions to the City of London’s office tower, The Gherkin: ‘Please, where can I see the exotic pickle?’
Along London’s Embankment, when Sandra Lea gathered her party round Cleopatra’s needle an American asked: ‘Did the Egyptians invade the UK before or after the Romans?’ She attempted to explain but before she could finish was interrupted by: ‘Was that before or after the American Revolution?’
Liverpool-based Paul Beesley took a group on the famous Ferry Across the Mersey but, boarding their coach to continue the tour, two Australians in the party were missing. ‘I found them persuading a ferry crewman to clamber down a ladder with an empty bottle. They’d promised to bring back some Mersey water for ex-pat Scousers.’
Colleague Harriet Gilmour had just explained the story of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, built between 1904 and 1978, when a voice piped up, ‘So does this predate Henry VIII?’ Another surprising question was, ‘Do they still have many pagan practices in Wales… Liverpool is in Wales, right?’
According to Elaine Allen: ‘Any guide in Liverpool will tell you that at the end of a Beatles tour, after we have visited Penny Lane and Strawberry Field, you will invariably be asked, “Can we go to Abbey Road now?” We have to explain Abbey Road and the famous zebra crossing are actually in London.
‘A lady once asked me whereabouts in Liverpool Ken Dodd lived and I told her Knotty Ash. She burst out laughing and said, “No, where does he really live?”
‘Once assured that there is a suburb of Liverpool called Knotty Ash, I’ve no doubt she hurried there to see the jam butty mines and the Diddymen!’
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‘Why do you Britons build so many ruined fortresses?’
The concept of castles and other historic piles seems to confuse tourists from countries that have never built them. Sarah Cuthbert-Kerr, of National Trust Scotland, says: ‘Visitors to Falkland Palace, in Fife, often comment on how handy it is that the royal stately home, which dates from the 12th century, is in the centre of the village.’
At the entrance to Dover Castle’s secret wartime tunnels, a guide was asked, ‘Are the tunnels underground?’ And on a day when a thick sea mist drifted off the Channel, a visitor asked, ‘What time do you switch the mist off?’
While at Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, questions included, ‘Why do you Britons build so many ruined fortresses?’ Another Whitby visitor mistook Yorkshire for Transylvania and asked: ‘Is this Dracula’s castle?’
Meanwhile, in the same county a tourist at Clifford’s Tower – which dates back to the Norman Conquest – was convinced it was a lavishly decorated bouncy castle.
A classic case of mistaken identity occurred on a Royal Tarts and Tiaras tour that started from Trafalgar Square. Jen Melmore hosted a group of French visitors. ‘They gazed up at Nelson’s Column and exclaimed, “Oh, it’s Napoleon!” It took a short history lecture to convince them who it actually was.’
Her colleague Ann Chadwick was leading a Haunted Maritime Greenwich Ghost Tour when she noticed that two children were carrying empty jam jars – they’d brought them along to catch the ghosts.
Lost in translation
A party of 200 on their last night in Stratford-upon-Avon before flying to Paris were asked by guide Sandra Jack to leave their suitcases outside their room for early transport to the airport.
‘One man returned to his room rather late and, while his wife slept, took care to pack everything he could find into their case and leave it outside the door. Unfortunately, this included his wife’s clothes for the next day.
‘Waking at 6am, by which time the case was halfway to Heathrow, she had nothing to wear except what was stuffed in the hotel’s lost- property cupboard. So she flew to Paris in a raincoat and overlarge shoes – and I have no idea what she found to wear under the raincoat.’
Graham Horn recently took a private group of mainly Taiwanese on a tour of Stonehenge and other ancient sites. ‘But they were wholly unimpressed and said all they wanted to see were crop circles. I found a couple of mediocre examples and they roamed around with computer equipment, supposedly measuring electrical waves and unseen forces. They tested me too and I was told that I had “good energies”. Maybe that was because my metallic Blue Badge was tucked inside my jumper!’
Stephen Crump is 92 and a National Trust guide at Gothic revival mansion Tyntesfield, near Bristol, where he specialises in helping less able visitors get to the second floor. ‘They sometimes apologise for their lack of agility and blame their age,’ he says. ‘When I tell them mine, it rather cuts the ground from under them!’
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English Heritage, which cares for 400 historic sites, once kept a log of daft questions put to their staff – including one that would have left Queen Victoria unamused. At her Isle of Wight residence, Osborne House, a visitor, informed that the Queen had nine children, asked: ‘Did they all have the same dad?’ And another demanded in all seriousness: ‘Is this where Sharon and Ozzy actually live?’
Fact and fiction
Jacqueline Travaglia’s London events company runs a Sherlock Holmes walking tour. One young German kept asking questions about the fictional detective. ‘She wanted to know where he lived, where he went to school and where he grew up. I answered to the best of my ability, then realised why she was being so specific. She thought he was a real person.’
No pubs, please
Koy Santillo was running a haunted pub tour on Fleet Street. ‘Two guests did not want to stop at any of [the hostelries]. They said they had no idea a pub tour would go into pubs and they’d prefer not to visit them.’
John Wolfenden’s very first tour as a Blue Badge guide was with a group of keen and knowledgeable US visitors to Chester. ‘Near King Charles Tower on the city wall, I was telling them about the Civil War siege of 1645. As I spoke about Charles I's execution four years later, a lady interrupted, ‘Oh John, I'm descended from one of the regicides’.”
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Yvonne Leach was hosting a wintry coach tour of Kent with, she says, ‘a party of seemingly identical ladies in long raincoats and hoods. During a stop in rainswept Herne Bay, the bonneted brigade broke ranks and dashed towards a café.
‘I spotted two ladies huddled in a bus shelter, rushed back to rescue them and hustled them to the café where I gave them a lengthy lecture on the highlights of the area.
‘Eventually they asked, “Oh, are you a guide?”
‘Thinking they’d had little chance to see what I looked like crouched beside the driver, I said, “Yes, I’m that voice coming from the front of the coach.”
‘The ladies looked at each other in puzzlement. “What coach is that?” they asked. “We’ve just popped into town to do our shopping.”
‘Only then did the terrible truth dawn on me: I’d abducted two strangers!’