Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Working in the West 3: Wednesday

Today was my last day with the group and was just as enjoyable as the others.

We headed out first through the rather drizzly Northern edge of the Mendips for a quick photo stop at the "Rock of Ages" in Burrington Combe before stopping in Wells. To my surprise, most of the group followed me ("Go away, I'm not the Messiah! I'm a very naughty boy!") for a look at the Cathedral precincts, Vicars' Close and the Bishop's Palace. Then there was time for free time, so to speak. Luckily, there was a nice craft market on today, which people seemed to enjoy.

Then it was more of the Mendips, this time with a descent of Cheddar Gorge for a visit to the Cheddar Showcaves. Although the Caves themselves are as amazing as ever, I did think that the surroundings (shop, cafe, etc.) really are looking ab it tired, cheap even and could do with a bit of a polished make-over. Very friendly staff, though, which is always worth a mention.

Then we headed back to the hotel along one of my favourite roads, the one up through Rodney Stoke with some views of the Somerset Levels and distant Glastonbury Tor.

There, I took my leave of the group and threw myself on the mercy of the M5 home.

Although I've missed being at home (couldn't tour all the time, as I used to) they were a very pleasant group with a pretty well thought out itinerary and they've been good company. Wish all my jobs were like this!

Back to reality and a full day in Birmingham tomorrow!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Working in the West 2: Tuesday

Now sitting back in my hotel room enjoying tea and a biscuit. Is there no limit to the exotic nature of my work?

Well, I've survived the second day with my (delightful) group and handling their visit to Bath. Er, even if I've had a lot of good-natured ribbing from them about how to pronounce “Bath”. (They're from the North West and pronounce it with a short “a”, where as I use a long “a”!)

Some of the people have some mobility issues and Bath - however you pronounce it – isn't the easiest place. I spent a lot of time last night working out a contorted route to cover as much from the coach as possible and it seemed to work and I covered most things.

Incidentally, I've not been the the Roman Baths complex itself for quite a while and so accompanied the group in there today. Apart from the slightly abrasive lady “welcoming” them (who would obviously have been much happier if we'd not sullied her attraction by actually turning up), it really was superb. The new audio guides are some of the best I've used and of course the place itself really is rather magical. The only down side was being mown down outside by large tour groups on the way in struggling to fit in Salisbury, Stonehenge and The Cotswolds with their visit here.

Afterwards, for the fitter amongst the group I did a little walk. Needing a coffee afterwards, I went back to the same place for another.

“Haven't you been in already?” said the unsmiling staff member there in a tone which suggested that he'd been to the same charm school as Roman Baths Woman. Presumably few people come back there for more.......

Still, locals in the service industry aside, Bath really is a pleasure to visit.

The hotel we're at deserves a mention, too. It's called The Centurion (just off the Fosse Way, you see!) a “Best Western”, independently owned, which tend to be good but this one really has excelled so far. The staff are switched on and all seem to be English, two facts which aren't often combined in the UK's service industry.

Mendips, Wells and Cheddar tomorrow.......

Monday, 21 September 2009

Working in the West 1: Monday

I'm away on tour at the moment, writing this in my hotel room in Midsomer Norton. This is a former mining village in Somerset and absolutely nothing to do with John Nettles solving murders. It is, however, the birthplace of Anita Harris. Eat your heart out Stratford-upon-Avon!

They're a nice group and it's a good coach driver. The driver is significant, actually, as this job was supposed to be with my much-missed coach driver friend Grahame, who died very suddenly earlier this year. Grahame had actually suggested me as a guide to this group, making the job all the more poignant.

Anyway, we spent today sightseeing in Bristol. I love doing Bristol tours; they give me a real "lift" as the place is such a lovely mixture of things: good stories, some fabulous buildings, lots of history and some interesting contemporary things, too. Some people enjoy painting, some playing musical instruments and some (apparently) playing sport. I get that same sort of enjoyment from just showing places to people.

Tomorrow we're on something more of a tourist trail, going to Bath. I'll let you know how it goes.......

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Better Late Than Never

Teachers come in for a lot of stick these days. Sometime rightly so and sometimes not.

However, I’ve been thinking today a lot about some of mine who inspired me to be interested in certain things, especially two primary school teachers, Mrs. Goodyear and Mr. Finney. Happily, we remember good teachers at least as much as we remember bad ones. This is just as well as I’m happy to go on record saying that my schooldays were often the most unhappy of my life.

Not that it was all bad. Not quite all. I remember enjoying the various school visits we did. I’m sure that my fascination with old buildings stems from a visit to the then-nascent Avoncroft Museum of Buildings at the age of about six. Birmingham's Aston Hall made another big impact, as did Harvington Hall, the first place I remember learning about religious persecution.

From Secondary school we had a very detailed visit to the Ironbridge Gorge Museums in about 1979, somewhere where, by a strange twist of fate, I’ve been working today.

It took 30 years but what we were taken to see and were shown that day in 1978 did – honestly! – come in useful this morning. Better late than never!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Broadcasting: ABC Defends BBC!

If you get the chance, take a look at

After last month’s stinging attack on the BBC by News International’s James Murdoch, the Director of Australia’s ABC, Mark Scott, has provided an interesting different viewpoint.

For those of you that don’t know, the ABC is effectively Australia’s Beeb. It’s publicly funded (by direct taxation, rather than a licence fee) and has no advertising. They even call it “Auntie” there! Like the BBC it provides a wide range of programming and services and has commissioned splendid programming which might surprise those UK readers used to a diet of Aussie soaps or memories of Skippy.

However, it differs from the BBC in one very important respect: it does not in any sense dominate its market. Its shows seldom if ever top the television or radio ratings. It is there to sustain the public good, to provide things that ought to be there but (and I really don’t mean this offensively) in national life, it matters less than the BBC does here. A pity and Australia is the poorer for it (but the richer for having an ABC at all).

Of course, not having a licence fee to create income, the ABC is considerably less well off than the BBC and the technical aspects of serving such a vast country are very costly. Australia did once have a licence system but it was abolished over thirty years ago. (In the earliest days of Australian radio, you even bought different sets, each tuned to one station and then “sealed”, with some of the income from the sale going to a particular broadcaster. One of the wackiest broadcasting funding solutions I’ve ever seen!)

However, one strength of the licence system is that it is robust; it gives the BBC a good income which they can spend on good services, plain and simple. The ABC is just one of many things all begging for government money in Canberra; and broadcasting is bound to come down the pecking order when competing with things like healthcare, defence and education.

So it was very interesting to read a report (on the ABC’s own excellent website) of a speech made by the ABC’s Managing Director Mark Scott, at the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. In it, he defended the role of broadcasters like the BBC and ABC and had the courage to say that James Murdoch’s real agenda was “less about making a contribution to public policy than it is getting rid of the BBC's services, effectively destroying the BBC as we know it - a tragedy for the UK - a tragedy for the world”.

Quite right, Mark. Next time there’s a vacancy for Prime Minister Down Under, I hope you’re in the running. Actually, you might fancy giving it a go here in Britain instead…….

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

If It’s Wednesday it Must Be England

I took a very pleasant overseas group to Warwick Castle the other day. Nothing unusual in that you might think. However, the group had exactly one hour to see the Castle, the second largest in Britain.

After that they headed off for lunch before spending the afternoon travelling to…….York! (They asked me if there “was anything to see” there, by the way. Not sure they’d or their “tour manager” had done a lot of preparation for this trip.)

After one solitary night there, they were then on to Edinburgh. Just for a day you understand.

No wonder people always look so tired and confused on these Round Britain tours.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Night in Provence!

We watched the magnificent Jean de Florette last night.

Either my French has deteriorated to an embarrassing degree or else the provencale dialects there were really quite something.

Not a feel good factor film by any stretch of the imagination but really quite spectacular.

All being well, it’s Manon des Sources ce soir!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Splashing Around is Disarray

There are always pressures on local authorities. Lots of things competing for their atention, their support and above all their ever scare money.

I do understand that. I really do.

But what is it about local authorities that makes them so incapable of dealing effectively with swimming pools?

Last month Sedgemoor District Council in Somerset dealt the death knell to their popular "Sedgemoor Splash" pool in favour of a new Tesco and now - after an equally valiant fight -Dudley Council in the West Midlands have decided that, no, Coseley Baths must go too. See .

Yes, they are expensive to run and to maintain. But they are, like street lights, parks, refuse collections and libraries, "services we maintain for the common good". In any case, swimming pools are a basic, simple and healthy way of keeping people of all ages entertained and occupied.

Yes, money is tight for councils. It is for everyone at the moment. That's presumably why, at their meeting on 13 July 2009, Dudley's Councillors voted to increase their basic pay from £7,419 to £9,300. Then they backdated it to April 2009.

And they wonder why they're unpopoular.