I’ve been lucky enough to have been doing some guided tours again recently. I was a tour guide at Hampton Court Palace for four years back in the noughties and have dabbled with guiding on and off since, and have trained others in good tour-guiding techniques at the Royal Mews, the V&A and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Mainly my tour guiding experience has been indoors, such as in Acton Court near Bristol, which is a wonderful survival of a house built especially for one of Henry VIII’s progresses in 1535. This was a gift of a job as the house was only accessible by tour, meaning there were no other visitors milling around making noise, we could take over the whole room wherever we stopped and there was virtually no furniture in any of the rooms, making each of them spacious enough for large groups. While the rooms were bigger at Hampton Court for the most part, there was an extra need to consider other visitors and not take up too much space while, at the same time, having much bigger tour groups.
This time I have been tour guiding on a bus and outdoors and instead of a tour being only an hour at most, this tour has taken the whole day, albeit with large breaks in between for informal chat, lunch or naps! I’ve been helping out a company called Tours from Antiquity which runs bus tours to Stonehenge and Avebury. The tour buses are small and the clientele are super-interested, dedicated to spending a whole day immersed in Stone Age archaeology. Of course, the big difference between this way of working and what I’ve done before is that I haven’t been guiding in period costume. I’ve had to think hard about what to wear every day!
Talking outside is obviously different and, on the whole, more difficult than talking inside. The group spread out more, the wind can take my voice, and there is often the sound of traffic to compete with. At Stonehenge there are other visitors to consider, though we get there very early when its quiet, while at Avebury and other sites this is not so much of a problem. I do what I usually do to be heard, face the group, stand comfortably so that I can comfortably project my voice, make sure I have eye contact with everyone.
What’s more difficult is crafting a tour that seeds ideas at the start of the day that can be linked back to at various points and weaving threads throughout that can be tied up at the end. I hate having a collection of unrelated facts in a tour. What makes the information memorable and meaningful is a narrative. This is difficult when one of the stops on the tour is Bath, but luckily even that Roman and Georgian town has a link back to Stonehenge. The Circus was designed by an early antiquary and architect, John Wood, who built thirty doors for the thirty sarsens in the stone circle at Stonehenge, and one of the roads that radiates from the Circus, Bennett Street, is aligned on midsummer sunrise.
Having a narrative doesn’t mean that you can’t go off on a tangent or drop in the odd interesting but unrelated fact, nor does it mean that everything has to fit neatly into a specific interpretation of the evidence. I present several models of why Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill were built and how they were used. It’s interesting to note the vistas from each, though, the alignments on midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset at Stonehenge, the view from Avebury to Silbury Hill and out from the cove vaguely towards midsummer sunrise, and the connected theme of movement around the landscape with the avenues from Durrington Walls to the Avon, the Avon to Stonehenge and back, and the avenues from (or to) Avebury to the Sanctuary and the Beckhampton enclosure and cove. I also have a second narrative alongside the first, the development of technology and techniques in archaeology and the way archaeology is done.
I can go into so much more depth and explore some very complex ideas because of the investment and commitment of the tour group and the length of time we have together. We talk about the attitude towards the past in prehistory at West Kennet long barrow where an axe-polishing stone has been incorporated into the tomb’s chamber which had clearly been used for some time and had a heritage of its own. I theorise about the change in religious ceremonies from honouring the ancestors to worshipping the sun. I explain the Early Bronze Age Wessex culture boom and bust.
Also, the informal chats in between the formal tour allows reflection and clarification, and lets me get to know more about members of the tour personally and find out if they have any personal interests that I can address. One was more interested in archaeoastronomy, a retired physics professor was interested in geophysical methods, an author wanted to know about how people lived. Finally, the tour finishes at the only pub inside a stone circle in the world and we share a beer and laughter at the end of a great day exploring some of the most iconic prehistoric sites in Britain.