Mad about Tours: Bath Tour Company Marks 15 Years
|Maddy Raithby and her son, Theo, pull a cracker for the camera in the Rick Steves' European Christmas special.|
By Jennifer Madison Davis
If you call to book a minibus tour with Mad Max Tours in Bath, England, odds are you'll speak with company founder Maddy.
A former advertising executive, Maddy, 40, started Mad Max Tours in 1991 with a single used minibus. Her first assistant was Max, a bright-eyed, floppy-eared dog adopted from the rescue center.
"Max would sit in the front of the bus and eye all the tourists. He'd always find the people who missed their dogs at home and go sit on their laps," recalled Maddy. "Mad Max" is an amalgam of their two names.
From their base in Bath, Maddy's tours today visit the stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, along with tiny hamlets such as Lacock Village and Castle Combe. She says familiar names draw people to a tour, but what they really appreciate is the unexpected surprise of beautiful places they knew nothing about. "You've really got to get off the Roman road and onto the country lanes," said Maddy.
Maddy admits winding down a one-lane cow path can be a white-knuckle experience for even a veteran tour guide, especially with Rick Steves at the wheel.
"This was years ago. Rick wanted to do some research in the Cotswolds and set off driving this hired car with me in the passenger seat. I'm not very comfortable with other people driving, so when he finally asked if I wanted to drive I was relieved," recalled Maddy.
"But then he said, 'I just want to get on the roof and see what people would see if they were in a minibus.' So I drove along, very slowly, with Rick taking notes on the roof. I was a nervous wreck. Rick, typically, was very enthusiastic about it."
Maddy doesn't generally let tour members on the roof, but her tours do go out of their way to make lasting memories.
Rather than disgorging tour members in the center of a village already crowded with tour buses, Mad Max tours stop on the outskirts and walk in along cobbled lanes. And when they visit Stonehenge, the tours go early in the morning, giving tourists an unforgettable first impression of the ancient stone circle rising up over the horizon. "Stonehenge was an amazing feat of technology for an unknown purpose. We try to get back to that sense of wonder," Maddy said.
Maddy and husband Paul have deliberately kept the company small, with three minibuses, six part-time driver/guides, and just three tours a day. To help protect the environment, their minibuses use vegetable-based diesel fuel.
In recent years Maddy's attention has shifted more to administration. "I do miss the guiding, but I am grateful to have a business that has allowed me to be a mum as well, although the edges do get blurred," said Maddy. She and Paul have two children, Theo, 8, and Liela, 4.
Bath is Paul's hometown and Maddy has lived here for 20 years. Despite the city's size — 170,000 people — it's still small enough that Maddy constantly bumps into people she knows on the street.
Maddy recommends making Bath your first overnight stay in England — it's a simple bus or bus-and-train ride from London's Heathrow Airport. "Bath is easy. You can get your bearings here, take a deep breath and relax after your long flight," she said. "It strengthens you to travel the rest of England."
She says summertime crowds give the city a festive atmosphere, especially in the evenings when the avenues fill with people dressed for a night of dining or theater. "Bath was built for pleasure — first the Romans, then the Georgian socialites. They loved to promenade and that's one of the best things people can do on a visit to Bath — walk the city," said Maddy.
In between planning tours and running the kids to football and ballet, Maddy hasn't yet had time to visit one of the other hometown pleasures: the Thermae Bath Spa, which finally opened in August 2006 at the site of the original Roman baths.
Maddy could have used a spa day in October 2004, when Rick phoned her up to ask if Europe Through the Back Door could film thefamily celebrating Christmas — two weeks early — as part of the Rick Steves' European Christmas book and DVD.
"I'm no domestic goddess, so the prospect left me completely petrified," said Maddy. "Our house is very small. The Christmas tree took up most of the front room and when you add a four-person film crew, two cats and one challenging two-year-old who refuses to brush her hair or change her clothes...well."
The family was filmed making holiday treats, opening gifts on Christmas Eve and enjoying other Bath traditions. "We had some lovely times. It genuinely focused our thoughts on what makes Christmas special," said Maddy, adding that when her children watch now the DVD they believe that was the real Christmas, not the one that followed two weeks later.
It wasn't the first time Rick has put Maddy on the spot. Once he called her less than 30 minutes before a live radio show, asking if she could go on air to offer her insight into Stonehenge's fabled "ley lines." She said she needed a glass of wine that night to recover.
Maddy's longtime canine companion, Max, has passed on, but the family plans to welcome a new puppy this spring. Maddy hopes Max the Second will follow in his namesake's footsteps, welcoming tourists with a shaggy face and wagging tail.
For more information on Mad Max Tours from Bath to Stonehenge, Avebury, and the Cotswolds, visit www.madmaxtours.co.uk or call Maddy at 011-44-7990-505-970.