Gillian (or Lady, as we call her) is a lucky gal — she's made a career out of showing off her hometown and beloved country. Part professor and part entertainer, she's been energetically leading tour groups through London and Britain for nearly a decade (and boy are their feet tired). Gillian paused long enough to answer a few questions for us…
If you could magically become a tour guide in any other city in the world, would you?
No, although I love Paris, Rome, Prague, and many other cities, there is nowhere on earth as great as London with all its history, culture, and diversity. I am lucky to be a guide in the most fabulous city, so why would I want to guide anywhere else? I will add that I am an Italophile and have loved leading a few Italy tours for Rick in most falls. I love the variety.
What makes London especially challenging or rewarding for a guide?
The most stressful aspect for me personally is guiding in the British Museum when half the population of London's schools are excitedly charging around shouting at the tops of their little voices! However, it is extremely rewarding to guide in London as there is such an abundance of history, exciting new projects and architecture, eccentric traditions and people, and always so much on offer.
What is a Blue Badge and what's involved in getting one?
The Blue Badge is the professional qualification for guides in Britain. Acquiring the badge involves taking a course run the by Institute of Tour Guides, which covers history, art and architecture, geography, geology, law, politics, royalty, education, etc. For the London badge, we must also pass written and practical exams for all major sites: Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, Tower of London, British Museum, National and Tate Galleries, as well as coach guiding and walks. It is similar to "The Knowledge" on which London taxi drivers are tested — they must know every street within a six-mile radius in central London, and we must know practically every building! When I passed exams in all units, I was awarded my Blue Badge.
In 2012 I worked as a Blue Badge guide to the Olympic sights in London. That was fun and challenging — getting a behind-the-scenes look at the many sports venues and learning about their construction. It was good that I was able to guide in the Olympic sights, as overall tourism was down in London that year.
Is there anything that makes a Rick Steves group different from another tour?
Rick Steves groups are generally better informed, more interested, and better prepared for what's in store than many other tour groups. I once asked some tour members why they thought this was the case, and they replied that it was possibly because many of our people watch public television, which is apparently more edifying and educational than the commercial channels! Others suggested that Rick's philosophy draws open-minded people who are curious about everything. Whatever the reason, our groups are a pleasure to work with and a major reason why I enjoy working for Rick Steves.
What are the oddest questions you've been asked?
Oh, there is a lot of competition here. A lady once asked why there was a beeping noise on our traffic-light controlled crossings. I explained that it was to let blind people know that there was a crossing and that the light was green. Obviously not understanding that I was referring to pedestrians, she was horrified that we allowed blind people to drive on our roads.
Another one was when I was touring in Scotland and we were driving past lots of fields full of sheep. A lady asked me what all the sheep did at night. I replied that some went to the local pub, some to the disco, but mostly they just stayed in the fields.
You're known for your sense of humor. Does this help you in your work?
I think a sense of humor is vital in my job. Sometimes things don't go as planned and it helps to diffuse a situation if I can get people to see the funny side. Often during those unplanned moments, my tour members have the most fun. Also, I feel that people are on their holidays and should be having fun, not just being given a constant stream of facts, so I try to be as entertaining as possible. I love to make people laugh!
What's the best part about being English?
The cuisine!!! (which today has become very tasty). Seriously, it's living in a stunningly beautiful country that has so much to offer in terms of countryside, history, culture, and friendly (mostly) people who don't take themselves too seriously, and have a great sense of humour.
Here's what Gillian won't tell you...but her tour members will:
"WOW!!! We loved Gillian. How could she possibly know so much about art, history, and culture. And she was so much fun! I loved her sense of humor. She was also very concerned about our safety and comfort. I cannot speak highly enough of Gillian. She was amazing."
— Patricia in Massillon, OH