Why aren’t there more guided tours in Birmingham?
The guided tour is usually an independent business that needs to pay for itself. Overheads are low – there’s no product and no usually no venue: you just need enough people to turn up to make it worthwhile. That means having a broad appeal to hook people in, and the standard guided tour is usually a round up of the top 5 buildings, biographies of the civic dignitaries of yesteryear, then a visit the commercialised canal areas in time for lunch. There’s also the ghost tour.
The Still Walking outlook is that there are plenty of other subjects suitable for guided tours. And rather than train established tour guides to be knowledgeable or passionate about those subjects, it makes more sense to help people who are already knowledgeable in their subject to develop a guided tour. These then become genuinely revealing introductions to how the various layers of the city work, and we have found that people enjoy rediscovering their city. There are usually plenty of surprises and subjects covered that people never guessed were subjects. The process is pretty open and anyone can get involved (click on the mentoring tab above for more information about how this happens).
It also turns out that there are plenty of walking events going on in the city that don’t have a central point to be listed and experienced. I’d love to see Birmingham have a huge calendar of walking events that covered the whole range of experiences that walking can be about: people walk for exercise, as a social experience, as a means to explore or learn new information, for mental well-being, for performance or artistic reasons and of course as a means of transport. It’s usually very cheap to do, involves no overheads or special equipment and is generally a very sustainable activity. There’s a passing-on quality too: people are often inspired to share what they learn or experience themselves.
The key to making this happen is to work with partner organisations and funding bodies who want be involved with the kind of work that Still Walking creates. This year, Still Walking is funded by the Arts Council of England for the first time, and the event will see artists and creative people from different backgrounds developing and adapting their work specifically for Birmingham. The festival is equally about developing audiences. The mixed programme can introduce an audience from one background to a new area or experience via the focal point of walking. Thus an arts audience may be introduced to aspects of town planning, or heritage buffs may be introduced to a performance piece by a movement artist. Wherever you have come from, Still Walking dares you to stray from the path.
Still Walking is also available for consultation. The audience for any guided tour assembles curious and active individuals keen to explore and learn as a leisure pursuit and represent a key audience demographic for many organisations. The audience also tend to perpetuate the experience of the tour by subsequently sharing what they have learnt with other people. Knowing which moments are likely to engage a group and keep them interested during and beyond the tour is a specialist skill that can only be gained from experience. Recently, Still Walking has advised on creating new guided tours and walking experiences from a variety of organisations across the country. This might involve working with locally knowledgable people and volunteers to create a package of tours, advising on researching, learning, promoting, training and rehearsing. Still Walking has also been running “seeing” workshops: short courses in learning how to notice intriguing moments and teasing out narratives from the urban fabric, whether by slowing our pace, altering our gaze, allowing ourselves to be baffled, asking questions and then following them up with research, answers and perhaps more questions.