This is what it's like to work as a Blue Badge tour guide in Yorkshire

Kirsty Wardle has seen her life change drastically since the Tour de France came to Yorkshire in 2014.

Castle Howard
Castle Howard

The incredible international response to the Grand Depart inspired the former architectural historian, who worked for English Heritage and the National Trust for over 20 years, to train as a Blue Badge tour guide.

The 18-month qualification marks its holders as being part of an elite group of professional guides - the creme de la creme of the British tourist industry.

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Brodsworth Hall

Five years on, Kirsty, who lives in Coneysthorpe, a Castle Howard estate village, has established her own client base and organises bespoke tours via booking agencies. She takes visitors to Harewood House, York Minster, Brodsworth Hall and many other Yorkshire attractions, and her driver is a former chauffeur who worked for the Royal Family.

One of her niches has become Downton Abbey-themed itineraries, which she set up to capitalise on overseas interest in the ITV period drama. Although the original series were not filmed in Yorkshire, the fictional Downton estate is supposedly located near Ripon, and Kirsty instead takes clients - many of them wealthy Americans - to country houses similar to those that appear on screen.

The tours have enjoyed a surge in popularity since it was announced that the Downton Abbey spin-off feature film, which hit cinemas last week, would be shot in Yorkshire, using locations including Harewood House, Wentworth Woodhouse, Pickering Station, Duncombe Park and Little Germany in Bradford. Kirsty was even an extra in the movie, and so has plenty of behind-the-scenes knowledge.

Gaining a prestigious Blue Badge

Wentworth Woodhouse

"After the Tour de France, it became apparent that there weren't enough Blue Badge tour guides in Yorkshire - the Institute of Tour Guiding hadn't trained anyone in 18 years! A course was set up and I spotted it about a week before it started and decided to just go for it.

"I am now a full-time guide, working on a freelance basis. We create our own work and build up our client bases - I specialise in high-end American visitors.

"York is the 'hub' and I arrange everything that they want to see. I started offering the 'Downton experience' tours via my agents in London and the US, and I would take them to country houses like Harewood, Castle Howard and Brodsworth Hall. There is also a lunch stop and tour of a private stately home owned by a real aristocratic lady which is exclusive to me.

Harewood House

"When the Downton film was actually shot here, that was a massive boost for me - it's been brilliant. I've now added Wentworth Woodhouse to the itinerary."

Horses for courses

Kirsty's clients come from all over the world, and all have different preferences and requirements.

"Next week I have groups of Japanese and Polish visitors who are coming for the UCI World Championships cycling, so they want a walking tour of Leeds. A group from the US are interested in James Herriot, so we're going to the All Creatures Great and Small locations. Indian guests are often keen to see the rivers, so I take them to the Ouse in York.

Pickering Station

"Everyone is blown away by Castle Howard and York Minster - they are the show-stoppers. People are wowed by the Dales too. Yorkshire has so much to offer and it's so diverse.

"My tours are all bespoke - I have a Turkish architect coming soon who just wants to see York's medieval parish churches.

"The lavender fields are popular with Chinese visitors, and young Chinese also like Castle Howard because it was where a Taiwanese popstar, Jay Chou, held his wedding reception (after marrying model Hannah Quinlivan at Selby Abbey in 2015).

"Everybody loves the stately homes, and they often want to see Bettys."

Cultural differences have led to some amusing moments, such as the time a woman from Texas asked if Kirsty had ridden from her Ryedale cottage into York on a horse, and the constant questions from cricket-mad Indian visitors about Geoffrey Boycott's home in Boston Spa.


Yorkshire's tourism boom

Yorkshire's Blue Badge guides are still reaping the benefits of the Tour de France effect, and according to Kirsty, have never been busier.

"There's been a huge surge in interest year-on-year. All the guides are working as much as they want to be. There haven't been any more guides trained since 2015, but people are asking about another course and the Institute are looking into it. It takes 18 months to qualify and the exams are tough."

Her packages include TV tours themed around locally-filmed productions such as Gentleman Jack, Victoria, All Creatures Great and Small, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, Heartbeatand Calendar Girls, while she also markets tours for the LGBT community which take in areas including Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire's gay capital.

"It's the best thing I've ever done - it's changed my life and it's been so worth it."

Bettys, Harrogate