The unexpected joys of owning a Yorkshire walking tour company

York is a magnet for tourists, but Alfred Hickling wants to give them something different.
York is a magnet for tourists, but Alfred Hickling wants to give them something different.
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From gun-obsessed Ukrainians to a Filipino mother desperate for a daughter-in-law, Alfred Hickling on the unexpected joys of owning a walking tour company.

Work had taken me to a second-rate bed-and-breakfast in Stoke-on-Trent on the morning a text arrived from my wife Sarah. Did we want to buy a walking-tour company? I was a national newspaper journalist, she was an educational researcher. It seemed about as far off the scale of likely events as buying an airline. But both of us had been hankering after a career change so we could spend more time together in our home city of York.

Within seconds of the text arriving, another message landed in my inbox. It was from an editor with the next assignment. It meant I would be roving across the North and away from my own bed for the next fortnight. Suddenly I did want to buy a walking tour company very much indeed.

How it came about was a bit of a fluke. Sarah has a PhD in Russian but found little opportunity to use it. A neighbour of my parents, who ran York’s most venerable walking tour company, had a boom in Russian visitors and was in the market for a Russian speaker. Sarah plunged in.

When I eventually got back from Stoke and the places beyond, we got out a big sheet of paper and wrote down the first thing that came into our heads based on the kind of holiday tours we had encountered in other cities. “Dull,” Sarah suggested. “Sedentary,” I added. “Fact-filled”, “pedestrian” and “pedantic” came next. We could have filled an A2 sheet without forming a positive association.

Why, we wondered? The H-word (History) can be a turn-off. Yet the appetite for bringing the past to life is huge. The massive success of the Horrible Histories television series is turning primary age kids into constitutional experts – my seven-year old niece has a knowledge of the English line of succession to the throne that puts mine to shame.

As for adults, just look at the racks of magazines: BBC History, History Today, The History of War, National Geographic History. It seems history has turned into a leisure pastime that outranks gardening and model railways.

Every programme on BBC Four that isn’t a Scandinavian crime series seems to be some factual reconstruction of the past fronted by a photogenic new breed of superstar historians such as Janina Ramirez and Lucy Worsley.

So the problem with the more traditional city walking tours lay not with the content so much as the presentation. York has such a superabundance of history it’s almost embarrassing – almost 2,000 years of the stuff, from the first Roman legionary to plant a spade in the ground in AD 71 through to the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans and the railway builders.

When Constantine was proclaimed emperor here we gave the world Western Christianity. Later we gave it the KitKat. And whereas in most places the past lies buried, in York it is vibrant, visible and mostly still above the ground. It would surely take a determined pedant to make such a story fall flat.

Fortunately we had a good teacher, Stephen Lusty. He had learned the craft from the late, great doyen of York tour guides, Warwick Burton – a legendary, larger-than-life figure.

Stephen’s tours were unpredictable – no set route, no script, no rote-learned facts: just a sense of being led on a spontaneous journey in the company of a charismatic story-teller capable of being equally engaging in French and German.

We bought the business from Stephen and learned the key principles – that a successful tour is 50 per cent about knowing your facts, and 50 per cent about being able to interact with your audience. There may be some genuine history buffs among them, in which case knowing the precise date when the Vikings landed or the roof blew off Clifford’s Tower is important. But for the most part, the audience wants to be entertained. If selfies outside the Minster seems to be the most urgent priority, so be it.

The more we do this job – and we have a wonderful team of multi-lingual guides to help us – the more we realise the most enjoyable tours are as much about the sight-seers as the sights. Every group is different. Yes, the Shambles does look a lot like Diagon Alley (it was recreated at Warner Bros. studios for the first Harry Potter film). Last week I was there discussing magic with a family from Manila led by a man who had just designed a range of loudspeaker systems with the circumference of a broomstick.

The current restoration of Stonebow House, York’s greatest post-war eyesore, has thrown up some interesting discussions within our groups about cladding buildings in the light of the fallout from the Grenfell Tower disaster. But we like to include the Stonebow on our tours. Like it or not, it’s part of our heritage so we have to look after it and take the long view. Maybe Sixties brutalist will some day come back into architectural fashion.

It’s worth noting that the word “Gothic” was originally applied as a term of abuse. There must have been plenty of 13th century citizens of York horrified at the hideous excrescence of a modern Minster rising on the site of a perfectly good Norman cathedral.

Our new job is all about people and we do get some fairly bizarre requests. One young member of a French school party struggled round the city walls beneath a giant stuffed unicorn he had bought for his sister. Often we are required to act as personal shoppers. Sometimes we have to draw the line – as was the case with a determined Filipino matriarch after she decided that one of our younger female guides would be a good match for her son.

Then there was a rather shady delegation of Ukrainians, in England primarily to catch a Manchester United match, who wanted to know if it was possible to buy a gun.

Expanding into publishing is our next logical step. At the end of each tour we had requests for a concise guidebook that mapped out our route and presented the story of York clearly and accessibly.

No single publication met the need so we set about writing and photographing one of our own. Yorktour: A Walk Through the Walled City is the result. It’s just out and is bang up to date with a specially commissioned map which incorporates routes only recently opened up to the public.

It’s also the perfect armchair guide for those locals who left their home city to live abroad but want to keep in touch. We know copies are already winging their way to Australia and New Zealand.

They’ll see in these pages the strangeness of a city in the flux of great change, but will be reassured that, in essence, York remains just 
the same.

Yorktour: A Walk Through the Walled City is available from the Little Apple Bookshop, High Petergate, York, and the Visit York Information Centre, 1 Museum Street, York. For details of guided walks and specialist tours visit www.yorktour.com