It takes a certain type of person to be a tour guide. Travel has to be in your bones and it needs to have coloured your life in unexpected ways. Most importantly, it has to be what drives you to get up in the morning.
So, who are these busy travel experts when they’re not on the road? Who are they when they’re at home?
We’ve delved behind the scenes to give you a closer look at the lives of two of Titan’s best loved tour managers. We’ll be finding out who they are when they are not wielding clipboards and giving expert advice to travellers, and what inspired them to become tour guides in the first place.
Up first is John England – lover of music, motorbikes and Americana.
How did your love affair with travel begin?
I’ve always had an inquisitive nature and been a keen learner. I’m fascinated by other countries and cultures, but also enjoy learning about the relevance and impact of my own country on the rest of the world.
My love affair with travel could additionally be a subconscious reaction against the profession I trained in. I was a solicitor for 30 years and always felt restricted when it came to travel. The English legal system is peculiar; I could only practise in countries that were part of the old British Empire, which doesn’t leave much choice. I did look at practising in the States or Australia, but there was so much retraining involved I thought, nah, I’ve had enough of exams, cheers.
When did you finally make the decision to change your career?
The strange part was deciding to become a solicitor in the first place! It was my headmaster that suggested it. I think he was being cruel! I qualified in 1980 and practised full time until 1993. From that point onwards I worked as a locum and an agent, which allowed me to be more mobile. I never liked the idea of working 9-5 in an office. Work as a solicitor is very stressful; I probably had seven or eight colleagues who died far too young (in their 40s and 50s). I remember thinking: life’s too short for this. Life is meant to be enjoyed, not endured.
How did travel influence your early life?
My father travelled his entire working life. He was in the RAF, then he worked in export sales, and then he got a job in Northern Ireland for a clothing company. He was jetting off to Australia, New York and Hong Kong. I guess I was inspired to do it myself by his travel.
What about school, what are your memories there?
I loved school because I loved learning. I particularly enjoyed the four years I spent at school in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone – I really believe the education system in Northern Ireland is of a very high standard.
That’s interesting. There’s the notion that people who have the travel gene are either extremely keen learners and eager to pick up new things at school, or totally rebellious i.e. eager to move on and keep going. It seems you were the former?
I think I got more rebellious the older I got to be honest; I took school quite seriously and felt it was very important to get as many qualifications as you can. When I was 16/17 I was quite boring compared to my friends.
What was your first solo travel experience?
I was just 20 and had planned to travel in France with a friend of mine, but he failed his exams and had to stay behind to do his resits. So I went by myself anyway. I flew into Beauvais outside of Paris, stayed there for a while, and met a lot of people from all over the world. I remember one person in particular – an Irish guy I met on Bastille Day in 1975. We got on really well and met a lot of people together.
After that, I decided to go to the south of France and walked 25 miles out of Paris with a rucksack on my bag, before hitch-hiking the rest of the way. The first lift was with a lorry driver, and then I rode with two German boys. That was interesting because it was 30 years after the war and I don’t think I’d ever met a German before! It was one of those eye-opening experiences to understand that they were just like me. They dropped me off along the main drag in Cannes, and I spent the night and the following three weeks on the beach. I met lots of other students and had a great time.
When I ran out of money, I hitchhiked back and worked as an ice cream man to get some money for the next term at university.
Wasn’t it daunting to be on your own?
No, never, that’s the great thing about travel; you’re never on your own. You are as alone as you want to be. If you’re open minded and free spirited you’re always going to meet people. I’ve always felt that way. When I go on a tour now, and I have a couple of hours of free time away from the rest of the group, I often meet people. For example, I could be getting something to eat at a bar in the middle of the USA and I’ll strike up a conversation with the barman or a stranger – it’s great! If you’re open and receptive, you’ll meet people.
Have you ever felt homesick?
I don’t get homesick, but travel makes me appreciate home even more. I love the British Isles. I’ve never taken where I live for granted. The more I travel, the more I appreciate it.
Where is home?
When I was 14 we moved to the Peak District in England, and that’s been my base on and off ever since.
Have you ever called somewhere else home?
I have an apartment in a remote part of Tenerife, but I believe home is where you feel most comfortable. If the people you are around are receptive then that’s good enough for me. There are places I go and I think to myself, I could probably live here.
If you never had to work again, what would you do?
I couldn’t imagine not working because I need to challenge myself. I never want to vegetate. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I could not imagine doing nothing. It might be that I wouldn’t do tour work, but I’d do something. Maybe write my memoirs!
What does a day off look like?
I like to keep busy when I’m in the UK. I’m also an avid writer – in the past I’ve written short stories and poetry, and I keep a tour diary. I probably have enough material to write five books.
What sorts of things do you write in your tour diary?
It can be about the place, but it’s mostly about the people. I like to observe people. That’s one of the reasons I love the job so much, you can never stop learning from people.
Do you have any hobbies?
I love music; I think it provides a soundtrack to our lives. The Kinks, The Who, The Beach Boys, The Beatles.
The Beatles were the most important band growing up (like anybody that grew up in the sixties); they made a huge impact on me. I was always waiting for the next Beatles song to be released.
Do you find that the tours influence the music you listen to?
My favourite tour is Southern Sights and Sounds, which goes through Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans – three of the most influential cities in the world when it comes to music. When I do those tours, I do a lot of research. I like to play stuff on the coach that’s relevant to our locations. For example, we might drive through a town where the lead guitarist of a band was born so I’ll play some of that band’s music.
Have you always had that connection between music and travel?
Oh yeah, music has always set the background to my travels. Steely Dan’s ‘Do it Again’ always brings me back to France in 1975. Another time, I was in South America and The Rolling Stones were playing the night we spent in Chile – unfortunately I couldn’t get a ticket!
What do you listen to at home? Do you bring the music you find back with you?
I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I’ll be stood in a bar and someone will say, have you heard this piece of jazz – or some obscure song – and I’ll add it to my repertoire.
I’ve also met some amazing musicians in the States, in places like BB Kings in Memphis. It’s at the very top of Beale Street, the main street for music in Memphis. It used to be a club for black musicians and then, when Elvis came along, it became a hub of musical integration between the races.
There’s a fantastic band that I always take the tour groups to see too, called The Memphis Jones band. In between his songs, the lead singer will recount the history of music in Memphis. Music always manages to rise above racism, it transcends it. It can be the greatest expression of joy from a human being.
Do you prefer solo travel or travelling with other people?
Solo travel and group travel require different mind-sets. When you travel alone, or with one other person, you can add a bit of spontaneity. It’s something I try to bring to the tours.
In what way?
I’ve always seen the itinerary as more of a skeleton. It’s up to me, the driver and the other tour guides to flesh out the bones. Every tour manager will do it in a different way. We’re lucky that we have that freedom – it would be awful if we had to follow a script. A tour without deviation would be mindlessly boring.
On one of my tours, someone commented to me at the start: I’ve done this tour before with a different TM and it was incredible, the best we’ve ever done. No pressure, then! At the end of the tour they said, you weren’t better but you were just as good, which shows that even if a tour manager’s approach differs, the quality and experience of the trips stays the same.
Have you been on tour with another guide?
I haven’t had the chance to, but Titan have the best standard of tour managers in the business and I’m very proud to be a part of that. I know that when I was interviewed in 97/98 I was one of several hundred people and they narrowed it down to just a few successful candidates.
What’s the hardest part of touring?
Some tours are harder than others. The most important part of my job is to manage expectations. I have to let travellers know that there will be a lot of early starts and a lot of stays in different hotels.
A couple of times on tour someone has said, I didn’t realise it was going to be this hard; but when you look at the itinerary and a map of where you are going, then really it is pretty gruelling. It’s my job to make them aware and – in the nicest possible way – sometimes after a tour you need another holiday. If your tour manager does the job properly it is hard, but that’s part of the fun.
Would you say your home is a shrine to your travels?
Not especially. I do have a lot of things from the Middle East or South America, where poverty is a real problem. When I see a little kid selling trinkets I tend to buy something, just to give the kid a little money.
Should a home be full of possessions, or keep things minimal?
Full of life and possessions, but at the end of the day things are just things. The important things are the memories you carry in your mind.
What is your most treasured possession?
My motorbike, I do my best thinking on the bike. Solitude, a clear head, and the open road ahead are treasured for me.
What’s your most magical moment with a member of the tour?
Occasionally you’ll meet somebody who is disabled in some way, or even just somebody who has limited mobility because they have reached a certain age. I have tremendous admiration for that resilience. I believe you should never be beaten by anything – if you can fight back, you should.
Thank you John, it’s been a pleasure chatting to you.
If you’re as interested in music as John is, you might just love Titan’s Southern Sights and Sounds trip. Look out for our next interview with Eve Charlier on the blog.