What does it take to become a Cambridge Blue Badge Guide? Meet the man who's been training them for 25 years
John Milne has been with Visit Cambridge for 25 years - it's his job to know Cambridge's history, its quirks and its successes.
‘My walk to work is along the Backs, and it’s just as you’re coming up to the bridge and you see King’s College across the river and Clare Bridge next to it and Clare College. It’s beautiful all year and on a morning when it’s reasonably early, and quite calm, it’s beautiful. It never gets tired. Even 25 years later.”
Of all the stunning views in Cambridge, that’s the favourite of John Milne, guided tours manager at Visit Cambridge. John was born in Cambridge and grew up in Burwell. This year he has been with Visit Cambridge for 25 years.
He has trained and now co-ordinates the 139 Green and Blue Badge Guides who bring Cambridge to life for residents and visitors.
New guides are recruited roughly every five years and the training takes a full academic year. It starts in September, once John has found the most promising recruits out of a few hundred applicants, and even then there are a few who won’t pass the exams the following July.
“Obviously it’s a very nice job to have,” said John. “I would say before we’ve put out adverts we’ve got 150-200 people interested. And by the time we advertise, it can be 300 or so.
“We might prioritise people with different languages and then we whittle down. A few people might not get through training, but most people put a lot of effort and dedication into it and at the end we have a lot of enthusiastic guides.”
So what makes a great guide?
“You’ll never see all of Cambridge on a two-hour tour. You can only shine a light on little bits of it, and the guide needs to build that rapport to know what to shine the light on. They’re not set tours. Guides will start in September and do lectures, a lot of reading and learn a lot of practical skills, but something they learn is that each tour needs to be special to the group that they’re taking. And they’ve got to be able to draw things from the wealth of knowledge they build up, something that will resonate. That’s a real skill.
“People don’t come to be lectured, it’s their holiday. Our guides need to make it pleasurable. And learning through entertainment is the best way to retain information. If something has made you smile you’ll remember it.”
As you may expect, John is a certified guide himself. When John first joined Visit Cambridge he trained as a guide to find out what people come here to see.
He continued: “There’s so much to see in Cambridge, you could spend days here. It’s a small city but it’s affected the world. You’ve got the buildings of international renown that are here because the university and colleges paid the greatest architects of the time. Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin both studied here at Cambridge, the structure of DNA was discovered here, the atom was split here, one of the first computers was built here.
“And people from Cambridge explored the world as well. China is one of the biggest growing markets in Cambridge and in King’s College there’s a memorial stone to one of their great poets, Xu Zhimo. A lot of Chinese visitors will take a picture with that. There’s so much that touches the world, but there’s also the lighter side – the pranks that students get up to... the car put on Senate House roof.
“You think these things might have happened in the 50s and 60s when it was a different time, but I’ve walked into Cambridge in the past few years and I’ve seen Santa hats on the pinnacles of King’s College. People still have that light side, and it’s nice to bring it out.”