TALES OF A DEVON TOUR GUIDE - CHAPTER 1

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ALEX GRAEME

02/03/2021

The Pipe Dream of a Ten-Year-Old

A young voice once advised me that one career option was to become a tour guide.  That single voice was the only one that ever mentioned this, and it wasn’t until over thirty years later that a much older voice agreed with that early sentiment.  I can report to you that both voices belonged to me.

Being brought up in a large old house in Devon had both its good and not so good points.  Perhaps I’ll come back to the not so good points at a later stage, but for now I will focus on one of the good ones.

Me at around ten years of age, playing golf with my older brother

Me at around ten years of age, playing golf with my older brother

There was enough room in the house for my Mum, in the mid-1970s, to open a bed and breakfast, and this led to my first ‘job’.  It was a job of many different tasks, including making beds, cleaning bathrooms, serving breakfast, and greeting guests before showing them around.  Okay, so making beds wasn’t something that I enjoyed, but the face to face contact with guests was an area in which I thrived.  I’d been brought up to like people, and that’s exactly what I was able to do with my Mum’s guests.  I didn’t think about it hard, I just interacted quite naturally and with warmth, and my ten-year-old self loved it!  I was meeting people from all over the World, with different stories to tell, and my boyish charm, amicable sense of humour, and chubby cheeks seemed to delight them.  So much so that one day I was asked to take one of the couples on a guided tour of the garden, well worthy of a good viewing thanks to the everyday care that my Dad dedicated to the grounds.

A 19th century lithograph of Fonthill in Shaldon, where I was brought up

A 19th century lithograph of Fonthill in Shaldon, where I was brought up

Lawns, sweeping banks, 12-foot hight Yew hedges, magnificent Oak and Beech trees, and a hilly woodland track, along with some other notable talking points such as the Donkey Seat, the Temple and the Font, gave me plenty of ammunition to aim at my guests as we walked around, with me acting as their tour guide.  At the end of this first tour the unexpected happened, with 50 pence coming my way, and that was the beginning of a series of garden tours, as well as the start of a pipe dream.  “This tour guiding thing is great fun – maybe I can become a tour guide one day when I’m older”, I would think to myself.

This tour guiding thing is great fun – maybe I can become a tour guide one day when I’m older

Of course, what I hadn’t considered was that no one else considered this to be a viable option, and at no stage did anyone ever support this idea.  Now that sounds like a slight against the people around me, but it really isn’t.  I don’t remember broadcasting my pipe dream, mentioning it to my careers advisors at school or proposing it to my family, and eventually the pipe dream became exactly that…a pipe dream, and one that faded into a highly improbable one as I followed various career paths, mostly unfulfilling ones, over the next couple of decades.  The hotel industry, the care industry, banking, accountancy, and even door to door sales – I tried many different things, sometimes out of choice, sometimes spurred on by desperation, although nine or so years in Social Services did suit me well, working alongside many likeable colleagues.  I also learnt a great deal about people and life during those years.

But the ‘system’ wore me down, like it does so many, and thankfully I was lucky enough to have a way out.  In 2009, we decided to bid farewell to the old family home, the one where I lead my first guided tours.  It was also the house that our family had lived in since 1857, and where we had a considerable collection of stuff – about 450 years’ worth!  As a family we decided that it was no longer viable for our ageing parents to remain in a house with thirty rooms and no central heating, that was in need of significant refurbishment and updating, as well as some repairs.

My ancestors at Fonthill in the early 1900s

My ancestors at Fonthill in the early 1900s

The task ahead of us was daunting, but to ease the way I gave up my job with Social Services, becoming a full-time (although very much amateur) estate agent, house clearer, negotiator, adviser, eBay seller, and various other roles to help my parents get through this difficult period.  To cut the story a little shorter, two years later the job was almost done – we’d sold the house, found my parents a smaller, more suitable home, gone through most the ‘stuff’, and all was well.  Apart from one thing – what would I do next?  I considered all the options, of which there was only one, and turned to Plan A, the pipe dream option of becoming a tour guide.  At this stage I have to say that I’m glad that there wasn’t a Plan B, since it gave me no choice but to make sure that Plan A worked.

Where does one start when becoming a tour guide?  Well, that’s not a quick or straightforward question to answer.  At the time there wasn’t a training scheme available for tour guides in my area, so I just followed my instinct, and ploughed ahead with what I thought was the best way to do it.  It’s not unreasonable to say that basically, I just made it up as I went along, and in August of 2013 Unique Devon Tours was officially launched.

My car and I during a guided tour of Dartmoor

My car and I during a guided tour of Dartmoor

And this is where my future articles begin, since it’s the adventures I’ve had as a tour guide that provide me with the fabulous stories that I intend to share with you, friends of We LOVE England.  Sometimes highly amusing, occasionally most unfortunate, at times intriguing, and every so often decidedly moving – I’m sure you’ll enjoy what I’ve got to say, and I’ll also share with you my photos, many of which are featured on the We LOVE England website.  Please keep an eye open for future ‘Tales of a Devon Tour Guide’!

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All images are by ALEX GRAEME unless otherwise stated.