Regular readers of this blog may be aware that I am currently studying for a diploma in Tour Guiding at the University of Westminster. As part of my journey delving back into higher education – the joys of revising, lectures and studying – I made it clear in my last post I would write periodic updates on my progress: how studying the craft of tour guiding can amplify and improve my interpretation of heritage and how, after eight years ‘out of the system’, see how I’d cope with having my grey matter being taxed again.
And so it began. Course director Caroline Dunmore and support tutor Catherine Cartwright introduced themselves and what the programme would teach us over the coming weeks. The first week would be easing us into the nuances of how to be effective ‘urban storytellers’, giving us a geographical brush-up on the eight square miles of Westminster, followed by prestigious institutions that reside within its boundary by type (religious, political, royal and so on).
This was in anticipation of our first walk which was to be on the next Saturday, by Caroline herself, under the title ‘The Learned Societies of Westminster’, followed by a tour of West Westminster, led by Catherine the week after. This was all in aid for the St. James walk where each member of the class would deliver a stop along the way, and, lo, I was selected to be the one who started the tour.
My stop was Spencer House, one of the ‘finest mansions remaining’ that line the eastern edge of Green Park. I’d never heard of it. Isn’t it funny how, as a Londoner, you can be so unfamiliar with your own patch?
I hadn’t spoken in public for many years, and I wanted to have a respectable first attempt at delivering information in a clear, concise way. To deliver a tour that I’d find interesting. So I trotted off to the library in the Marylebone campus and started researching.
This is where it became apparent that there was an awful amount of information about the building. It was built in the 1750’s for John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer (an ancestor of Princess Diana, Princes William, Harry and now, George) as a London residence for entertaining. That’s a key fact – but where would I stop? Would I detail the renovations done by noted architects Henry Holland and Phillip Hardwick? Would I detail the work of each institution that occupied the house in the Second World War? Would I have to give a biography of John, 1st Earl Spencer? It was very clear that I was drowning in information, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to piece together a narrative that was both informative and interesting.
I delved into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to get the backgrounds of the men instrumental in the mansion’s creation; English Architect John Vardy, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (a shining light in bringing neo-classical architecture to London after spending eight years travelling Greece and Rome) and of course, John, First Earl Spencer, politican and MP for Warwick. As these men’s biographies lay in front of me I’d noticed that by making notes on their lives alone my notes were three sides of A4, and I hadn’t even got to amassing the details of the building yet.
A key skill of a tour guide is to assess the information you have in front of you and decide which facts you need and which you can shorten or leave out. As a naturally conversational speaker and writer, this is a tall order and it wasn’t until a chance bit of research in art historian Nikolaus Pevsner‘s book on buildings of Westminster that I found a thread I could weave a story out of and give my talk some structure, that the building was one of the ‘children’ spawned by what was originally a dining club founded in 1734 – the ‘Society of Dilettanti’, which still exists today.
The group met at Green Park tube station and the tour began. I was asked to give an introduction to my stop (which I’d completely forgotten to do and in blind panic, on the spot, said something about ‘a modest house in Georgian London’) after which I led the group to the site, trusty pointing umbrella in hand.
What happened over the next five minutes, I have no recollection of. The notes I’d written out vanished from my mind as soon as I started speaking, and I ‘winged it’. I had no idea how long I spoke for: I vaguely remember describing James ‘Athenian Stuart as ‘lazy’ which made everyone laugh and ending with ‘now onward to a slightly larger London household, St. James’ Palace’. A brief moment of silence occurred, thereafter I was then treated to a round of applause.
Caroline gave me the glad hand, saying that I did rather well considering I was the first speaker. There were points to work on, which goes without saying – not everyone knows what ‘Palladian’ is, that I probably should have said that Spencer was an ancestor of Princess Diana and that the club that introduced Stuart to Spencer was the ‘Society of Dilettanti’, not the ‘Society of Dillyanti’ which I garbled in a blind bit of confusion. It had gone remarkably well: my only regret was that I wish I’d remembered doing it.
No sooner had we completed the tour, where all my classmates did incredibly well, we departed for home much more relaxed and positive than we had been earlier that morning. I’d barely put my key in the door when I’d received an e-mail from Caroline, giving me my next stop for the walkshop in two weeks time.
The Admiralty. Another building that I didn’t know the existence of. Back to the library I went, armed with the lessons learnt from my first try at being a tour guide.