Idealog - August 2007
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A People Industry
It's one of those trite modern phrases but it's true. The mining industry is about coal and metal ores, computer manufacturing about making printed circuits and electronic gizmos; the tourism industry is about people. OK, the lonesome explorer might be alonesome in the desert or ocean but that's a miniscule fraction of the total. Families and couples on the beach enjoy (mostly) having the others around. Visitors meet the visited, guests meet hosts, that kind of thing. It's a labour intensive industry in every way and human resource management is at its heart.
I went to the funeral of an old friend who was Secretary of the Calderdale Tourist Guides' Association - and a huge lot else besides - this week. The church was packed - two or three hundred at a guess. That was a reflection, not particularly of his work with tourists and their guides, but a way of life which was people-based: family, friends and colleagues of many kinds. Geoff was described during the service as full of humour, a man who loved to meet and talk to others, and with an insatiable appetite for all kinds of knowledge. That's just the person who makes a good tourist guide (and chemistry lecturer, historian and football enthusiast, as he was). I have to note that I got to know him best when, as Tourism Officer and part-time adult education tutor, I set up and trained the Tourist Guides group. That was the easy bit, and it was over twenty years ago. It was Geoff who organised, recorded details and often went out as a guide on probably hundreds of occasions. In recent years we had not been much in touch, and that is possibly why it was a bit of a shock to find that he was 82 years old when he died. Didn't look it. Maybe that's what a love of meeting people and doing what you find fascinating does for you. I can see him now, meeting the latest arrivals at the Pearly Gates for a tour of Heaven.
Talking to Tourists - Heritage Interpretation
San Diego Heritage Park is an open area of the southern Californian city containing a collection of historic buildings rescued from around the county. Most are late nineteenth century in age. As with buildings in regional open air collections and museums around the world, they were threatened with destruction and so dismantling and rebuilding saved them. Of course they are then divorced from the environmental context in which they 'lived'. Sometimes this kind of museum presentation produces peculiar juxtapositions. Greenfield Village in Detroit, a project from the 1920s by car maker Henry Ford, placed very different buildings moved from sites hundreds of miles away from each other slap bang together. Strictly speaking, the understanding of a piece of architecture depends on seeing it in its historic setting. But this is often impossible and a compromise is important. On another page is described Colonial Williamsburg in Virgina, which like San Diego's Heritage Park is an open-to-view section of a city. No admission fee is necessary to see the buildings - though in Williamsburg one is if you want to see the visitor centre presentation or to enter the buildings themselves. Most of the San Diego buildings have acquired new, commercial, uses which may or may not give the general visitor access.
The Heritage Park is still an important educational resource and that means not only to school kids but to the general visitor. They will appreciate traditional features found in many American homes - such as the verandah or porch which makes a pleasant open air room in good weather. They will appreciate the contrast between these smaller, often timber, constructions and the high rise towers of urban America. And they will have the chance to pick up some more background information from an interpretive panel, leaflet or guide such as the woman taking to school children in the photo. You can't, of course, ask a building, a leaflet or an interpretive panel a question: nor can those things vary their style and level of information according to the audience in front of them. The human guide does that easily and answers questions, too.
Whatever the Weather
Almost the last day of August after a wet, wet summer. Having said that it has been dry for a few days. I have started keeping weather records for fun. In school we had a 'professional' weather station and some beautiful brass instruments in the school - a barograph and a hand-held wind guage. I wonder what happened to them? A rota of senior boys was organised by one of the geography teachers to make observations at 9:00am and enter them up in a log book. It was even done on Sundays and in the holidays when the volunteer made a special walk to school for the purpose. They got rid of the station years ago, and there's now a high fence round the whole place.
It was a small market town in the Midlands. It, and a primary school across the road were opened just as the Second World War was breaking out. Between the two of them they held a very large area of playing fields, which was even increased in the 60s. Apart from some games matches on Saturday mornings there might be other activities going on during the weekend and shorter holidays, some run by the boys in the Sixth Form - often without teacher supervision. This extended for a while to groups who organised Saturday trips into the nearby hills to collect fossils or small quantities of copper and lead ores from limestone workings. After a while the head insisted a teacher take charge, so a genial biology teacher came along on the first of the excursion under the new arrangement. And ironically, that was when one of the party fell off a ledge and gashed his head and an ambulance had to be called. Those extramural activities must be unthinkable nowadays. If it isn't taking place inside the fence and walls with a full risk assessment completed, it is happening at all. Somewhere along the line an ideal has been killed by fear.
I bought an Oregon weather station - there's a senser in the back yard - and have added a cheap rain guage. I might give up after a while but it's fun for the moment. I can't imagine people bothering in somewhere like California with the weather so regular and unchanging for weeks on end. Perhaps that's why some of them go chasing typhoons and hurricanes in the Gulf states. It won't make me a predictor of good weather for the folks along the street anxious to go on holiday in good weather, nor will I ever be called upon for evidence of climate change, but boy, it helps to show just how many little variables make up what is happening in the atmosphere.
Now, is it 93% or 70% cloud cover ... over there a mass of cumulonimbus hangs on the hilltops, but in the other direction it's more open sky with some vapour trails against the blue. No wonder Michael Fish had trouble with that storm twenty years ago.
Set in one of the most beautiful parts of England is a little-known place called Lud's Church. It's not a church and might not even have been anyone called Lud, but it is at the heart of a medieval tale of mystery and magic that can grip anyone who finds it.
Local people in North Staffordshire call it "Ludchurch", as if it were a village in the moors. If you can get to it you will find a sudden chasm 15-18 metres deep and a hundred metres long, with rough steps at each end down into an area full of green ferns and mosses, with a cool, moist atmosphere on the hottest of days. There is no stream in the bottom of the cleft: water drains down into the reddish-grey gritstone, the sand from which makes it easier to walk in patches where there are no stones projecting.
A landslip formed the great cleft. It's easy to see why people have found much more esoteric stories to go with this accident of geomorphology, though. Some think Robin Hood sheltered here - open moors and woodland in the immediate area would have been good for hiding away: but robin seems to have been everywhere and at every age. The men in green might match the spirit of the place, no more. The Lollards, followers of the church reformer John Wycliffe, who was considered a heretic and persecuted, probably worshipped in secret here in the 15th century. The name 'Lud' and the description 'church' may have come from them.
Another late medieval connection was with the epic British story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author of the poem, thought to be one of the great jewels of the age, almost certainly came from somewhere in this region of the north west midlands. The work is written using a local dialect and its settings match places in the area, one of these being Lud's church within the valley of the River Dane. It's an Arthurian story. A strange knight, appearing entirely green, enters the court of King Arthur at Camelot. He challenges the court to a game: if one of them chops off the head of the Green Knight with his sword and a year and a day later meets up witht eh Green Knight in order to undergo the same fate, he will win the challenge. Sir Gawain accepts. He beheads the mysterious stranger, who instead of falling dead picks up his own head and departs. Gawain travels Britain and almost a year later lands from a ship on Anglesey. He rides inland meeting other challenges, killing dragons, fighting wolves, then comes to a beautiful castle. Sir Gawain discovers that the Green Knight can be met in the forest nearby to complete his task. The wife of the lord of the castle tries to distract him from going, but Gawain sets out and reaches an immense cleft in the rocks within the forest where green moss and ferns imbue the very air with the spirit of the woodlands .... the Green Knight appears ....
... and should you wish to know the ending of this medieval tale, a touch of search engine magic would soon reveal unto you the epic story in modern translation - of how Sir Gawain met his opponent once more, in the chasm of Lud's Church ....
[PS to find the place, take the road from Buxton towards Leek, turn right at Flash for the tiny village of Gradbach. Park the car and follow signposts onto access land at any time: daylight hours are safer - you never know who you might meet after dark ... ]
Tourists Go Home!
Rick Stein's latest cookery jaunt for the BBC aired this week and caused quite a bit of comment. Following up his French canal odyssey and a trip to China, he is driving and ferrying his trademark Landrover around some Mediterranean islands.
What caused the critics to sharpen their chef's knives was the way he ad-libbed to camera several times that he hated tourist places in favour of the genuine eateries. He had been told by a local about a restaurant used by locals and not tourists, as if he was the first to discover it. One critic said the place is already in the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet listings anyway. Rick Stein operates as a major player in the Cornish holiday resort of Padstow with four restaurants, a delicatessen, a patisserie, a cookery school a 33-bed hotel and a range of food products from "Chalky's Bite" beer to Rick Stein Bouillabaisse Spice Mix. It's said there are over four hundred employees in the complex, and that Mr Stein is worth a bob or two.
Rick's previous shows have all been based on genuine, quality food made with care and good craft. He wants people to discover food shops and restaurants which have character, usually based on local ingredients and small-scale production, mainly by hand. So his comments were nothing new. What seems to have happened this time is that he has been less than careful in his extempore style: he used the term "tourist" as a mark of revulsion when he himself is a tourist in his programmes and he is promoting tourism as a way of discovering quality food. It's the old problem of our extreme ambivalence towards tourism which borders on the hypocritical. We want to be able to travel, but are put off by all the other people who want to do the same at the same time. We want to tell our friends about that little cafe round the corner, but wish that other people would stop doing the same. To take a Mediterranean example, Venice is over-run by packaged holiday-makers and ought to be reserved for - well, me. "He is a tourist, you are a visitor, I am a guest". Write that out a thousand times, Rick.
Yorkshire and the YHA
Yorkshire had two of the first Youth Hostels, one in the White House at Crayke and another in Stone Gappe, Lothersdale. They were opened mid-way between the two World Wars, in 1931. At that time hiking was becoming very popular as a means of seeing the world at low cost: caravans and tents were available but there was a demand for more substantial overnight accommodation. Visitors slept in single-sex dormitories, leading to the joke that YHA stood for "Your Husband Assured" in the eyes of the ladies. People joined the Association and like the RAC and AA would receive lists of the expanding hostel provision across Britain. They could also travel in Europe via hostels - Germany had pioneered them just before the First World War as a means of giving poor children a chance to travel further from home in safe conditions, and Sweden had an early network of cabins open to hikers.
The YHA has had to meet changing fashions and the competition from motels and lodges with the result that across the country as a whole 40 of its hostels were closed in 2007, including Dent, Keld, Langsett and Stainforth. The Keld property was due to re-open as a hotel, restaurant and microbrewery. At the same time the Association is pursuing a vigorous strategy to maintain its position. The York Hostel has 150 beds and offers tourism packages of two nights accommodation and tickets for two York attractions for a special price and can be booked online. The days when people had to arrive on foot, sleep in a dormitory, cook their own food and perform chores for the warden are fading fast.
Stone Gappe is close to Lothersdale and the Lancashire border. The large house is now a private property again, nestling behind trees and solid wooden gates, but it is possible to see it from across a valley as in the photos above.
Favourite Guide Books - Insight Guides
The Insight Guides series is a kind of glossed-up version of Lonely Planet or Rough Guides in that it is based on descriptions, photographs and maps, but produced as if aimed at a National Geographic audience (but the maps are better). The series is Singapore-based where it has its own printing plant, taking each guide from concept to product. The series was begun by a German, Hans Hoefer, wo travelled in Bali and wanted a guide book which went into detail about the country's culture and development. Deciding that if you want a good book you should write it yourself, Hoefer did, with backing from a local hotel in the city. The Bali book appeared in 1972 and now there are 160 in the Insight library, with different formats concentrating on cities, shopping, eating, museums and galleries etc.
There are now compact, pocket-size Insight Guides as well as those devoted to the sectional interests mentioned, but the content and layout of the smaller books is less satisfying - they look thinner in terms of information than the main series. The problem with the bigger books is their art-paper quality which makes them heavy, and they do appear more like armchair travel books. At least they fit in suitcases if not in pockets. They are also less encyclopaedic by nature than the Eyewitness Guides, or the new AA Key Guides. However, superb photos and well-written text mkes up for any of those disadvantages, making them excellent general introductions to countries.
Insight Guides are now part of the Berlitz publishing house.
Favourite Guide Books: Dorling Kindersley "Eyewitness " Guides
I like guide books that are well illustrated. OK, you might tell I'm keen on pictures alongside words from the style of this web site. But I'm sure that saying about the value of a picture equalling a thousand words is true, and I also think that good images plus good words are better than words alone. Images on their own, though? Bad choice.
Since most people probably use most guide books in place of travel as much as during an actual journey to the destination described, it seems essential to have good pictures. Photos - good ones, chosen fairly (ie not too sanitised or picture-perfect) - can stand in for the experience of Being There ... well, just a little. Diagrams, maps and cut-aways can convey highly detailed information in a pleasing, attractive form - and are always looked at before any text placed nearby.
So I like the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guides series, which combines background information on destinations with a copious amount of classified entries - what to see/eat/stay/go shopping/get entertainment etc, plus stuff on money, transport, emergencies, language and so on. The first DK Travel Guides in this series appeared in 1993. There are currently 183 on the company web site, with a wide range of related works on general topics such as "The Pyramids", speaking a language etc. The DK selling point is the illustrations, lots of them, laid out clearly and without confusion. It's a format that works best for countries and definately for cities since they give many detailed guides to inside buildings. There is also a small range of podcasts available ... such as a guide to a trip along the Seine.
Tourist Traces - Bramhope Tunnel Memorial
It takes only a couple of minutes for a train to pass through Bramhope Tunnel on the Leeds-Harrogate rail line. A passenger gazing out of the window sees nothing of it except the darkness. Wandering round Otley Churchyard a short distance away is another matter. By the wall of the church is this strange construction, part castle and part tunnel. It is a memorial to twenty-four workmen who died building the tunnel between 1845 and 1849. Over two thousand men worked on the 2.2-mile tunnel for four years, helped by 400 horses, living in a shanty town with chapel and bibles and beer supplied cheap. The north portal of the tunnel is built like a medieval castle - a common design in railway work - and the memorial mimics it. Around the line of the tunnel are a few other signs of the work - four airshafts still in use out of twenty which were used to give acess by bucket-and-rope to the digging places; a sighting tower stands near the southern end and heaps of the spoil excavated are now permanent features of the landscape.
Rail passengers know little of the story of the tunnel as they speed through, but explorers on foot can find more of the human cost of building our tourist routes of today.
Two books illustrate the distinctive nature of travel in Europe and the UK during the middle ages. Margaret Wade Labarge's "Medieval Travelllers: The Rich and the Restless" brings out many aspects of an age when most people could not travel. Journeys were undertaken for business - the business of the state, of the church and of trade, and activities connected with those but undertaken for more personal reasons, of which the pilgrimage was important as an inspiration towards long-distance travel. Only the rich could afford such journeys, unless you were a servant travelling to look after your master - there were few mistresses in charge of their own itineraries. And travelling was slow, difficult and dangerous, being dependent on walking, riding a horse or using a wagon. There were few of the aids familiar to us - good roads, powerful ships or any kind of navigation aid beyond the most basic signpost or local resident willing to be a guide. Journeying for sheer leisure was only possible for a handful of people. Margaret Labarge describes great feasts and tournaments, but those were mainly out of a sense of duty towards one's family, underlings or lord - they rehearsed social structures and military prowess. Adventurers were roaming the land to seek out potential wealth and opportunities to extend the influence of the church and the monarchy. Yet the same sense of excitement and wonder pervades the accounts of these people just as it does the family holiday video today.
Zillah Dovey's book is focused tightly on one series of events in 1578, as Queen Elizabeth I made a'royal progress' through East Anglia. We see the nature of government through the media and by visiting the capital ourselves. In those days when few travelled, the government - which meant Queen Elizabeth - had to impress her power on the people by travelling amongst them. Those who did not see her on the route would have heard tell by word of mouth about the size of the wagons and baggage train that was necessary, along with soldiers and servants enough to impress any lowly villager who might never see beyond the next village for most of his or her life. Several hundred people and perhaps a thousand horses were involved. Three teams of the Queen's staff made advance visits to the great houses along the planned route, taking furniture and other essentials for her use and that of her main officials. The houses were chosen because they were big enough to cater for the huge cavalcade that would arrive, it being expected that the owner would, as part of his duty to his sovereign, pay for the food and other expendable resources required. There was apparently another motive for the trip: the Queen wanted to reduce the wealth of recusant Catholics in East Anglia by draining away a good part of their money by paying for her visit.
These two books examine a very different era, when travel was a necessary part of the survival of a whole system. It was also, in the days of Queen Elizabeth, that explorers like Drake, Raleigh, Frobisher and the others began to open up a wider world. It was Queen Elizabeth who funded important men like Fynes Moryson and Sir Philip Sydney to go on a tour of Europe in order to learn continental methods of government and of the latest advances there in the arts. Travelling with a purpose - travelling to understand - was entering a great new phase.
Dovey, Z (1996) An Elizabethan Progress, Stroud, Sutton Publishing
Lafarge, M (1982hb/2005pb) Medieval Travellers: The Rich and the Restless, London, Phoenix
ISBN 0 75382 041 2
An Information Quality Matrix
One of those staff-room discussions raised the popular question about the use that students should make of Wikipedia. Some said they tell students not to use it because it is unreliable. Others said it was generally accurate and compared well with some other possible sources of information such as newspapers. Of course students are going to use it anyway, it's wide-ranging and free - and represents therefore a growing source of knowledge for millions around the world.
It made me think about comparative qualities. Recently in Britain there have been several scandals about rigged TV shows, especially phone-in competitions where winners had already been decided. And even the BBC's 'Blue Peter' programme had to apologise for fixing a phone-in prize winner. The BBC! Blue Peter!
At a different level a promo tape of a documentary in which the Queen appeared to flounce out of a photo session with Annie Liebovitz turned out to have been a concoction reversing the sequence of events (the Queen was walking briskly in to the photo session, not out). There has been some discussion on the lines of "well, it's always happened to some degree", with examples quoted from back in broadcasting's dark ages. More to the point, all communication, whether individual messages or mass media productions, are always concocted with greater or lesser degrees of congruity to real experience. Words and pictures have to be selected according to someone's idea of the message they want to convey. Mum on the phone: "How are you doing in university?". Junior replies: "Fine. I passed most modules".
Those holiday snaps are a good example. Nice views are chosen, not grotty ones. Everyone smiles for the camera. Pictures are taken when the sun is out. Those horror snaps taken by your ex-best friend when you passed out from too many lagers on the dance floor last night do not get sent home!
Sources of information used (officially) by students run from academic journals and text books through newspapers and lecture notes to all those ever-so-easy to use web sites. there are several qualities about them that can be measured. The matrix above takes two: one, the degree of 'expert editing' exerted and the other the motivation behind the provider ranging from sheer entertainment to serious education. A number of examples are placed in the matrix according to my own view of the relative influences of those on each example of information supply. It's fairly subjective and each example ought to be shown with a varying range of values rather than a small area on the matrix: school teachers, after all, vary in their approach as much as university lecturers, journalists and other individuals according to the circumstances and character of each. You might place a particular example differently from where I have positioned it. Also, "expert editing" needs some debate - I mean the knowledge of the communicator in a given subject; the kind of formal filtering process through colleagues, committees or officially-accepted viewpoints and so on.
On the matrix, Wikipedia is considered very educational (it still has to be entertaining enough to be widely read) but fairly low in 'expert editing' because anyone can contribute and also edit other peoples' entries, with widely varying levels of 'official' editing through Wikipedia's voluntary minders. I find much of it accurate - having judged it by proper comparison with other sources - and often just as likely to be right or wrong as most newspapers, which are also contain widely contrasting qualities of writing. And are we to tell students not to use newspapers, and to forget what our teachers have told us? They (and that means me, too) can be equally in error. The skill is in learning how to judge them.