How I became an Oxford tour guideBy Edward Elliott

A friend messages me asking as to whether I’m still looking for work in Oxford. Her brother has a job, no details supplied, which needs filling as soon as possible: can she pass on my email address? I’m very much still looking for work, so sure, why not? Less than five minutes later I see an email hit my inbox. My mind is thinking, ‘Journalism, maybe? Or perhaps an administration job. That wouldn’t be so bad’. The email is titled ‘Void Travel — Oxford Tour Guide Vacancy’.

Call me a snob, but chaperoning tourists around Oxford, pointing at buildings and exclaiming ‘To your left is a quite exquisite 18th-century design’ is not exactly where I thought my life would lead when I graduated with an Oxford history degree earlier this year. I had visualised an office with a desk and some stationery prepped to assault the day’s imports or exports, or whatever else is discussed via a company’s internal emails. I still wake up some days and half-consciously believe I’m late for this never-realised career. But Void Travel’s tour guide vacancy proved too appealing to turn down.

The truth is that being a tour guide has been a real find. The pay is more than reasonable, and, if I’m honest, those 18th-century architectural designs really are quite exquisite.

Take the Radcliffe Camera. Completed in 1749 by Scottish architect James Gibbs in a neo-classical style, the project was funded by John Radcliffe — the same former royal physician who lends his name to Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, and whose life is currently being celebrated at the Bodleian. Or take Lincoln College Library. Converted from the Church of All Saints in 1971, the library houses more than fifty thousand books and some of the largest chandeliers in Oxford (though Malmaison Hotel may now challenge its supremacy in the chandelier stakes). Which self-respecting history students wouldn’t want to spend their time wandering around, expatiating on the past to a willing audience? 

The charm does wear off, I will admit. You start to feel a little inhuman as you slip into the same jokes and anecdotes you have told hundreds upon hundreds of times. In fact there does come a point where the repetition itself becomes your point of reference. I can’t remember for the life of me which source informed me that the many inns of Cornmarket Street were the traditional place for travellers to stop for the night in 14th-century Oxford. It could have been a local history textbook, it could have been hearsay, it might be completely fabricated. The fact that I have repeated it tour upon tour for the last three months makes me believe it is true. (If you know otherwise, please do find a way to let me know!)

I was shaken out of this repetition a few weeks ago, however, when I was transferred (I like to think promoted) to a new tour — The Oxford History and Chocolate Walking Tour, a chance to wander round the city with the occasional break for sustenance. Imagine you are a visitor to Oxford and you’ve arrived in the mid-January, frostbite-pneumonia cold. Wouldn’t you like to stop by the warm cafés and chocolate shops of Oxford as you learn about the city? Maybe with some complementary free samples thrown in as well?

There’s even some chocolate history. Did you know, for example, that it was the Mayans who first used the cocoa bean as a foodstuff, grinding the beans, adding them to hot water and spices, and serving the mixture as an entrée before banquets called xocoatl?  Doesn’t sound for you? Well, the new tour has at least been a big hit with my housemates and I, the chief beneficiaries of any leftover Patisserie Valerie truffles.

Yes, there is always going to be a self-conscious moment when you bump into a former classmate. But for the most part, a tour guide’s life is an easy one. And in a city like Oxford, there is always another stunningly beautiful building to learn about and find a way to incorporate…. Oh look, the Vere Harmsworth Library!

Images by Michael Coghlan via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence.