Coffee With a Crafter – hubbub catches up with Walking Bristol’s founder, James Bogie

By on March 19, 2012

Sponsorcraft recently met up with 2nd year Bristol medic and Crafter James Bogie, the mind behind Walking Bristol, for a quick chat about life, the universe and Princess Caraboo.

So I hear you originally applied to Edinburgh… Are you a Bristol convert?

“I came to Bristol slightly begrudgingly and actually fell in love with it. It’s such a great city and it’s totally underrated.”

What inspired you to set up Walking Bristol?

“There’s a really great tour company that do these free walking tours in Europe called Sandeman’s. And anybody who’s ever been on a Sandeman’s New Europe tour absolutely loved it. At least everyone I’ve ever talked to!”

How did the Sandeman’s concept help you?

“I traveled with some friends and we did as many of their tours as we could in all the different cities like Paris, Munich, Amsterdam, Berlin… Doing this a) gave me a taste for it and I felt like it would be really good fun being a tour guide. Then couple this with the fact I was looking to get to know Bristol properly myself. I was a 2nd year student and I was wondering if there was anything like that here already. So I had a bit of a scout around and it turns out there’s not. I did try out a few of the tours around here and none of them felt quite the same. I was covering the area alright but I didn’t come away feeling like I’d really learnt anything much about Bristol. Certainly not in the same way as I did after the Sandeman’s tours, anyway.”

So how did you get the ball rolling?

“I found a book that got me started called The Bristol Story. I read that and it got me thinking about Bristol’s past. And over the summer I thought maybe I could put together a walking tour for the freshers that were about to come in. Initially, it was just for the new students. A friend and I put together the walking tour and we ran it for freshers and it got really good responses and people really enjoyed it. I did it a few more times that term just to random groups. I’d speak to groups and suggest they did the tour. Then in February we decided we’d try and turn it into Walking Bristol and get something regular going.”

Do you foresee any competitors?

“I think there is a gap. We’re not looking to step on anybody’s toes. We’re not looking to outdo the competition. There are already some really good tours in Bristol. I mean, you’ve got Pirate Pete’s pirate tour. There’s the ghost tour as well. They’re both great fun for people who love pirates and ghosts. But really Walking Bristol is an introduction to Bristol. A kind of ‘where to start’.”

Why are the tours free?

“We thought it should be free because the story of Bristol should be available to anybody, regardless of who they are and what their budget is. We say on our website ‘from the backpacker to the Eton graduate’. You should come along and hear about Bristol and learn her great story. Regardless of what your budget is and what you feel it was worth. We also think, it being free, it encourages our guides to put a lot more effort in. Because if it’s free, we ask for tips. And if our guides are asking for tips, it means they’ll want to entertain people and they’ll want to make sure people have a really great time.”

What’s your aim for Walking Bristol?

“Our aim is that you come along to one of our tours and find out how Bristol became the city it is today… as well as hear some cracking stories, laugh at some great jokes and stop for an indulgent lunch at the unique home-of-the-Bristol-pie, Pieminister. In terms of each tour, one of the main aims is that everybody will really enjoy themselves. Another one would be that we do Bristol justice in her story. We tell it accurately.”

Who are the guides?

“It’s currently only students involved. We’re putting as much time into it as we can. Currently we’re doing it and it doesn’t take a lot to run it. We’ve got the website up and we’re doing our own promotion and things.”

How is hubbub helping?

“Folks like hubbub are really helping us out because it’s just giving us that boost. We don’t need a lot of money but it’s just a little bit of money we need for printing and things. I needed that just to get things started and I couldn’t get it from anywhere. Then I got an email, went on hubbub and it took me about 15 minutes to set everything up. It was fast.”

“Students are always looking for money. And not for themselves. For projects. Like plays! People are always wanting to put on plays. Like the Fringe. I know so many people who want to go to the Fringe. And they’ve got their play, and they just need a bit of funding to get there. That’s hubbub, right there!”

I hear you’ve built up a good relationship with Pieminister. How are they helping?

“Pieminister’s really fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed that every time we take a group on the tour, we stop for lunch at Pieminister and people love it! People come away and say: ‘That was one of the best pies I’ve ever had’. We’ve taken international people before who have never tried a pie, and we say: ‘If you’re going to have a pie, have a Pieminister. Don’t waste your time with Greggs’. So people really really love it. And Pieminister have been so great. There’s a 20% discount for people on the tour and that just encourages people to sit and try it. And we take orders on the tour and ring ahead and people arrive and they get their pie and the guys are really friendly so it’s really really great. They’ve given us Pieminister Walking Bristol cards for the discount and even a t-shirt for the guides so it’s been really good. We’re getting our own t-shirts printed but we might have Pieminister on the back because they’ve been really great and they’re one of my favourite companies in Bristol, hands down.”

How did your relationship with them start?

“We contacted them this summer and said we’d be running these tours and bringing people into Pieminister and they said: ‘Yeah, great!’ That’s the thing. They’ve just been so friendly and so helpful. We definitely needed to stop for lunch. We arrive at St. Nicholas Market at 12:30 and we needed to stop for lunch and we thought we’d love to go somewhere ‘Bristol’. It was the first one we thought of. We could go round and then stop for lunch at Subway and then everyone gets a Subway but it’s so much better. It’s such a ‘Bristol’ thing to do.”

What about the future?

“In terms of the future, I imagine that we’ll see how far we get, we’ll go into the summer and see how well we do out of the summer and we’ll try and continue from there. We’re always looking to expand in terms of guides. I see that pretty soon we’ll need to start employing more guides. Really we’re just expanding and seeing how it takes off. Seeing if there is the need that we think there is.”

How long do you think you can keep it going?

“I’ve got 6 more years in Bristol. We’ve got a first year guide so she’s got 3 more years. We’ll be around for a while!”

How easy is it to become a Walking Bristol guide?

“It’s hard employing new guides… because there’s a lot of reading and we don’t want people just making stuff up. We want people who are interested enough and committed enough to go away and read and learn about Bristol in their own time.”

Is every tour you run unique?

“Every guide that we employ is an individual. The way I do the tour is very different from the way Lindsey does the tour. I think the flavour is still the same. So we still have the same stop-points. We still tell the same stories. We certainly don’t change any of the facts. The character of the tour will be determined by the tour guides. Which jokes they’ll tell and which stories they’ll prefer… So there is a kind of script/route and we’ll stick to that route. Every single tour goes along the same route and we’ve always got the same stops. There are 10 stops before lunch and then 5 stops after lunch. The way that the story would be told of course depends on the guides.”

Do you tailor your tours to the group you’re with at all?

“There are certain stories that fit in in certain times and places. We talk about nipper, the HMV dog. With his master’s voice. He was a Bristol dog. And there’s a statue of him. But I’ve found that international students don’t really get that story because they don’t know who Nipper is. So sometimes if we’ve got a group of international students, or international tourists, we tend to tell the story of Princess Caraboo. I don’t know how much to give away of the tour.”

Who is this ‘Princess Caraboo’?

“Princess Caraboo was this woman who appeared one day in the 1800s with this black dress and a turban on her head and she’s talking in this language that nobody can understand. Kind of babbling through the markets and things. People don’t know what to do with her and they can’t understand her. So they take her to the governor’s house and he’s trying to decide what to do with her… They piece together bits of information and discover that she’s a princess from an island and she was kidnapped by pirates and they’re sailing past Bristol and she jumps ship and swims ashore. And she arrives in Bristol and she becomes a national celebrity because of her exotic nature. People would talk about how she did all these crazy things and the newspapers would report that she climbed onto the roof late at night and sang and that she fashioned a bow and arrow and goes hunting in Bristol and all this kind of thing. But then this guy is reading about her and he thinks to himself: ‘hang on a second!’ And he goes to see her and says: ‘that’s Mary Baker!’ And Mary Baker was a woman who used to work for him. And this girl, Mary Baker, one day put a turban on her head, made up a language and just fooled everybody. Aristocrats were coming from all over the UK to visit Princess Caraboo and people were talking about her home culture and analysing her and really she was just some woman that used to live in Bristol, in Bedminster. Everything is possible in Bristol if you just make it happen.”

Are there some stories that you always tell?

“There are a few stories that chop and change. But there are also a few stories that you can’t tell the story as a whole without those stories. Like John Cabot and his adventure to America or the slave trade and William Wilberforce. There are certain stories that are just so key to Bristol’s past that they can’t really be ignored.”

Do you deal with the more difficult aspects of Bristol’s past? Like the slave trade, for instance?

“We don’t go into it in nearly as much depth as we could do but it’s not something we’re going to ignore. And we want people to think every time they walk over Pero’s Bridge that that was something we took part in.”

Do you enjoy giving the tour?

“I really enjoy giving the tour. Bristol has got such a great story, such a rich story to tell. It’s great fun telling it. Some really interesting characters and some really amusing things that happen. I’m enjoying it. We’ll see where it goes.”

You seem remarkably passionate about stories and characters from the past. What do you feel is the benefit of a stories-based approach to history over dates and facts?

“A lot of what you’re trying to do is to get people to understand. For example, the Second War World and the Blitz in Bristol… it’s not necessarily a fun story to tell at all… but it’s just trying to get people to understand what it was like and kind of see and feel and experience what it was like rather than just… hearing about it. The fact of it happening is not the most important part of the story. So yeah, Sandeman’s would tell really good stories but I think what we found that they did (which is what I’m trying to do in Bristol) was provide this background. We’d arrive in a city and we didn’t know anything about it. You knew all the kind of touristy stuff and you knew that there were bits and pieces here and there… So, for example, you arrive in Berlin – everyone knows about the war and that it’s the capital of Germany but you would do the tour and it would just give you a flavourful introduction into Berlin… and attempt to answer the question ‘WHY is Berlin like this?’. So the Jewish memorial is right in the centre of Berlin… But you wouldn’t necessarily know that. You wouldn’t know what it’s about. They also stop at Checkpoint Charlie and they talk about it and you get that little bit of flavour of what it was like at the time when they couldn’t cross between the zones. They tell a few of the stories of the more ridiculous efforts to cross. Like one guy, for instance, who went all over Germany to find a car that was short enough to drive straight under the barrier. That’s a really funny story but it’s also part of giving that little bit of insight into why people were so desperate to cross.”

‘Why’ is an important question for you, isn’t it James?

“I think it’s really great to learn the reasons why. Down to why Isambard came to Bristol. He had been going around the place and looking for different bits of work. And he came to Bristol initially to do the Suspension Bridge because they were having this competition. Brunel said Bristol was a great place to be an engineer. When you look at the floating harbour, for example, before Isambard even arrived, you get a sense of why.”

Are there some stories that only come to life when you’re in a certain place?

“The story of John Cabot makes a lot more sense when you actually see The Matthew. How big an adventure it was. The Matthew is tiny. John Cabot was sailing out at the same kind of time as Columbus. He and his men were the first to set foot in North America.”

So do you view this as being mainly for tourists or for Bristol residents too?

“I’d love it to be something that Bristol people or students would take their guests on when they came to visit. I’ve brought Bristol people on it before and they’ve often said things like ‘I didn’t know that’ and ‘Oh wow, I’ve always wondered…’”

Did you know a lot about Bristol before you came? Are you a self-taught Bristol scholar?

“I learned a lot this summer and I did a lot of reading this summer. But before that, no, certainly not.”

How would you like people to go come away from the tour?

“I hope people come away from the tour going ‘Bristol’s such a great city’. And we’ll be like: ‘Yep, correct!’”

Would you like to run the tours more regularly?

“I’d love to do it more regularly because Bristol gets a lot of tourists! A surprising number of people come to Bristol. The tourist office say that get about 200 people a day. Might even be more than that. That was peak Winter.”

Is it something you want to transform into a longer-term business?

“It started off as a tour for students but I don’t see it continuing as that. It’s a tour about Bristol. I’m trying to work with the university, of course, but it’s about expanding after that.”

Don’t the university already run tours for students?

“The university organises tours. But those are like: ‘This is Wills Memorial Building… This is Senate House… This is The Library… This is where all the clubs are… This is The Triangle.’ That’s fine. But ours is not a students’ tour of Bristol. It’s Bristol’s history. We call it ‘a stroll through Bristol’s past.’”

How would you pitch your tour to me now?

“We start from the Marriot Hotel at 11am. We walk for 2 and a half hours and we have a half hour stop for lunch. We finish back at the Marriot Hotel on College Green at 2. In that time, you’ll learn about 60,000 years of Bristol’s history. You’ll hear about pirates, you’ll learn about John Cabot and his big adventure, you might hear about Princess Caraboo or Nipper the dog… You’ll start 60,000 years ago and you’ll finish in the present day. And currently it’s the only free tour of Bristol. So come and join us for a stroll through Bristol’s past. Check the website for current tour dates.”

Are you on any other websites besides hubbub?

“If you check us out, we’re on Trip Advisor. There are 17 tours registered there and we’re rated 2nd!”

Can people just turn up on Saturdays?

“People always need to check the website beforehand to make sure a tour is happening. The plan is every Saturday, yes, but they have been cancelled once or twice.”

Would you consider doing any other types of Bristol tour, perhaps catering to specific interest groups?

“Well down the line, future-wise. Maybe we’ll start doing some specific tours. Like New Bristol or Alternative Bristol or Arts Bristol. Because Bristol has a really big arts scene now.”

When are you hoping to go gung-ho on the promotion side of Walking Bristol?

“I’m planning for the website and everything to be finished by the end of April.”

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