It was a grey chilly Saturday morning in February 2016. Most people would have been sleeping in or still tucked under a warm blanket with a hot chocolate by their side. Rob and Ruby, on the other hand, woke up earlier than usual and made their way to the main square in Birmingham. They had a mission that brought a surge of adrenaline rush in them.
While waiting nervously for the crowd to congregate, bystanders were curious what they were up to in this freezing weather. They looked back at these people hoping they would come up to them and tell them they were there to join their walking tour – The very first walking tour in Birmingham.
For the last couple of days, they had been going around Birmingham handing out leaflets at hotels to spread words about their free walking tour.
When he told his parents about the tour he was about to start, they looked at him incredulously and burst into laughter, “No one would ever want to walk around Birmingham in February!” Undeterred by their reaction, a voice inside him prodded him to press on.
As seconds turned into minutes, the first participant finally showed up, then the second, third, eventually a total of 6 participants, including Ruby’s parents, turned up on their first tour. The tour was a blast. The first taste of success was exhilarating and motivated them to keep going. A week later, 20 people turned up and they knew they had made something that people really wanted.
Embrace your ideas
The idea of the walking tour began when Rob and Ruby were on a trip to South America. During a walking tour in Sao Paulo, Rob thought to himself “This could work in Birmingham!” It felt like a bolt of lightning went right through him. When they returned home to the UK, they were unemployed and needed a project to stay productive. He decided to give the walking tour a go.
An idea remains an idea unless you put it into action
To start it off, Rob printed off a map, putting dots on all the locations where he knew interesting stories about. He later supplemented additional information from his research.
“I didn’t have any experience as a tour guide at the time. I just love local history, have a layman’s appreciation of architecture and know how to tell a good story. I realized we could make a tour weaving together an interesting narrative about the city. So, we decided to go for it.”
“We were the first weekly walking tour. At the start of 2016, we really felt we were completely alone in trying to help visitors to settle in and learn about the history and culture of Birmingham. Now there are lots of tours and that vibrancy is brilliant!”
The first step is always the hardest
“Writing the tour script is the hardest part”, Rob reminisced the hard work and effort put into his first tour.
The research was laborious and time consuming. The key is to make a 2-hour tour that is historically accurate, honest and fun at the same time.
“Fortunately, the setup cost was not as much as we had imagined. However, I still went into my overdraft by about £200 to buy some more local history books, register with Companies House, acquire a website domain, print the uniforms, the leaflets and some Facebook advertising.”
“I thought we’d need a permit from the City Council. It turned out that we did not need one. No one from the Council has ever approached us about the tour – We just carried on doing it week in week out giving people a great tour.”
Every city has a story worth telling
Birmingham used to suffer a bad reputation stemming from the rapid growth and industrialization in the 18th century and the snobbery of longer established towns.
In the 1960s, many beautiful historical streets and buildings were demolished to make way for the inner ring road and a concrete shopping center. Now Birmingham has been transformed into a metropolitan that offers quality living and pedestrian friendly walkways.
“I’d like to think some people start the tour with these misconceptions about Birmingham, and have a 360-degree shift in their impression of the city towards the end of the tour”
“Although it is impossible to do this now due to Covid-19, I loved taking people to the ‘Secret Garden’ on the 7th floor of the library. There lies a viewing platform overlooking a tower that is thought to have inspired JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, when he was living in the city as a child. I love seeing his fans geeking out. The look on their face is priceless! Also, the viewpoint over the city is spectacular and I always have some cheesy jokes to make people groan. Luckily, it’s 7 flights of stairs down to the exit, most of them would have to bear with me instead of turning to leave at the punchline.
His favorite stop is the remodeled “Chamberlain Square”. Over the last five years, a string of construction sites popped up like mushrooms all over the city. Although Chamberlain Square was part of the tour stops, they had never been able to tour inside the square as the whole area was sealed off with construction fences.
With a tone of frustration, Rob pointed to the memorial monument over the hoardings and said, “People say Birmingham will be great when it is finished ….We’ve been saying that for over 100 years!”.
When the construction was completed, Rob was thrilled that he finally could do the tour inside the square.
“It looks incredible with the refurbished Chamberlain Memorial fountain. It’s the closest thing to Italy I’ll get to this year.”
Work for happiness not for money
Rob prefers a tip-based walking tour. It means that anyone can enjoy the tour and learn about the city irrespective of their circumstances.
“A few people don’t pay but it doesn’t bother me. Last Saturday I had someone who had lost their job during the pandemic, so the few coins were appreciated. Most people are in a position to be generous after enjoying two hours of a tour on a Saturday morning. That’s the best thing about a tip-based tour!”
In the first year, they donated all their profit to a charity helping victims of domestic abuse, the cause that is close to his heart. He also used some of the money to reimburse his initial setup costs.
This year, instead of taking their wage, they are donating all the money to charity.
“I do this because I love meeting new people. I’m proud to show them my city. I think Birmingham benefits from someone showing people around as if they’re friends.”
Things are changing this year with Ruby, who is a teacher, moving to Spain for a couple of years. Rob will hold down the fort and carry on with the tour albeit less frequently at the moment.
Rob has a busy job as an Operations Manager in an NHS hospital in the Black Country, an area west of Birmingham. He donated the proceeds from the first few tours back to the hospital charity.
“It’s been a really difficult 18 months with the Covid-19 pandemic. I really wanted to raise some money for the hospital. Doing the tour on top of my day job means my life can be very busy but I wouldn’t have it any other way!”
Enjoy every moment as much as possible
Rob has many anecdotes to tell from his tours. One of his favorites was an elderly gentleman in a flat cap shouted at him as he made his way towards him and a large tour of about 30 people, “Have you told them about Ebony?”. Rob said no but encouraged him to share the story.
The man took the whole tour group to the foot of the statue of Queen Victoria, pointing out a concrete slab with a paw print in it along with a name “Ebony”. Rob saw this before but hadn’t ever read about why it was there.
The gentleman said that one of the builders remodeling the Square in 1992/93 had a black Labrador named Ebony. He brought the dog to the building site every day. The builders were so fond of the dog that they imprinted her paw print in the final design.
“It was such a brilliant natural moment. The tour group loved it and so did I. I often tell this story to the people who arrive early at the start of the tour now”.
Take the bad with the good
When asked to recount some unpleasant experiences on the tour, Rob said, “There really haven’t been too many, fortunately! Sometimes you get interesting characters around town that heckle me when I am speaking to the group.”
He usually shrugs them off or makes a joke out of it, “He is my competitor!”
Other than that, the only bad time was when he had a terrible hangover.
“There’s nothing like having 30 people stare at you for 2 hours to tip a hangover over the edge. I learned my lesson.”
Practice makes perfect
“You get better after every tour. Tell a story to get a laugh and break the ice. The old adage about comedy being all about timing is really true! Guests will ask questions and sometimes it’s apparent that the group has enjoyed the new knowledge through these questions. Their questions spurred me to add more contents to my script. It’s like having a constant feedback loop.”
He has done the tour so many times that he no longer needs much preparation prior to the tour.
“All I do is arrive 5 minutes early and talk to the tour guests. I’m always interested in what people’s plans are for the city. I’d be nervous in the early days. Speaking to the guests ahead of the tour helped settle my nerves.”
Having a theme can help you focus
“I think what matters most is telling the story of the city. You can point out random sights of interest but if it doesn’t fit the narrative of the city, then it won’t be interesting.”
“Think about what themes you want to draw out and then use the physical surroundings to tell that story. That’s the thing I always look out for on walking tours.”
“The best walking tour I’ve ever been on is Medellin in Colombia – the whole narrative was about the city being reborn after decades of violence from the drug cartels run by people like Pablo Escobar. Every stop related back to the story of the city which made the overall experience much more exciting.”
Granpa and granma always know best. Rob always turned to his grandparents to dig up tales of the past in the city that could lead him down some interesting avenues.
“People come on the tour to listen to something personal from you. If you’re not interested in it, don’t talk about it – it won’t come off authentic.”
Turn your passion into purpose
“People love hearing about other people’s passions. If you’re passionate about your town or city and can put on a good performance, people will come and listen. I guarantee it. Do your research, write a good script and give it a go. You’ve got nothing to lose!
Call out to all brummies interested in a walking tour
If you are passionate about Birmingham, then come on board and help Rob deliver the weekly tour. You can put your own slant on the tour or even launch completely different tours.
“I’m committed to maintaining our charitable giving, but there’s definitely space for new people to take a wage from the tour too.”
“It’s a fun side hustle for the right people. The infrastructure is all set up awaiting you. I want to do a couple more tours now that we’ve restarted after Covid and then I’ll be trying to drum up support on Twitter.”
If you’re a brummy and this is something of your interest- Rob would like you to get in touch with him
Remember, if you think you have a story worth telling, hold your nerve and go for it.
Note: The article is written based on an interview with Rob Ankcorn
All photographs credit: Rob Ankcorn