They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace – but these days Christopher Robin would have trouble making out anything Alice says to him. Official Blue Badge guides working in London say a new wave of freelance tour guides at major tourist sights are deafening them and their guests by using megaphones and portable voice amplifiers.
The Institute for Tourist Guiding (ITG) says its members are increasingly concerned about the unofficial guides who have begun operating this summer around Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament.
“It’s proliferating,” said Carole Hiley, president of the ITG. “Last year there might have been one or two, but now suddenly they’re everywhere in the City of Westminster, at all the main sights. Some days it’s worse than others, and worse in different places.” Some of the 600 ITG members who operate in London say they have had to compete with as many as five amplified guides at a time.
“They were around before Covid,” Hiley said, “but they weren’t causing a huge problem. Now tourist numbers have come back – they’ve really escalated in London this year, which is brilliant – and it has brought this problem with them.”
In Friday’s morning sunshine, the Mall was packed with people keen to watch the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards hand over to Number 9 Company Irish Guards, accompanied by their mascot, an Irish wolfhound called Seamus, and the band of the Grenadier Guards.
Dozens of tour groups, perhaps as many as 50, lined the route from Marlborough Road, where the soldiers assemble in the courtyard of St James’s Palace, all the way up the Mall as far as Buckingham Palace.
As soldiers marched past in their red tunics and bearskins, the guides scrambled along the pavement, holding up umbrellas, flags – or, in one case, a teddy bear – for their parties to follow. Anyone trying to use a loudspeaker would have been drowned out by the military band, but after the ceremony David Cox, a guide with seven years’ experience, says the problem is not simply volume, but numbers. “They do my head in,” he said. “It’s at its worst in high season, from late June to the first few days of September.” Today has not been too bad. “Sometimes they have as many as 40 people in a group.”
The art of guiding is to tell a story while making sure clients have a good view. On Friday a dozen or so groups had squeezed on to raised terraces so they could see the guards march past Queen Victoria’s Monument and through the palace gates. Cox said he tries to set the scene beforehand.
“Once they guards arrive, you’re pretty much commentating on what they’re doing. Most guides will just do spits and spots. We reach a sort of consensus on what the right volume is. If you have an amplified commentary right beside you, it can really put you off your game. It’s a free country: there are so many guides doing this nowadays. But you do have to be respectful.”
As people began to drift away, amplified voices could be heard all along the Mall. A guide with a Spanish accent muted her microphone to discuss the issue. “If I have a colleague around me, I switch it off,” she said, gesturing at the empty spaces around her group. “There are places we don’t use it, like Queen Anne’s Gate, because people live there. I don’t use it unless I’m away from other people.” On a previous day, the guide said, she had been standing next to another guide who was using a loudspeaker and kept turning towards her, directing the sound at her group. “It was very annoying. You need to think about other people.”
The ITG has asked Westminster council what powers it has on the issue, and plans to write to the royal parks authority, which administers the area of St James’s Park around Buckingham Palace. Park regulations prohibit the use of devices that amplify sound without permission.
While many of the guides on the Mall on Friday were using small amplifiers clipped to a belt, during the high season some guides were seen using megaphones.
Janet Sayers, a Blue Badge guide of 30 years’ standing, told how she’d taken an American family to St James’s Palace to watch the beginning of the ceremony in August.
“This female guide blocked everything in front of us, then stood in the road, bellowing with this megaphone,” Sayers said. “She just dominated the whole area – the only option was for me to shut up or move on.
“It has become busier because they’ve stopped changing the guard every day – they now only do Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday,” Sayers said. She now tries to avoid the tourist hotspots. “A lot of us do it as little as possible because of the crowds and loud-hailers.”
Antony Robbins, a former director of the Museum of London who runs tours as Mr Londoner, said he had also seen people using megaphones. “It’s pretty awful,” he said. “Holding a megaphone and shouting into it is not going to endear your to anyone. I hope someone puts a stop to it. It’s bad manners, it’s bad etiquette – and it’s bad guiding.”