What’s in a name? Oxford Guiding 101

Updated: Sep 27, 2019

Certain ideas come to mind when the city of Oxford is mentioned – university, knowledge, learning, spires, gowns. What does not often come to mind is the word ‘tourist’. Yet Oxford as a city draws an impressive influx of tourists every year, who flood the streets during the day and disappear by sunset. Many visitors are confronted with the beautiful sandstone buildings and busy streets and feel unsure of how to navigate them. It is common for them to be lost as to which doorways they are allowed to cross and which spaces they can explore.


The solution is to find a guide – and this city has many to choose from! They come in various forms, and with a highly variable list of credentials. The tourist information centre will book a ‘badge guide’ for you at a rate of £140/tour. The blue and green badge guides walk the streets with an authority gleaned from having taken the official training courses and written the exam. The exam runs strangely infrequently and the training itself costs quite a bit of money. For those who cannot afford this type of certification, they can find employment through the alternative tour companies, who run walk up tours and tip-based free walking tours.


The information you would receive from a guide is tailored to the experience of a tour – it is humorous, educational, and engaging. However, this same format also means that some of the information is suspect. As many locals know, guides can exaggerate, generalise, be misleading, or flat out lie to their audience. I have often heard guides on the streets use the joke: ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story.’





I have often heard guides on the streets use the joke: ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story.’

Yet these instances should not spoil one's opinion of the guiding business in the city. I have given tours of the streets of Oxford for over three years now. I am a historian, and I care deeply about its history and the many stories the city holds. This history should be told, re-told, and re-told again - because it is unique and interesting. As a guide – I also understand how difficult it is to convey information to an audience who is more concerned about where Harry Potter was filmed than the date the library was built. Additionally, I understand the pressure placed on a guide to have the answers to the many diverse questions asked by an audience – Ranging from the exact date and meaning of every possible inscription on the entire route, to the modern uses for each and every building, room, doorway, quad, and wall in the city.


As a guide you are meant to have these answers, and it is tempting to provide an answer even when you do not have one. Ranging from the exact date and meaning of every possible inscription on the entire route, to the modern uses for each and every building, room, doorway, quad, and wall in the city.


Today is International Tour Guide Day and I want to recognise the value of a guide – even one who does not have all the answers. A guide is someone who provides direction when you are new and unsure of how a city works. Their job is to be engaging, interesting, and educational. The best guides will ensure a tour leaves you with an understanding of past and present, and that you will walk away still thinking about what you have learned. A guide is passionate about what they do – after all, it takes a lot of courage and energy to stand in front of a group and speak for almost two hours! We choose this job because we love people, and we love teaching.


We want to help provide information when we can and to share the city we adore with the many visitors who are curious to discover it.

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