Get to Know Liverpool Guide Neil McDonald

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As a former coach driver in the U.K. and Europe, Neil McDonald regularly worked alongside tour guides. It was those guides — who were quirky and brought humour and style to a tour — that inspired him to train as a Blue Badge Guide in what he calls the most amazing U.K. city: Liverpool. “I was lucky as Liverpool was (named) a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004 and, more importantly, was asked to host the European Capital of Culture in 2008, which has been a major catalyst to tourism in Liverpool,” said McDonald. Now, as a certified Liverpool guide with Brilliant Liverpool Tours, he shares his passion for the city — and The Beatles — with scores of visitors from around the world.
What led to the creation of Beatles-themed tours?

If you are born and live in Liverpool, when you tell someone that, they always say “Oh, The Beatles!” It’s a huge international tourism magnet and I doubt very much that we would have succeeded in our bid for 2008 European Capital of Culture without the legacy of the Fab4. There was an obvious gap in the market for a Beatles-themed walk so we created the Liverpool Beatles Walk, which not only showcases all the important Beatles sites in the city centre … the walk also enables us to bring our city to life. And if you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare … one of which is the world’s fifth largest and is where Sir Paul McCartney failed his audition in 1953 to join the cathedral choir!

What are some of your most popular or unique tour offerings?

Many of our tours are bespoke tours for hen or stag parties or educational tours for schools or historical groups to Liverpool. … (Some) bespoke tours visit Penny Lane and Strawberry Field where we give our guests strawberries and a glass of bubbly or we visit a combination of attractions in a full or half day — for example, our football grounds or one of our many free museums and galleries. As well as our popular daytime Beatles Walk, we are about to offer a superb evening tour … called the Liverpool Hard Days Night Tour. It will bring the city to life as we project images and film clips from the ’60s, and at the same time the guides will be in costume and will bring a touch of their character’s personality to the tour. Our Comedy Coach Tour is really quirky and we use a professional comedian to bring a touch of “scouse humour” to a 45-minute coach tour in the city centre, with a glass of bubbly.

Do you have a certain style of guiding, or do you just run with it on the day?

We do have a certain style of guiding, as all of our tours are branded with a massive amount of Fun with a capital F. We are qualified Blue Badge Guides and we do know the history of our city, and it’s important to be accurate especially with the story of the Fab4 — but most people don’t just want a dialogue of dates and we try to learn all about our group. If there’s a birthday then we will all sing happy birthday, or for a hen group we will find out about the “hen” and do those extra special things to make her day with us unforgettable.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part is seeing people laugh and smile or gasp in amazement when they enter the Anglican Cathedral, which takes your breath away. Our city is extremely friendly — it’s totally different to London or Paris — and visitors always comment about that. Many visitors have never been before or have preconceptions from Liverpool in the 1980s after the riots or picture Liverpool people (scousers) in “shell suits” (tracksuits). They are blown away when they see how it’s changed and is now the most buzzing city in the U.K.

What’s the most challenging part?

The most challenging part is putting together an itinerary for a group and being able to deliver it all within a timescale, and that takes lots of experience, very careful planning and learning from experience — for example, do not take a group to see Sir Antony Gormley’s iron men statues on Crosby Beach at high tide!

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour?

I once had a Canadian Beatles fan trying to climb over the wall at Strawberry Field and he explained that 10 years earlier he had visited and wanted to bury Winston — who turned out to be their family cat named after John Winston Lennon. He’d brought poor old Winston’s ashes in a pot but only had time to throw them over the wall and thought 10 years later they would still be there. We regularly get people proposing marriage at Strawberry Field, which is the most poignant spot on our tours.

As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain the benefits of hiring a guide?

The most obvious benefit is that we know our city very well. We can quickly find out what the visitors’ interests are, we already know exactly what’s happening in the city on that day and because we don’t need to waste so much time looking at maps, we can show our visitors so much more and we are able to put it all into context.

In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

A huge personality, a love of tourism and being extremely proud of the Liverpool City Region.

What is the importance of being a Blue Badge certified guide?

The Blue Badge is the highest standard — in our case we studied for nearly two years with eight very tough exams. This badge identifies guides and assures visitors that not only do they have detailed knowledge but they have also been trained in managing the group in terms of safety and choosing locations, and all Blue Badge Guides are insured. Many travel companies will only use Blue Badge Guides.

What’s a unique titbit about Liverpool that most people don’t know?

We believe that Hope Street is unique as it’s the only street in the world with a cathedral at either end immortalized in the folksong “in my Liverpool home, if you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare.” Hope Street also won The Great Street Award in the 2013 National Urbanism Awards. Hope Street is home to the newly rebuilt Everyman Theatre, which won the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2015, as well as the Philharmonic Hall that Sir Paul McCartney visits every summer to personally hand out the graduation certificates to the students from his Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA).

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I’d love to visit Shanghai, which has a waterfront called The Bund that is remarkably similar to and easily mistaken for Liverpool. Liverpool was the only U.K. city to be represented in Shanghai at the World Expo in 2010 and our two main stands —Liverpool Football Club (LFC) and The Beatles — attracted more visitors than any other stands at the expo. Liverpool was twinned with Shanghai in 1999 and as a consequence we have the largest multiple-spanned Chinese arch outside of mainland China, and our own Chinatown is an absolute must-visit too, especially at Chinese New Year.

If you liked this, you might like Explore Liverpool and Explore England.

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