‘Blue Badge’ guides make London mecca of tourism

Blue Badge guide Sarah Reynolds leads a tour of Westminster Abbey on Feb. 6. (Adam Babetski/MEDILL)
Blue Badge guide Sarah Reynolds leads a tour of Westminster Abbey on Feb. 6. (Adam Babetski/MEDILL)

By Adam Babetski

Medill Reports

On a typical dreary Tuesday in central London, Blue Badge tour guide Sarah Reynolds arrived for work at an atypical place: Westminster Abbey, a church steeped in history that dates back nearly a millennium. Monuments honoring kings and celebrities that would be the centerpieces of other churches were merely part of the scenery there, each being pushed out of the way by time’s steady march. 

After an hour of sightseeing, Reynolds led her group past the gilded tomb of Queen Elizabeth I to her final stop of the tour: Poet’s Corner, the posthumous home of Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and George Frideric Handel. 

The guests left with camera rolls full of photos and unforgettable memories, but it was another day at the office for Reynolds, who has led hundreds of tours of the ancient cathedral she calls “an old friend.” 

Reynolds — a lifelong history buff now in her 60s  — has been one of England’s prestigious Blue Badges since she was 26 years old in 1988. Since then, she has seen her profession evolve from a hobby for many guides into a serious, full-time commitment. 

So, what does it take to become one of the best? Unlike their competitors at travel agencies like Viator, where guides can sign up immediately, Blue Badges must pass a yearslong gauntlet of rigorous tests to earn their stripes. Reynolds took three primary exams for background knowledge about Britain, London and day trips from the city. She took separate exams for each of the historical locations exclusive to Blue Badges, among them Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Wimbledon. 

It’s not just the facts that make a Blue Badge tour, it’s also the presentation. Reynolds’ mentor, Katrine Prince, who developed the exam course, emphasized the delivery of the tour itself over the knowledge that went into it, Reynolds said.

“Half of the exam sheet is not marking what you’re saying, it’s marking how you say it: Can you be heard? Do you always look at the room and don’t turn your back on me? Do you make sure you’re actually pointing at what they’re looking at?” Reynolds said. “Up to that point, people just heard encyclopedic knowledge, and it was not getting across to people in an accessible way.”

Some Blue Badge tours are available only for a small group of highly qualified guides — the best of the best. Reynolds personally reviews her peers’ applications for Wimbledon since only around 20 guides can operate there at any given time. 

Blue Badges aren’t always fond of every site they tour, but tastes can change over the years. Reynolds avoided the National Gallery because she disliked art until an “unbelievable magician” of a guide helped her come around.

“Within one and a half hours of him doing the tour, I was a complete and utter convert,” she said. 

Today, Reynolds organizes the guides responsible for the Gallery’s tours.

“There’s nothing quite like seeing people who were perhaps like I was … suddenly become really interested. You feel that you’ve done your job then,” she said. 

Blue Badge guides are freelancers who can accept or reject tours based on their schedules. Reynolds’ favorite tour site, Wimbledon, has a set schedule of three 90-minute public tours per day between 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Aside from a few special cases, guides can work a full day of up to nine hours anytime between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Sarah Reynolds at Wimbledon’s famous Centre Court on Feb. 8. (Adam Babetski/MEDILL)
Sarah Reynolds at Wimbledon’s famous Centre Court on Feb. 8. (Adam Babetski/MEDILL)

Guides lead evening tours and events for a separate charge. For example, Reynolds has hosted private dinners at the Tower of London after a day of touring.

“That’s why I love the job,” she said. “For me, the pleasure, the real joy, is going to places (people) don’t normally go to, to do weird things. To see these places when they’re empty, to see them lit by candles at night is just magic.” 

Tourists are flooding back to London since the COVID-19 pandemic dropped annual visitors from 21.71 million in 2019 to a paltry 2.72 million in 2021. According to Statista’s research department, 16.12 million people journeyed from overseas to England’s capital in 2022. 

Ever-ready Blue Badges are stepping up to meet the rising tide of demand. During the height of summer, Reynolds said she worked 17 hours per day and up to seven days per week. 

When Reynolds’ long days lead to sheer fatigue, she reminds herself her passion for giving tours is also how she makes a living.

“We (guides) have a little phrase, especially if there’s a few of us and we’re all beginning to fade … you catch someone’s eye and you just go, ‘T.O.T.M,’ which stands for ‘Think of the money,’” she said.

Reynolds has also worked with the NFL for the league’s annual games in London. One of her fondest memories as a Blue Badge was when she helped the equipment team set up in Wembley Stadium in the early hours before a game between the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons in 2014. Reynolds said many of the Lions’ players high-fived her in the tunnel after they came back to win the game. 

“I’ve got a picture of me sitting in this locker room at 2 in the morning with all the kits laid out … that was quite exciting, sort of a behind-the-scenes moment,” she said.

Sarah Reynolds before an NFL game at Wembley Stadium in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Reynolds)
Sarah Reynolds before an NFL game at Wembley Stadium in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Reynolds)

Reynolds operates her own small company, Questa Travel, where she manages a group of Blue Badge guides and books lodging and transportation for guests. Reynolds said she is looking forward to developing her company and emphasized Blue Badges are key to maintaining England’s past.

“I think history does inform today and does inform the future, and we perhaps need to learn more from history,” she said. “The day standards start slipping and people aren’t good enough to wear that blue badge is a very bad day.”

Adam Babetski is a graduate investigative journalism student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBabetski or connect with him on LinkedIn.