"Don't judge a book by its cover" runs the sententious idiom, but we can safely ignore it in the case of Tom Worrallo, blossoming author and Footprints Tour host (and self-confessed "massive fan of Daily Info"). Allowing for a little understandable massaging of the persona for the profession of tour guide where histrionic talent, humour, tact and cheerfulness all feature large on the job spec., I'd hazard that with Tom what you see you get. If in his case that vital admixture is supplemented by a generous dollop of eccentric drollery, then that went down a treat with the 65-strong group of Brits, Europeans and citizens of the World that had gathered outside No. 5, Broad Street at the sign of the green bicycle on a sunny March morning tempered by a strong north-easterly blowing in from the Ural Mountains.
There was nothing startling about the route chosen for our two hour perambulation; along Turl St to the Covered Market, past Carfax Tower and down St Aldates to Tom Tower and Christ Church, over the fields to the Cherwell though banks of Tete a Tete and Jetfire dwarf daffodils and then back to the High St and Radcliffe Camera. Tom's modus operandi was to make relatively few stops, but when he did call a halt he would take a brisk trot through the life and times of the chosen spot, including a sometimes quite prolonged anecdote. Thus at the Covered Market we were introduced to the dichotomy of town and gown, including learning that every college has a pet tortoise. At the back of Merton College, JRR Tolkien's alma mater, he discoursed at first on the iniquities of the Bullingdon Club and then, at length, on the author's semi-amateur status and the dodginess of authorial faux-modesty in general. Was this a trifle recherché for his non-specialist audience, I wondered? Not a bit of it, according to the swift vox pop reaction I gleaned en route to St Mary the Virgin.
Tom told me he does c. 2 tours per day five times a week and has been guiding for the last five years. That being so, I take my hat off to him: there was never a hint of staleness or jaded familiarity with his subject; he came up fresh as a daisy for our group, bursting with eager bonhomie. He spoke quite quickly and without a microphone, using a wide range of vocabulary in his frequent, throwaway remarks, making next to no concession for tour participants who did not have English as their first language. Again, I wondered how much of what he was saying was comprehensible to his audience. No problem, it seemed: those who failed to catch every word gathered the gist and were content.
Two little incidents en route added a touch of amusement. In the Covered Market an elderly pedant in checked pork pie hat doing his Saturday shopping butted into our guide's discourse, twice putting him straight about Christ Church being a house rather than a college, and being expertly disposed of when he threatened to become tedious. Later, there was a running joust between Tom and two young women in the group seemingly fascinated by his hairstyle (leonine and luxuriant though unexceptionable); a pair of Delilahs to his Samson. Turning away from them, he chaffed a couple of French members:
"Of course we know what you're like with your kings: choppy, choppy!"
These Footprints Tours are neither intended nor, I think, expected by their customers to be more than a diverting introduction to city and university. Thus neither the architecture of the buildings we encountered nor, say, the city in the Civil War were touched on. The main drawback I noted was the group size on this pre-peak season Saturday. Swelling to 70 by the time we reached St Mary the Virgin, sheer numbers made both brief stops and individual guide/participant interaction difficult or impossible, and some time was wasted while the extended crocodile filtered into the chosen stopping places. But within their terms of reference, and from both my observation and my soundings of group members they are a big hit. These are free tours, and you tip the guide at the end as much or as little as you please. On this day, Tom's sense of style and his kindly ebullience went generously rewarded.