Jason Goodwin: The dragoman’s life of travel, history and locking tourists in Pharaohs’ tombs

Our columnist opens up about the world of the 'dragomans', the über tour guides whose tales of wayward travellers are second to none.

I was sorry not to make the annual Dragoman Dinner. Polymaths who occasionally double as tour guides, dragomans lead interested parties up the Alps, down the Nile, into the heart of Classical Greece and Turkey, along the Danube and so on. Most of them will have written books about their subjects and all of them know how to tell a good story.

At the last dinner I attended, they all told stories – mostly horror stories – about tours they had led and people they’d encountered and the various disasters that had befallen them. They told of heart attacks in the Namibian desert and allergic reactions on the Mekong.

One dragoman recalled his horror at discovering, by text, that they’d left a mother and daughter locked in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Another had taken a party of New Yorkers to Wells Cathedral, expatiating on its status as the first absolutely Gothic building of its kind in the world. Afterwards, a woman had turned to him with a puzzled frown and asked if they were in some kind of, like, temple?

They spoke fondly of clients who drank too deep of the complimentary wines and had to be manhandled up mountains and through valleys the following day, less so of others who were rude to the staff or got off with them, and of smouldering feuds, outbreaks of bossiness and incomprehension and of perpetual diarrhoea.

‘There was a stamping as of many feet and a drumming as of many hands on the table and the toast was drunk with enthusiastic gratitude’

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At the end of the evening, toasts were proposed to the organisers of the dinner and to the cooks. An authority on sub-Saharan prehistoric art toasted her fellow travellers, the clients without whom, for all their faults and peccadilloes, life would be less rich and her journeys more expensive.

Her toast prompted an expert on Viking stave churches to rise to his feet and raise a glass.

‘Fellow dragomans,’ he declared. ‘I propose a toast to those travellers who never get weary, who always see the funny side, who prick everyone’s balloons of pomposity and pride, remain consistently cheerful and know how to enjoy themselves, from the Western Ghats of southern India to the frozen tundra of Siberia. My friends, I give you the Aussies and the Kiwis!’

‘Aussies! Kiwis!’ There was a stamping as of many feet and a drumming as of many hands on the table and the toast was drunk with enthusiastic gratitude, for if there is ever someone you always want on a tour, it’s somebody happy, healthy and cheerful from Down Under.

If you can’t get hold of the blessed antipodeans, it’s probably best to keep these safaris short and close to home. The other day, I played dragoman myself, leading a pilgrim band from All Hallows by the Tower to Westminster Abbey with Guy Hayward from the British Pilgrimage Trust.

On the way, we ate a picnic lunch in the crypt of St Bride’s, where a kind gentleman offered me a glass of his Burgundy. Chinese evangelicals chased us out of St Martin’s on Ludgate Hill. We admired London Stone in its restored setting. Guy sang a tender shanty by the river, at Old Billingsgate Fish Market, and I expatiated on the legends of the Trojan kings, Wren and votive offerings in the Thames.

No one took ill or misbehaved, but several people wrote to say how much they had enjoyed the day, visiting churches and statuary along the Royal Route, touching at palaces and holy wells and reaching Westminster Abbey in time for Evensong.

Our pilgrimage climaxed in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, whose glittering shrine contains the saint’s bones. It was such a success that we’re doing it again in April. Check the BPT website for details, as we dragomans like to say.