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Question time: David Whitley

Guided tours can be useful sources of information. They’re also the natural habitat of infuriatingly dull turbo-yappers with more queries than the Spanish Inquisition

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“So, is the wooden flooring original?” Heaven help me. She’s still going — completely unaware that when a tour guide asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” they mean “Don’t ask me any questions.”

Alas, our inquisitive little soldier has plenty of questions, all on astonishingly dull topics. Minor Civil War troop movements, the origin of cutlery in a particular drawer, how the bricks around the window frames were smoothed — there’s no subject dull enough to hold back from.

This is one of the perils of a guided tour: ending up in a group with someone determined to thrust themselves into the foreground at every opportunity. There comes a point where inquisitiveness gives way to rampantly needy egomania. No one minds the odd query about something pertinent, but there are unwritten rules — and when you’re talking more than the guide is, you’ve not just crossed a line, but run a parade of trumpet-parping carnival floats over it.

Of course, this sort of time-sapping, aggressively intrusive turbo-yapping is most likely to occur on a tour you really don’t want to be on. The Berkeley Plantation in Virginia is fascinating — the birthplace of one obscure president and ancestral home of another; the site of the first Thanksgiving; the place where the US equivalent of the Last Post, Taps, was composed. All the interesting aspects, however, are covered in the little museum-ish areas in the outlying buildings and basement of the main house. The tour of the main house itself is almost entirely superfluous unless you like looking at old furniture and portraits of William Henry Harrison, the ninth and most haplessly short-tenured US president.

The problem is you don’t know this until you’ve bought the entrance ticket, which includes the tour. The gap between buying the ticket and the tour starting is just enough to realise you don’t want to do it, but by the time it starts it’s incredibly hard to get out of. This is a common trap with such attractions. Grand homes are almost always best explored at your own pace. Just occasionally, though, the guided tour adds something — and you’ll never be quite sure whether it will until it’s too late to escape.

Leaving a tour prematurely is a delicate operation. The cowardly option is to slink off when no one is looking, but this requires a group of at least 30 to avoid the mortifying prospect of someone noticing and the tour being held up while the guide tries to find you.

The other option is to take the guide to one side and explain you’re going to hop it — but this is reliant on finding a window of opportunity. And, even then, you have to deal with the crestfallen look coming from someone who means oh-so-well but has just been told they’re crushingly boring and useless.

So, 95% of the time, the only option is to go through the motions, make the right noises and hope it’s over with as quickly as possible. And it’s when embarking on such a noble course of action that every question asked seems like a calculated slight, aimed solely at prolonging the agony.

Eventually, the guide manages to get us all to the last piece of not-even-vaguely-interesting furniture. It feels like a lifetime since the barrage of tedious queries began, and there’s just enough time afterwards to rush around the museum bits before heading down the road to the next stop.

Sherwood Forest was also an obscure president’s home. John Tyler (Harrison’s successor) ran a plantation there. The operation here is a lot less slick. It’s a case of slipping 10 bucks into a wooden box and wandering around the grounds with a leaflet. The house is massive, but closed to the public. And the descriptions on the leaflet are frustratingly scant. Are these the original buildings? Is ‘servants’ quarters’ a euphemism for ‘slave accommodation’? What sort of president was Tyler?

If only there was a tour group to hold up by asking such questions…

Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)