Coveted Blue Badge qualification awarded to Ballymena tour guides

William Galloway, Alice McKeown, Shirley Grey and Martin McAuley, all from Ballymena, have earned the coveted Blue Badge qualification, acknowledged as the ultimate accolade for professional tourist guides.

The four were amongst just 33 people from across Northern Ireland who earned the right to wear the insignia, graduating at a formal ceremony in Belfast’s historic Harbour Office this week.

The Blue Badge is awarded on the successful completion of intensive training a followed by a series of comprehensive written and practical exams. Blue Badge guides are expected to have at their fingertips an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of history, politics, geology, geography, heritage, arts and culture, and much more besides. They must be capable of guiding visitors confidently, eloquently and in entertaining fashion, around the region’s tourist attractions and landmarks.

Northern Ireland’s first Blue Badge guides qualified in 1992, graduating from a demanding course which was delivered by Queen’s University Belfast and accredited by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. The Northern Ireland Tourist Guide Association was established in that same year and has acted ever since as the professional body for Tourist Guides in Northern Ireland.

The guides travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland as they studied for their Blue Badges but, for William Galloway, his all-time favourite spot is close to his Ballymena home. He said, “My favourite location in Northern Ireland is the village of Cushendun. The village itself is of Cornish design and is set by a fine crescent raised beach where the river Dun joins the sea. Fans of ‘Game of Thrones’ can visit the red cave where the ‘shadow baby’ was born and, as if all that isn’t enough, just a short distance away sits the fine Georgian house, Glenmona, where a sculpture of the Earl of Antrim’s goat holds pride of place by the river.”

Following the announcement of the closure of Michelin, Martin McAuley was forced to look in new directions for an alternative career and his choice of Blue Badge guiding is already opening doors. Having discovered how important the whiskey industry has been to local history, he opted to focus on whiskey tourism and has already launched his own website, www.ulsterwhiskey.com.

Martin’s favourite spot is the magical virgin oak wood at Breen, near Armoy, but, not perhaps not altogether surprisingly, he is also a fan of the pubs of Belfast. He says, “They have so much history, with wonderful stories to be told. The Crown, McCracken’s, Whites, McHugh’s and the Duke of York all have an appeal of their own and even their locations are wonderful.”

For more information on The Blue Badge Tourist Guide scheme visit www.nitga.co.uk.