Lilian Groves is an 87 year old volunteer guide at Durham Cathedral. Already voted the ‘tourism superstar’ for Durham, Lilian is in the finals of the competition to find the VisitEngland national superstar, 2016.
I have just voted for her – and this is why.
Like thousands of others I have seen Lilian in action. She gave me, my wife, children and parents a personal tour of the Cathedral when I first become a Canon of Durham in 2006. A few years later I arranged for her to give Fr Michael Lapsley a tour and joined in myself. Michael is a South African priest and anti-apartheid activist who was sent a letter bomb that blew off his hands (You can see a 15 minute video The Michael Laspsley Story here). I remember Michael turning to me just after Lilian left us and whispering, ‘when it comes to Cathedral tours, that’s as good as it gets’.
Of course Lilian has, in some ways, a very easy job. Durham Cathedral is wonderful architecturally, the history is rich and it boasts two of the most distinctive, different and important saints in Cuthbert and Bede. One the epitome of what people think of today as ‘Celtic Spirituality’, though you won’t find Lilian using the word ‘Celtic’ very often. The other ‘the historian’s historian’, as one undergraduate put it to me: Bede the Venerable.
Someone ought to work out how far Lilian walks in the course of year as a tour guide. There won’t be many 87 year olds who walk further. And few indeed who do so while talking in a way that is charming, informed, reverential and in the best possible way teacherly. Lilian quickly eyes people up and soon knows at what level to pitch her remarks. A committed Christian who is often at the 12.30 Cathedral eucharist on weekdays, and invariably in the congregation on Sunday morning, she doesn’t force her faith on anyone. Rather, working with the building, and Durham’s unique ethos, she eases people into the spirituality of the place which is spacious, gracious, kind and, above all else, living.
You might expect someone of Lilian’s age and experience to be quite set in her ways. Not a bit of it. When I went to see her in 2014 to suggest a new kind of tour focussed on war memorials that would be of interest doing the centenary years of the First World War, she immediately ‘got’ the idea and was keen to do the work that would make it happen.
Lilian has shared with me many stories about tours and encounters and experiences of them. What comes through to me most strongly when I have heard her anecdotes is not so much her passion for the Cathedral as her interest in and care about people. For Lilian it all becomes worthwhile when a child offers a fresh insight or there is a transformative moment when someone appreciates a minor detail that makes all the difference, or sees what is really in a stained glass window for the first time.
So, Lilian gets my vote as VisitEngland tourism superstar 2106 and I hope she might get yours too. You can vote here
And if I haven’t yet persuaded you, check out this amazing clip to get a glimpse of the legend that is Lilian.