When primary school teacher Tony Lloyd took early retirement to travel around the world in 2012, he was quizzed by his former colleagues about what he was going to do on his return.
Most said that, after a teaching career spanning nearly five decades, the former deputy head should relax and take it easy – a suggestion that he wasn’t particularly keen on following.
There were those, however, that suggested he do something that would see him travel, keep fit and healthy and put his skills to good use. Having already taken scores of children on themed walks around Cardiff during his teaching days, becoming a tour guide seemed like the perfect option.
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“It made sense,” he said. “After working in a primary school for so long, I already had the voice for it!”
Nearly a decade on, however, Tony is now not just any tour guide – he is the ‘Difflomat’, welcoming tourists and foreign students to his hometown with open arms and making hundreds of new friends in the process.
Offering 20 different tours of the city, he knows the capital like the back of his hand and has plenty of secrets and stories about its past to share, many of which he posts on the Difflomats Facebook page, along with archive pictures, albums of famous Cardiffians and suggestions for new developments and projects.
Born and raised in Cardiff, Tony’s first foray into diplomacy came in the 1970s, when he became involved in international student friendship, welcoming, helping and befriending international students at Cardiff University.
He later worked at a summer school in Poland, before swapping South Wales for New South Wales and accepting a “job and life exchange” with a primary school teacher in Australia.
These experiences – as well as the small matter of visiting an astonishing 115 countries across the world – gave him an experience of being a fish out of water, and the issues that that can bring.
“I’ve been right around the world, so when I see someone in the street looking lost, I know I’ve probably been to their country,” he said. “Whether they’re from Malaysia, Myanmar or Canada, I can tell them I’ve been there and it helps to break the ice.”
“You get two reactions – either they’re a bit confused and wary, but others are glad for the help, and often say they’re looking for a tour guide – which is convenient!”
Through Difflomats – which is now in its eighth year – Tony aims to “give visitors a view of Cardiff that they never expected” by shining a light on the city’s history, culture and hidden secrets.
Quite often, he says, those who join him on his tours have no idea what to expect.
“The problem with Cardiff is that it either has a negative reputation or no reputation,” he said. “A lot of them have no idea about it, they just know it’s a capital city and that it’s probably worth visiting, as an add-on along with Bath and Bristol.
“But by the time my visitors leave, they know all about it and it has a very positive reputation.”
His tours – which range from filming locations to Christian heritage to walks around Bute Park and Castell Coch – are not just for foreign tourists, however.
“Locals really enjoy my Secret Cardiff tour – it’s the most popular one. People who have lived here for years are often really surprised when I point stuff out to them that they walk past every day but have never taken notice of, such as the bollards on the Hayes or the beautiful tiled corridor in the Museum of Cardiff.
“The tours are tailored to whoever I’m showing around, it’s totally personalised. If it’s a family with children, for instance, I’ll make sure I’m showing them round places that will keep them entertained and involved
“It’s very ad hoc too. From September 2020 to last September, for example, I only had four tours. But since September, I’ve done 20. It comes and goes, but it doesn’t matter if it’s just one person from the Philippines or 108 Commonwealth teachers – which is the largest tour I’ve ever done.”
Having travelled to practically every corner of the world, however, what makes Cardiff so special to Tony?
“It’s a unique city. There are some similarities with Victoria in Canada, I would say, and we’re also known as the Washington D.C. of Europe – thanks to the civic centre and Catatonia’s music.
“It’s less a case of Cardiff looking and feeling like anywhere else, and more so that there appear to be bits of other cities all around Cardiff. The top two floors of the old Park Hotel, for example, is a replica of the Louvre.
“I’ve got my favourite spots, too. The arcades are the best, and they always impress visitors. I mean, we’ve got an artisan violin factory right here – where else in the UK can you say that? There’s so much beautiful architecture around the city too, that’s why it’s so important that people look up every now and then.
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With historical and culturally important buildings such as Guildford Crescent and the Roath Park pub being demolished or placed under threat in recent years, and huge cranes continuing to tower above the city skyline, it’s easy to think that the capital is slowly becoming a beige hotchpotch of high-rise student flats.
But having watched the city change beyond recognition since he was a child, Tony remains positive about the direction that Cardiff is heading in – even if plenty of others may disagree.
“It irritates me when people say that the city centre has been ruined and moan that there’s nothing left,” he said. “What do you mean there’s nothing left? Just look at how beautiful the arcades are, there’s so much history here!
“Every city has to progress, and people have to have somewhere to live. We just need to make sure we protect our old town. City centres need to change and they need to change for the better – but moaning about it won’t make it any better.”
But while he doesn’t have many complaints, Tony still mourns the loss of one of the capital’s biggest tourist attractions.
The Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay closed in September 2017, after its sub-lease from Cardiff Council drew to an end. The decision not to keep it going was “incredibly shortsighted”, he says, with the global appeal of the sci-fi series grossly overlooked.
“Hundreds and thousands of people visited it,” he said. “They were coming from as far as Japan, Mexico and Uzbekistan too.
“The council said that it wasn’t renewed due to footfall, but they didn’t consider that this was, for some people, the only reason they would be visiting the city.
“So many of those who came for Doctor Who fell in love with the city as a whole, and have returned many times – using transport, staying in hotels, drinking in local pubs and cafes and bringing thousands to the local economy.
“The city’s link with the show is known around the world,” he continued. “I was in a comic book store in Fargo, North Dakota once, looking for Action Comics’ 900th issue. The store owner told me they were sold out – but when I told him I was from Cardiff, he was such a big fan of Doctor Who that he pulled one of only two issues he had left, and gave it to me.
“That’s how big Cardiff is for Doctor Who fans.”
With this in mind, Tony has an idea that he thinks will brighten up the empty shopping streets of the capital, and bring die-hard Whovians back to the capital.
“We’ve got all these old props sitting in warehouses,” he said. “Why don’t we put them in some of the empty shops, so parents can take their kids there? Even a TARDIS somewhere that people could take photos with would make a big difference.
“It would bring a lot of people to the city centre and would make the main shopping streets look a lot better too. Walking up Queen Street is quite sad at the moment with all the empty shops that are there.”
Tony’s on a roll as he thinks up more ways to promote the capital’s rich and varied cultural and sporting history. The “brilliant” unveiling of the statue of Betty Campbell in Central Square last year should inspire further pieces of public art, he said.
“We’ve got some of the best talent in the world in so many sports – rugby, football, athletics, cycling, the Paralympics,” he added. “Why not build a statue of Gareth Bale, Tanni-Grey Thompson, Colin Jackson and the like? I think it would be amazing.
“Sometimes I think, why doesn’t the city employ me? I’m bursting with creative ideas!”
The tour guide’s enthusiasm and passion for the city is infectious, and he also gets a ringing endorsement from Chenhao – a student from China who Tony has taken under his wing to show him the very best of Wales and its capital.
When he arrived in Cardiff in October, he spoke very little English, but is now able to tell me just how important Tony’s welcoming manner has been to him.
“He is a very friendly person and a good tour guide,” he said. “Personally, he has helped me a lot. He has shown me Welsh culture and helped me learn about the city for myself.
“A lot of international students come here and don’t explore the city, and that is a great pity. I am really grateful for Tony for helping me get a deeper understanding of Wales and Cardiff.
Tony has time for one final piece of advice for tourists and locals alike.
“It’s all a matter of confidence,” he said. “Learning something, finding something out about somewhere. As Chenhao said, so many people, particularly the international students who come here – they live in their cultural ghetto.
“You can learn so much from other people if you just take that all-important step outside of your comfort zone.”
If you ever ask for help from Tony on the streets of Cardiff – rest assured you’re learning from the very best.
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