It’s an exceptionally grim November morning and it’s just started to rain very heavily. While people scuttle along the footpaths in search of shelter in Ferryquay Street well known tour operator Martin McCrossan sips on a warm cup of tea inside a cafe.
“I hope the rain stops in time for my first tour of the morning,” says Martin optimistically. “I don’t mind the rain but when I am giving a guided tour of Derry I want the people on the tour to be able to enjoy themselves.”
Martin is the proprietor of local award winning tour company City Tours and since starting the company in the mid 1990s he has strived to promote Derry as one Ireland’s top tourist destinations.
“Derry is an amazing place,” he says. “It has so much history and the people here are very welcoming.
“Many of the people who visit Derry often say to me that they never knew such a place existed but if they return home and tell a few people about the positive experience they had here then that can only be seen a good thing.”
Martin was born in Derry in May 1962. His father, Gerard worked as a bookmaker and his mother, Helen, whose maiden name was Irvine, worked in one of Derry’s shirt factories.
“I am Derry born and bred,” he smiles. “My father was from Park Avenue, my mother was from the Foyle Road and I was reared in Melmore Gardens in Creggan.”
Martin has nine brothers and four sisters. He says that coming from a big family meant that he was never stuck for company and explained that his childhood was a happy one.
“There were my parents, 10 boys and four girls in one house and no television - you can probably imagine what it was like,” he laughs.
“There was always someone to do something with - I was never stuck for a partner in crime.”
He added: “We never wanted for anything growing up and we enjoyed many family holidays throughout Ireland. I have fond memories of us all packing up the car and heading off somewhere - it was always good fun.
“My father loved good scenery and places where there was good fishing to be had - I think some of that has rubbed off on me.”
Martin attended Rosemount Boys’ Primary School before moving on to St. Joseph’s Boys’ School in Westway.
At the age of 15 Martin left school and went to work for the Chada family at their market stall in Foyle Street. After a year working at the local market Martin got a job working in Corry’s scrap yard at the bottom of Lawrence Hill.
“The family had moved from Creggan to the Northland Road so when I went to work for Corry’s it was only a few minutes from home - I had no excuse if I was late,” he jokes. “I enjoyed it there because the harder you worked the more you got paid and I always got plenty.”
One year later Martin’s father opened an antique shop in John Street called The Coin Centre; Martin managed the store for several years.
“When I left the Coin Centre I went to work for a company called Great Universal Stores - they were a catalogue company and I worked with them up until the start of the 1990s.”
The years spent going door to door with Great Universal Stores started to take a toll on Martin; he wanted to do something that would require him to spend more time inside.
“I had one too many soakings standing on doorsteps so I decided to look out for something a little more comfortable. I searched around the town and decided that I wanted to set-up my own business. I came to the Carlisle Road in the early 1990s and I opened up a shop called All Kinds of Everything. There was everything in it from a needle to an anchor but it wasn’t successful so I closed the shop.
“A friend of mine had a flower shop three or four doors down from my shop and she was retiring. Myself and my wife took over the flower shop and we called it Carlisle Flowers. We did well but it wasn’t enough to sustain us and the alarm bells started to ring.
“So we changed the shop into a place where you could come and buy flowers and your groceries at the same time so Carlisle Stores was born. I’ll never forget the first day because we took a total of £11 but thankfully it was a success.”
Oddly, it was through Carlisle Stores that Martin started to become known as a pseudo tour guide. He worked in the shop every day and as a result became very well known within the city.
“People used to send tourists to Carlisle Stores to get information about Derry so I was telling them the best places to stay and eat and where to go. I was like an unofficial tour guide and did all this for free. I was an avid reader and had a real interest in all of Derry’s history so it was easy for me to tell people about the history of the city.
“Because I am in a mixed marriage I was also interested in finding out about the history of the city from both sides of the community. I was a boy from a big Catholic family in Creggan and my wife was from the Fountain so I wanted to find out as much about the history of Derry as I could.”
Martin soon realised that he could make a living out of what he was doing for free so in the mid 1990s he set-up City Tours. The first tour started outside Carlisle Stores and although nearly 20 years have passed by Martin still uses the same location as a meeting place to start all of his tours.
“I started doing a tour of Derry every morning at 10 o’clock outside Carlisle Stores. I had a lot of interest and before I knew it I was having to add on more and more tours. It just went from strength to strength and last year I was proud when we were able to say that City Tours looked after in excess of 47,000 visitors to Derry.
“I am also proud to say that my business has never received any funding - it’s totally self-sustained. I try to work in partnership with as many places in Derry as I can and as a result the tourism industry is progressing rapidly.”
He added: “In 2008 we won the gold award for the best tour available in the island of Ireland at an awards ceremony in Dublin Castle - it was a very proud moment for not only myself but for the entire city. The tour is still described as the best value for money tour on the island of Ireland.”
The years spent building City Tours have been laden with success but one of Martin’s highlights happened unexpectedly when his mobile phone rang a few years ago.
“A phone call came through one day and I answered it. The man on the other end of the phone was American and said ‘Hello Martin, my name’s Will Ferrell and I was wondering if you’ll be taking the 10 o’clock tour of Derry today.’
“I told him that I was taking the tour and I went and met the group and Will Ferrell was was there with his father and his brother - I’ll die when people read this but I had no idea who he was,” he laughs.
“It wasn’t until we reached the Guildhall and we met up with another group. The girl taking the tour was from the Tourist Board and she came running up to me to ask me how I got on. I had no idea what she was talking about and then afterwards I was told just how famous he was.
“I met up with Will afterwards and I took him to the Giants Causeway - he was really nice and was interested in the history of the city.”
Martin has given the guided tour of Derry to Russian oligarchs, Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle and President George Bush’s Peace Envoy Mitchell Reiss. If that wasn’t enough two weeks ago 500 local school children were treated to a free Hallowe’en tour of Derry and a party and gifts afterwards.
“I am a big believer in giving something back to the community and Dr. Tom McGinley at the Foyle Hospice has been a big inspiration to me. It’s because of him that I managed to raise over £152,000 for the Foyle Hospice.
“Hundreds of school children took part in a tour of the walls a few weeks ago - it was great fun and I think they all enjoyed themselves.”
When asked for his hopes and ambitions for the future Martin said that he hopes to make Derry an even more successful tourist destination.
“The one thing that we have that separates us from many other places is our walls,” he says. “When I was a young man the walls were seen as noose that was strangling the city but now they are like a necklace and should be shown off to everyone who comes here.
“The next few years are going to be big for Derry. 2012 is the centenary year of the Titanic in Belfast so if we all work together then it can benefit the entire country. 2013 is obviously the City of Culture year for the city so we can return the favour to Belfast by sending people their direction. 2013 is also a chance of a lifetime for us and if we get it right then we’ll be able to leave a lasting legacy.
“Northern Ireland is a very small place so we need to work together to ensure that it gets the credit it deserves.”
Martin is married to Sharon and they have two daughters called Christina and Charlene.
For further information contact Martin on 07712937997 or visit www.derrycitytours.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org