The Bridge Interviews
The Burford Visitor Information Centre
Tourism is the life blood of Burford and our surrounding villages. The exact number of visitors who come here every year is not known but in 2014 1.4 million stayed in West Oxfordshire and there were 3.8 million day trip visitors to our region. Their total spend was £252million. A great many of those visitors find their way to the Visitor Information Centre in the High Street, often their first port of call.
This month The Bridge interviewed Alison Hughes, who is perhaps best known to readers for the many articles she has contributed to The Bridge on local events. She was born in Devon but she led a peripatetic life common to many service children – her father was in the RAF - with spells in Malaysia, Singapore and Cyprus. After obtaining a degree in English from Cardiff University she first taught English and French in Buckinghamshire, before moving to France where she lived for eight years. She then moved to Belgium where she worked at the European Commission for two and a half years. Following a divorce she came to this area with her daughter (to Milton-under-Wychwood), where her parents had settled. Alison now lives at Great Rissington and her daughter Asha lives near Bristol.
Once home she taught for a time at Kingham Hill school and then worked for France Magazine, latterly as deputy editor. She now writes articles freelance for France Magazine, Living France, Country Life, Cotswold Life, Voyage (the magazine of Brittany Ferries) and France Today. She has worked part time at the VIC for the last four years.
The VICs in both Witney and Burford are currently run by WODC. Now under the 2020 Vision Partnership between WODC, Cotswold and Forest of Dean Councils, several services including tourism and customer services will be more closely integrated. This, says Alison, has several advantages, eg visitors see the Cotswolds as one area, not divided into West Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. As a result, the recently published 2017 Guide will cover both counties.
The VIC here has been around for over 20 years, located previously at the Old Brewery in Sheep Street before moving to its current more central location in the High Street. There are five part-time employees with a number of casual staff who help out during holidays or other absences.
Visitors come from a wide range of countries: Japan, China, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and many European and Scandinavian countries. Recent additions have included Brazilians and a party of schoolchildren from Russia who all wanted to buy souvenirs with the Union Jack on them. The tourists are often looking for local walks, places to see, events, children’s activities, bus timetables and accommodation. In the pre-internet era booking accommodation was a major part of the role of visitor centres but nowadays people tend to book on line. However, the VIC staff are still happy to help with bookings and they have a wide range of accommodation on their books.
These days the shop is an important part of the VIC, selling a variety of items, with an emphasis on local products such as Cotswold oils, honey and jams as well as local crafts. The most popular item is a £1 walking map, featuring six circular walks all starting in Burford, followed closely by souvenir items which mention Burford or the Cotswolds. Cotswold Lavender products are also best-sellers.
Japanese visitors arrive in large coaches several times a week doing a tour of the Cotswolds in a day. They generally stay for 45 minutes before going on to Stow or Bourton. Alison says all Japanese visitors want to go to Bibury. It is evidently a very famous village in Japan, or someone is doing a very good marketing job! They are also fascinated by sheep and frequently ask where they can see them. (Can anyone cast light on this? No jokes, please).
What are the more unusual questions? Some people want very specific information about local history or church architecture. Raymond Moody or the church vergers can help with these. A number of Americans with the surname Burford have asked if there are any people called Burford buried here (not so far as is known). One visitor wanted to visit the Blue Stone caves and took a lot of convincing that there is no such thing here. (He must have confused the Cotswolds with the Peak District). A frequent request is for a 20p piece for the public toilets, which are next door. A pot of coins is kept in a drawer ready for use. Some people complain to the centre if the loos are not working properly. Fortunately the VIC has a hotline for getting help from Healthmatic so the staff do not have to go to work armed with rubber gloves and plunger. There are very few really difficult people. Most visitors think Burford is a lovely place, they are on holiday and relaxed so they are in a happy frame of mind.
Language can cause a few problems. Alison speaks French and a colleague speaks some German. A third speaks Portuguese, which greatly impressed some visitors from that country. Other nationalities generally know enough English to say “20p coin” or “free map”. Pronunciation can create confusion. One colleague was asked for a “mop” (another problem with the loos?) She tried to explain where such a thing could be procured before she realised he meant “map”. Requests for directions have included “Huffikins”, “Bibbury”, and “Burton” (as in “on-the-Water”). As for Cirencester, the permutations are endless.
What could be done to improve the lot of the visitors and the staff? Some better public transport, ideally. What if someone wants (say) to get from Burford to Bourton (or Burton) by bus? It can be done, with a change at Northleach, but there are only two or three buses per day. The AONB used to run a shuttle bus between different locations in the Cotswolds but that disappeared many years ago.
A few more events during the year would also help the tourism industry. We have the festival every two years but other towns seem to do more, with annual music and book festivals as well as other events. And what happened to the French Market in Priory Lane? It would help to publicise events if Burford had a bigger presence in cyberspace. Some towns have very good community websites with lots of local information on them, but we seem to be lagging behind a little. There is food for thought for us here.
Above all, Alison says, please keep the VIC informed of current and future events. They can only pass on the word if we give it to them in the first place. Remember that the VIC is here for us as well as for visitors; that is why she writes her regular column for The Bridge, which is read mainly by locals. So drop into the VIC next time you go by, have a chat, buy some of the excellent lavender products and let them know where you have recently spotted some sheep!