“SWINDON has a great list of attractions,” said Nick Pearce.
“I’ve been here for 16 or 17 years and I’m always surprised when some local people think there isn’t much on offer. There is.”
Nick promotes tourism in a town not generally thought of as a tourist trap. If the numbers – such numbers as can be determined, at least – are anything to go by, he succeeds. At the Swindon Visitor Information Centre, people can buy a pack of playing cards called Scenes of Swindon for £4.99.
Nearly 2,000 have done just that since the cards were introduced 18 months ago.
All over the town, the country and probably the world, games of poker, patience, blackjack and bridge are livened by old and new images ranging from the acrobat sculpture of Wharf Green (the ace of spades) to the Magic Roundabout (the joker).
The information centre has Swindon and Great Western Railway-themed keyfobs, bookmarks, paperweights, calendars, posters, models, toys, pens, stationery, ornaments and clothing.
There’s a shiny Magic Roundabout lapel pin that looks like a discreet badge of office for members of some strange cult.
There are books about Swindon in prehistory, Swindon when it was scattered farms on a hill, Swindon the small market town, Swindon the railway town, Swindon the post-railway town, Swindon the testbed for technological innovation and architectural fancies. There are the five Swindon through the Decades DVDs, eached packed with archive and home movie footage both fascinating and poignant.
There are leaflets, booklets and maps promoting the Steam museum, Lydiard Park, the Museum and Art Gallery in Old Town, our leisure centres, our theatres, our cinemas, our dining, our shopping and the delights of the surrounding countryside.
It’s the playing cards that Nick Pearce shows off with the greatest pride, though, because he gathered or photographed all but a handful of the images himself.
Nick is the sole information assistant at the centre, although others are being trained. He is also the sole survivor of the roster who worked at the centre in its old venue, a shop across the road, before it moved to the library a couple of years ago.
At 41 he’s been here since 1995, lives in Rodbourne and speaks of our attractions with the fervour of a true enthusiast.
“There are great leisure facilities, great events, community groups, social groups, hobby groups, history, education, open spaces and parks.
“Our job is to promote Swindon. Some want to know what we have to entertain them and how they can get there. There is a mix of locals and visitors. Some people are here to visit relatives, have no idea what we have to offer and are pleasantly surprised.
“There are people who stay here because they don’t want to try to find accommodation in Bath or Oxford, and they’re quite astonished by what we have.”
Some of the visitors are former Swindonians who moved away years ago, and they account for many of the souvenirs sold. Family members still here also buy them to send on as little pieces of home for distant loved ones.
Dealing with inquiries is often a team effort. Library information officer Dawn Osborne once fielded a phone call from two young Londoners who’d decided on the spur of the moment to come to Swindon and then walk to Gloucester. One of them was celebrating his 21st birthday.
“They were coming on the Megabus,” she said. “We were helping them plot their route and what was really nice was that a customer overheard, told us he was a walker and offered to help.
“I asked the callers if they had the right footwear and said they should remember to bring food and water, and asked them to ring us from Gloucester to make sure they’d arrived safely.”
When the information centre moved to the library, there were fears of its effectiveness being hampered, but Nick doesn’t see things that way. Nor does Dawn Osborne. The old site had an annual footfall of about 120,000, while the library has about 425,000, and one of the first things the visitor sees is the centre.
“Our old premises were very much in a state of disrepair,” said Nick, “so I think moving to the bright new libary made it more attractive to customers.”