Tourists greeted by words of wisdom: David Nicholson-Lord reports on a scheme that helps visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon

WILLIAM Shakespeare's burial place is barely five minutes' walk from the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon but for most visitors it might as well be on Pluto.

Annabel Cole hopes to change that. Arrive at Stratford railway station today and Annabel, Becky and Nicky, sporting yellow-and- green uniforms, will, in the nicest possible way, accost you.

Stratford's visitor information persons - VIPs - or 'ground hostesses', are the latest answer to the tide of tourism washing over Britain's historic towns.

In 1852, 2,321 people visited Shakespeare's birthplace; last year there were 2.5 million. Given growing affluence and leisure time, there is no reason, says Maureen Hicks, director of the visitor management project, why numbers should stop rising. The English Historic Towns Forum recently warned that many places were struggling with pollution and congestion. In 1992, Stratford was chosen for the first national pilot project on tourist management, which is attempting to discover whom tourism benefits and if it is possible to cope with ever-rising numbers.

According to the newly published visitor survey, only one in 10 come for the theatres - and only 12 per cent cite Shakespeare as the reason for their visit. One in five, by contrast, come to shop - and 80 per cent do some shopping during their stay.

Most people also know little of what Mrs Hick calls the 'alternative Stratford' - Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, for example. The VIPs will try to spread the load by telling people of other attractions.

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