It is common for UK cities, towns and villages to display signs that declare a special ‘twinned’ relationship with a partner in Europe or, ever increasingly, further afield. But what does twinning mean today? Is there a cost and who reaps the benefits? And is there any value in making friends abroad?
Town twinning, known elsewhere as sister cities or friendship towns, is a tradition that stretches back almost a century here in the UK. It was introduced supposedly to encourage tourism, to help us experience new cultures and bring us closer. The practice gained popularity after the Second World War, with community leaders keen to foster a post-war spirit of reconciliation, to heal the divisions of conflict and seek support in rebuilding.
Coventry, which suffered heavy bombing, twinned with Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and then Dresden, which had suffered similar fates. Of the UK’s approximately 2,000 formal twinning arrangements, 50% are with France and 23% are with Germany, according to the Local Government Association.
Some civic twinning goes beyond Europe, however, with some unusual pairings; Glasgow with Havana, Cuba, for instance, Henley-on-Thames with the Somali city of Borama or Sunderland and Washington DC. In 2009, Swindon twinned with Walt Disney World in Florida, beating 24 other UK towns competing for the unique honour. Wincanton in Somerset went one stage further by twinning with Ankh-Morpork, an entirely fictional city that appears in the fantasy novels of the late Terry Pratchett.
As an island, the UK has a tendency to remain insular and by linking towns abroad, twinning can broaden horizons – culturally, linguistically and socially. But do these links have any purpose in the 21st century? Some argue that it can be seen as outdated, expensive – even pointless. Some British towns are even starting to scrap their twinning arrangements with continental counterparts.
In 2011, councillors in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, voted to end local authority support for the town’s 46-year twinning arrangements with Friedberg in Germany and Villiers-sur Marne in France (one local councillor insisted the practice “didn’t have as much relevance in today’s society”). This prompted the headline in Der Spiegel: “To hell with Europe, the tiny English town of Bishop’s Stortford has decided”.
Not a sentiment shared in West Kent, it would appear…
Tunbridge Wells’ twinning relationship with Wiesbaden, in Germany, started in 1960 when four ex-servicemen from the town visited Germany to meet their counterparts. They discovered a shared objective of active reconciliation and signed a partner agreement in 1961, followed by a Treaty of Friendship in 1971, and eventually a Twinning Charter (on display in the Town Hall) was signed in 1989.
Like Tunbridge Wells, Wiesbaden is famous as a spa town, its name translates as meadow baths – referring to its hot springs – with steam often seen rising from the manhole covers in the streets.
Just 10 miles to the west of Frankfurt, the town is well-situated for commerce and tourism and has 287,000 inhabitants (Tunbridge Wells has less than 60,000). The Tunbridge Wells Twinning & Friendship Association (TWTFA) is a self-funded, member-based society, supporting the existing links between the two towns in education, youth, culture, sport and trade – and seeks to promote and nurture new ones. Chairman Michael Holman explains: “We are always looking for new potential links with our beautiful twin town, essentially acting as intermediaries, pairing local clubs and societies with their German counterparts. There is huge enthusiasm for the relationship from the people of Wiesbaden and they have a great consciousness of being twinned with another spa town.”
Despite little financial support from the Council, through its members’ annual subscription and fundraising activities the TWTFA enjoys a varied calendar of events. The Lydian Orchestra, made up of young musicians from all over West Kent, will perform, not just in Wiesbaden but also the sister towns of Tonbridge and Sevenoaks – Heusenstamm and Rheinbach – in a tour this month, featuring BBC Musician of the Year 2014 finalist (violin), Sophie Holbrooke.
Organiser Pat Pelmore explains: “The twinning organisations have been fantastic in helping the Lydian Orchestra make its tour this summer to our three twin towns and without the twinning connection, these concerts would not happen.”
Southborough has been formally twinned with Lambersart, a leafy suburb of Lille in Northern France since October 1992, when it resolved to encourage all kinds of exchanges between the two regions, particularly in educational and cultural fields. The day-to-day organisation of the twinning activities locally is through the Southborough, High Brooms and District Overseas Friendship Association (SHDOFA) and in France by Amitiés Internationales in Lambersart.
Lambersart Close at Barnetts Wood was officially unveiled to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the twinning agreement and, as well as day trips, the Gallic influence is seen in Southborough, where games of pétanque are played at the public ‘terrain’ at The Copse during the summer. Local uniformed groups – Guides and Scouts – have exchanged visits with their French counterparts as have Ridgewaye FC Under 12s football team, the TS Brilliant Sea Cadet Corps and the Combined Churches Choirs of both Southborough and Lambersart.
Since its formal twinning charter was established in 1984, Tonbridge & Malling and Heusenstamm, near Frankfurt am Main in Germany, have enjoyed a flourishing link, managed by a group of enthusiasts – a Friendship Circle – in both locations. As the result of contacts and exchanges covering a wide range of activities, lasting friendships have been made. Chairman of the The Heusenstamm Friendship Circle explains: “We attach great importance to encouraging young people – boy scouts, fire brigade cadets and youth bands – to visit each other’s town. Pupils from the Judd School and, until recently, Tonbridge Girls Grammar School, exchange with German students at the Adolf-Reichwein Gymnasium; joint concerts are held every three years between the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society and the Evangelische Kantorei; exchange visits in the fields of sport, amateur dramatics, periodic coach holidays in both countries, as well as the annual Christmas Market, where a stall sells British goods, provided from Tonbridge.”
The Heusenstamm Friendship Wood in Haysden Country Park in Tonbridge, created from saplings given by the people of Heusenstamm after the Great Storm of 1987, is a visible reminder of the deep friendship that twinning has created.
Sevenoaks Town has been twinned with Pontoise in France since early the early 1960s, and more recently with Rheinbach in Germany (1995). Some 160 miles south of Calais and just 20 miles short of Paris, Pontoise has around 30,000 inhabitants and is about 50% larger than Sevenoaks. Its origins pre-date Sevenoaks by almost a millennium – the Romans called it Pons Hisarae, from which evolved the current name, Pontoise, the bridge over the river Oise.
Once one of the principal towns in medieval France, its castle provided both a royal residence and an imposing fortress and it became an important centre for skilled craftsmen and a major agricultural market. However, plague, war and revolution all took their toll and several centuries of decline followed.
It wasn’t until the coming of the railway that Pontoise saw a revival in its fortunes – followed by the arrival of impressionist painters in the Oise valley who discovered its natural beauty. Camille Pissarro settled in the town (a museum in his honour stands on the site of the old castle, above the ramparts). Beneath it are the numerous vaulted tunnels, dating from the 13th century and nearby the magnificent Saint-Maclou cathedral.
As with nearby twinned towns, Friends of Pontoise is supported by Sevenoaks Town Council, but is mainly funded by subscriptions and money-raising activities, including French film nights and an annual summer garden party.
For more information
TWTFA – visit www.townforum.org.uk