Is Town Twinning winning?

Composite image by Anthea Bareham based on Heart handshake symbol, designed by Ravi PoovaiahWikimedia Commons

A review of town twinning schemes after Covid… and Brexit

Over the past year or so, WCV has published articles which demonstrate clearly the degree to which Brexit is having a negative impact on educational and cultural contacts between the UK and the EU… It’s almost as if this is a conscious policy of this government. The one area left to explore was town twinning, and my research over recent weeks has confirmed this impression.What follows examines how twinning schemes are emerging from the enforced hibernation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic… and how Brexit is affecting their rebirth.

I remember the excitement at the steps being taken in the 1960s to ‘twin’ my home town with its French and German counterparts. I went off to university soon afterwards, and never returned to live there other than during the holidays, so I never became involved in the twinning schemes. It was not until many years later when I started working with my friend and co-author, the late Phil Turk, that town twinning sparked my interest: Phil was a leading light in the scheme twinning Bradford on Avon with Sully-sur-Loire. What was abundantly clear was the degree of involvement and commitment of citizens at both ends of the twinning scheme, and of the huge cultural, educational – and even economic – benefits which flowed from such a healthy twinning scheme. More about the Bradford on Avon angle and other schemes later, but let’s start with views from two French participants – as expressed by one of their organisers, and by an enthusiastic young person on the benefits the experience has brought her.

Geneviève’s view

“The twinning between Sully and Bradford on Avon originated as a school exchange, which was then extended to the pupils’ families. For quite a while it was restricted to a limited number of families, and it only started to develop when both towns accepted they should make the existing twinning official.

People from all walks of life then started to ‘exchange’: groups of singers, dancers, musicians, rugby players etc. A playwright from Bradford came to Sully and one of his plays was performed half in French and half in English. Groups of walkers from Sully started to exchange with ‘ramblers’ from Bradford. We had cultural weekends on both sides; we did two long walks from Sully to Bradford and vice-versa, which also involved twinnings and councils of villages that welcomed us along the way.

As a result, many people took to learning English, and the Sully twinning group opened an English course with as many as 40 students. Not only did adults start travelling to and fro, but they also ‘exchanged’ children for holidays, or sent their youngsters to the other country to be au pairs, or to have work experience. Many people travelled to Bradford, who would never have dreamt of going to Britain before they met their ‘partner’ in Sully. Mayors visited each other. There was even a marriage between an English member of the twinning group and a French one. We also had exchanges of artists, mostly watercolour artists!

Sully is rather a small community, and the twinning with Bradford was the opportunity for many people to ‘open up’ to a foreign country and culture, and the scheme erased some prejudice. All that declined because of Covid, and Brexit didn’t help. I believe twinning members were rather disappointed when the Brexit vote and subsequent negotiations came about. Prejudice probably emerged again.”

Lettre de Nolwen

“Writing about the twinning is a real pleasure because I had such a great experience with it. I probably won’t be very objective but I am certain that everyone could benefit from such experience. I have been a fan of English since primary school, so my parents decided to join the twinning between Bradford on Avon and Sully-sur-Loire. We met our English friends for the first time in France. We got along well with them very quickly – so well that I crossed the Channel the year after, to stay in Bradford for a few weeks. I was received by two families who were involved in the twinning. Living with them and talking English all day long was the dream for me. I also had the opportunity to accompany one of my English friends at her university in Southampton. I was very happy to discover her daily life at school and to meet her friends. I am very much looking forward to seeing them again – the pandemic unfortunately stopped the annual tradition of hosting, or of going to England. I owe all these great memories to the twinning.

It is very important to keep such links (while politicians try to destroy them – I am very mad at Bojo). In small towns like ours, we do not have much access to cultural or linguistic activities. Thanks to the twinning, the Sullylois can follow English classes. We have to remain open to the world instead of locking ourselves up. I hope French people will remember this on election day this Sunday…. [Many would agree that, as Nolwen hoped, Macron’s victory was the best possible outcome.]

The twinning also creates links between inhabitants of Sully-sur-Loire. The associative world is the key to local solidarity. That is also why my mother agreed to become the new president of our twinning association in Sully-sur-Loire (a Spanish teacher at the head of an English-French twinning… I would never have imagined it!). Sure, it takes time in our strict daily schedule, but it is very important to keep this association in good shape. To put all this in a nutshell I would say… Join a twinning association!”

Bradford on Avon: twinned with Sully-sur-Loire

“Bradford on Avon and Sully-sur-Loire have been twin towns for over 25 years. Twinning exists to promote and foster friendship and understanding between the two towns, with visits on alternating years to each town and social events throughout the year in Bradford on Avon. It is great fun, a wonderful way to make new friends both in Sully and in Bradford, and to get a personal view of life across the Channel.”

Thus begins the web page of the Bradford on Avon French Twinning Association. As mentioned earlier, I learned a lot about this scheme from my friend Phil Turk. It was a major part of Phil’s life and that of his wife Brenda; twinning contacts provided them with lifelong friends, and Phil with a co-author of French schoolbooks. Alison Craddock, the former chair of the Twinning Association, remembers them well. She described how successful the twinning had been, with both German and French twinning having very strong groups and many reciprocal visits. That was until the pandemic prevented local meetings – never mind visits to France. In spite of this difficulty and others to be mentioned later, at the time of writing they are still looking for ways to resurrect and continue the twinning in Bradford on Avon, and the English group has been invited to Sully-sur-Loire next year.

Leeds: Twinned with Dortmund, Lille, and Brno (Czech Republic)

Leeds has three twinned cities: Dortmund in Germany, Lille in France, and Brno in Czech Republic. Of the three, Dortmund is the most active, and contacts were maintained via Zoom throughout the pandemic, such that a group from Dortmund will be visiting Leeds in August 2022. Although town twinning activities largely appeal to an older demographic, there have been initiatives aimed at young people, such as dance competitions in Lille in 2013. Dortmund has a comprehensive web-site which displays some of the great work they have done, and within it, Leeds for Europe has its own page under ‘Partnerships’. This is well worth looking at to see how contacts have been maintained, and how they have addressed topics such as: ‘The Irish Border Issue’ and ‘Relations between Great Britain and the EU post-Brexit’.

Dortmund Harbour: Wolfgang Hunscher, Wikimedia Commons

Progress with linking with Lille and Brno has been slow; funding issues and other ‘political’ considerations have not helped. However, Leeds has been refocusing on partnerships with local European groups, for example the French school in Headingley, and, given the situation in Ukraine, the Polish community.

Exeter: twinned with Rennes, Bad Homburg, Terracina… and Yaroslavl?

Exeter’s town twinning is typical of a long-established scheme: being twinned with Rennes in France since 1956, Bad Homburg in Germany since 1965, and Terracina in Italy since 1988. John, the chair of Exeter Twinning Circle, says that the scheme was in good form before Brexit and Covid: the 80 or so members of the Exeter Twinning Circle held regular events in Exeter, and regular inward and outward visits with groups of between 15 and 20 participants. There are also the formal civic links, entailing visits and other events. Exeter’s twinning links are well-publicised on the entry signs to the city, and each of the twin towns has a place or a street in Exeter named after it. As elsewhere, during the worst of the pandemic, contacts were maintained by email and occasional zoom meetings.

Now some sort of normality is returning, slowly but surely: apart from members’ events in Exeter, the Twinning Circle has arranged for a small group to come from Bad Homburg to Exeter on 15-19 June, and an outward visit to Rennes will take place in October. Within the Exeter Twinning Circle, Exminster has a village partnership with Sannerville in Normandy. Their chair Alison reports that after the problems of the last two years, they successfully hosted their French partners in May.

Totnes: twinned with Vire?

Sadly, it seems that nothing much is happening about town twinning in my home town. It had a very healthy link for many years with Vire in Calvados, Normandy. When I contacted someone involved in the scheme, it transpired that the deaths of key people at both ends of the twinning were holding back attempts to get it going again. One of those people had in fact been a key member of the Totnes twinning group who went to live in Vire, and tragically died there a few months ago. In the past twinning visits often involved a Totnes-Vire boules match. As a result, Totnes has a boules pitch, on … Vire Island, in the River Dart where it passes through Totnes. At least this name is a permanent reminder of the town twinning scheme.

Twinning problems:

Covid has had a more long-lasting impact than the two year “freeze” it imposed on twinning activities. People have got out of the habit of participating, and voluntary organisations have lost momentum. Many people are still cautious about travelling away from home.

Age profile is a major issue; one twinning member said: “Our members are mostly in their 70s and 80s”: it remains to be seen whether older people will be willing to host visitors or to travel to the host town. For older members, having people to stay with them for several days is increasingly challenging. It seems impossible to recruit newer, younger members to take over in due course. The usual twinning model of staying in families’ homes does not appeal to younger people, who travel more and are used to readily available accommodation, for example through Air BnB.  

Safeguarding of schoolchildren is a major reason for the loss of cultural exchanges between schools, and many have given these visits up due to the extreme difficulties of satisfying safety requirements. The teaching of languages in schools is decreasing too, which is depressing. As Alison says: “There is now much less emphasis on learning foreign languages in school, which is embarrassing for us as a country!”

In my view, the xenophobia generated by certain politicians to achieve Brexit has created a negative attitude to language learning.

Funding is crucial.Twinning exists between town councils, not just twinning groups; twinning charters are council documents: the actual twinning is between the councils of the towns and cities involved. Bradford on Avon Town Council has been supportive, recognising the importance of tourism to their community. For Leeds and other ‘twinned’ UK cities, the main problem introduced by Brexit has been loss of EU funding. City councils have been unable to continue to provide anything like the amount of funding that existed previously; UK town councils have never been able to provide much funding for twinning – much less, for example, than is available to French groups from their town councils.

Brexit problems

A significant impact of Brexit is the cost of passports for EU participants; many EU citizens don’t have a passport, but visitors to the UK will now need one. Hitherto, a national identity card was sufficient, and passports were not necessary for travel within the EU Schengen area. The approximate cost of a passport in the EU is 100 Euros, so for a family this could mean 4 or 5 passports: quite an expense just for a long-weekend twinning trip. Inevitably, says Alison, “this will put a lot of people off”. In June 2022 this problem was mentioned in an article explaining why fewer EU students are coming to learn English in the UK. Alison insists that “Twinning was a great idea and fostered valuable friendships between European countries”, but she adds: “Brexit is a nightmare which should never have happened and we see the dreadful results of it everywhere.”

Exeter suspends twinning with Yaroslavl

Town twinning is intended to foster harmony and mutual understanding, but I must mention the impact on a twinning association of the tragic invasion of Ukraine. Exeter City Council voted on 10 March 2022 to suspend the Exeter Civic Link with the Russian city of Yaroslavl. Online contact continues with Yaroslavl, but avoiding overtly political topics and discussion from either side. To quote from the statement accompanying the announcement of Exeter’s decision: “The Ukraine situation is desperate. Many Russian people are opposed to the war and some have even expressed this on social media. It requires a degree of courage to express openly a contrary political opinion in Russia.” So Exeter decided to continue dialogue with “our friends in Yaroslavl, who are ordinary Russian people”. It seems to me that this statement crystallises the whole point of town twinning, and all other types of educational and cultural links.

Where does twinning go from here?

The main benefit of twinning has been long-lasting individual friendships, and seeing that under the surface people are all the same people wherever they live. There’s truly more that unites than divides us! Whatever the politics of our country, we all need opportunities to engage with our peers in other countries. Town twinning deserves to flourish again.

Her Majesty’s Government’, needs to take note, and compensate for the negative effects of Brexit.