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How Buckinghamshire twinning associations have created friendships stretching into Europe

PUBLISHED: 14:26 07 March 2014 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 March 2014

Medieval houses in Bernkastel, Germany, Milton Keynes' twin town

Medieval houses in Bernkastel, Germany, Milton Keynes' twin town

Archant

Friendships that stretch across the Channel and all the way to Eastern Europe have come from twinning associations in Buckinghamshire, Sandra Smith discovers

How would you rate your knowledge of Anglo-French relations? More terrible than magnifique, perhaps? Borderline rien with just a soupçon of possiblement? In fact, let’s be more precise about this. On a scale of 1-100 (in deference to The Hundred Year’s War volleyed between the countries) do you have any chance of scoring more than nil points? If, like me, you increasingly rely on a handful of distant events skulking in the long abandoned classroom of your memory and embracing no more than the relative familiarity of The Tudors or French Revolution, then the answer is an unresounding non.

Yet the intermittent rivalry and camaraderie between our nations has, for some considerable centuries, set the seal on our relationship. We may be neighbours divided by a mere channel of water, but from culinary clashes to sporting rivalry, our rapport with our European cousins continues to be dominated by one-upmanship and stereotypes. And not just at a local level. Even politicians have struggled to forge a lasting and healthy respect between our societies.

So what about the celebrated Entente cordiale? When this newborn cooperation between Great Britain and France was created during the first half of the 20th century, it was designed to signal the end of hostility, replacing disagreement with a sense of cooperation and the spirit of mutual respect. Well, the intention may have been honourable but the concept has evolved into little more than a cliché.

Despite the apparent frostiness which occasionally infiltrates our relationship, the success of one association suggests the bond between our countries is, in fact, healthier than ever.

After the end of the Second World War, the concept of twinning towns within European countries (already in existence on a small scale) became a positive way of fostering friendship, cooperation and mutual ties. The concept quickly captured the imagination of the public both here and on the Continent and in the intervening years this movement has grown so that approximately 17,000 twinning links now exist across Europe, with 2,000 in this country.

Here in Buckinghamshire a number of our towns and villages are twinned with communities on mainland Europe. Wendover is a prime example and Chair, Barbara Jefford, is passionate about the benefits of this arrangement: “Wendover has been twinned with Liffré in Brittany for over 30 years and maintains strong links between the residents. Our annual Town Exchanges have led to many long lasting friendships and help nurture a better understanding of life in one another’s countries. We have an ongoing social programme in Wendover, which is open to all residents of the surrounding areas. The Association is self funding and any profit from social events goes towards entertaining our visitors.”

Barbara is adamant that such exchanges are the perfect vehicle to dispel any typecast opinions. “Visits help us achieve a greater understanding of how people live in other countries,” she insists. “For instance, we have witnessed elections, shared opinions, improved a language and seen how that country works. One elderly gentleman from Liffré had never wanted to step foot in England but his wife booked the trip as a birthday surprise. He was po-faced as he got off coach but actually he had a great time and wished he’d come earlier.”

Other twinning associations in the county are also thriving. Bicester, for instance, linked with French, German and Polish towns, is organising another trip to Czernichow, this time a youth exchange ski trip in February which will include a sleigh ride and tobogganing.

Although British twinned towns tend to rely on fund raising events throughout the year, in France such communities benefit from the financial support of their local Town Hall. But that doesn’t prevent either party doing their utmost to welcome and entertain guests, and cultivate closer friendships, as Barbara explains: “Host families look after our guests here. On arrival there is an early morning welcome reception following an overnight crossing and guests then spend the rest of that day with their hosts. On the main free day of the weekend trip we have an outing. Sometimes guests return to the same hosts on later visits.”

Apart from population size, Liffré bears little resemblance to Wendover. “There are large factories although it doesn’t feel like an industrial area, and sporting facilities which even our cities don’t have. They have a lot more space, too,” Barbara adds. “When they come here we can’t find anywhere to park the coach!”

Although there is no legal binding between twinned towns, a formal oath both seals a union whilst simultaneously promoting a long term, trusting relationship. Partnerships are driven by individual needs and objectives though the opportunity to share experience, expertise and contacts cannot be underestimated.

In Wendover evening monthly meetings (to which visitors are encouraged) include a speaker and take place between October and May. “For the first 25 years,” smiles Barbara, “our talks were all on French subjects but we’ve exhausted that now!” So nowadays these social gatherings cover a variety of topics from Winston Churchill’s Toyshop to the spice trade and animal communication. There is also an informal monthly coffee morning, too.

In a continent that has witnessed too much conflict, twinning provides an opportunity to bring people together and fuse bonds at a grass roots level. Its success, of course, depends upon the active participation of its members so if you are tempted to play a part in international relations, why not join a twinning association? It could be your way of contributing towards Entente cordiale.

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