You may have read the report in this newspaper last week about a group of 30 young people and three members of staff from the Collège Bernard de Ventadour, a school in our twin town Privas in the Ardèche region of France, visiting Wetherby to spend a week with their counterparts at Wetherby High School.
They were welcomed by our Mayor, Councillor Alan Lamb, the day after their arrival and spent the rest of the week getting to know the area, with visits to Fountains Abbey, Harrogate, York and Whitby, as well as spending time with their host families.
It is the second time in recent years that such an exchange has taken place.
Regular readers of this column will remember that I wrote about the many advantages of school exchanges some weeks ago, but I have been asked several times recently about town twinning, how it started and whether it is still relevant today.
It is surprising how many residents haven’t even noticed the ‘twinned with Privas’ sign at the entrances to the town or the Privas Way sign off the roundabout.
The twinning movement started very shortly after the Second World War, with the first partnerships being established in 1947 between Oxford and Bonn, Reading and Düsseldorf, Bristol and Hanover and Coventry and Kiel.
The original aim was to promote peace and reconciliation between former belligerents.
The movement gained momentum in the 50’s and 60’s with the first East/West twinning partnerships emerging in the 60’s.
During the 70’s, there was something of a crisis in the twinning movement when citizens, quite rightly, began to complain about what the Germans call ‘Burgermeistertourismus’, ie free jollies for the political elite and the trend began towards local twinning associations who organise their own exchanges and visits, and in most cases, raise their own funds.
This is certainly the case in Wetherby where members travelling to Privas pay their own expenses and fundraise to provide entertainment when the group from Privas visits Yorkshire.
To date, the UK has almost 2,000 official twinning partnerships, a drop in the ocean when compared to Germany which has over 6,000.
Our partners are overwhelmingly French with Germany in second place.
Twinning arrangements are official and a proper contract is signed by the Mayors of both towns (ours can be seen in the trophy cabinet in the Town Hall foyer).
Wetherby entered town-twinning relatively late in the day – 1992.
France was the chosen country and the criteria were that the French town had to be similar in size with a river, a bridge and market.
Privas was looking for a UK partner at the same time.
They already had well-established links with three other towns in Germany, Italy and Holland, so were rather better versed than we were on the twinning front, although I should point out that they have always received quite a lot of funding, both from the EU and the Town Council and, up to a few years ago, were able to pay someone to run their twinning activities.
Our Twinning Association receives no funding and is run by volunteers.
A few years ago during a visit to Privas, I was chatting to the Chairman of the Dutch Twinning Association.
He told me that their town council had just been merged with another town and funding had been refused for the Privas link, so they would have to terminate the twinning contract.
I asked why they didn’t do like Wetherby and raise their own funds. There was rather a stunned silence and he admitted that they wouldn’t know where to start because they had never had to do it.
I offered to give him a few tips, but he didn’t take up the offer.
The British are, on the whole, a lot less committed to linking up with their European counterparts than other countries on mainland Europe – is it as a result of not having been invaded since 1066 or never having had a war fought on our territory - or do we just have an island mentality?
I have always thought that getting to know ordinary people from other countries is both interesting and great fun.
I read a quote some time ago by a gentleman who said that ‘to get to know the other chap (or girl) through twinning exchanges is the greatest service to true international understanding.
Not because the other fellow (or girl) is so splendid, so erudite, so witty. Far from it. But because the other fellow (or girl) turns out to be just like you.’
I think that pretty well sums up what the twinning movement has set out to achieve.
Here in Wetherby, we are certainly trying to do our bit towards international understanding.