Twinning still popular for Norfolk towns
Civic friendships between towns and cities across the world can conjure up thoughts of costly council jollies.
Many of the connections emerged after the Second World War and their modern-day relevance is questioned.
With local authorities needing to save money, a number of British towns and cities have started cutting back on these twinning relationships.
But Norfolk continues to maintain links around the world with traditional twinning hotspots France and Germany, but also Nicaragua, Serbia and Australia.
And self-funded independent groups who work closely with our foreign friends insist the projects have a future and can continue to provide cultural, educational and social benefits.
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Aylsham Twinning is in its 11th year of maintaining links with La Chaussee-Saint-Victor, in central France, and is a self-funded group with an estimated 80 members.
The Norfolk market town has also established a friendship with Ochtendung, in Germany.
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Whether the latter link is by accident or design, the distance between Ochtendung and Koblenz is exactly the same as Aylsham and Norwich - 12.7 miles.
Ruth White, chairman of Aylsham Twinning, said she had made some good friends through her work with the group and it had helped broaden her horizons.
The 63-year-old, whose husband Peter, 69 is also involved, said: 'There's a lot of very strong friendships between Aylsham and La Chaussee-Saint-Victor.
'I think twinning is very relevant, on my behalf, because we have to make a programme for the visitors when they arrive for a long weekend and it's been great to visit places in Norfolk and find places that I didn't know about.'
Mrs White said Aylsham Twinning lacked younger members but they might soon take an interest.
She said: 'We don't have too many young ones in the group. Their time is probably more precious with young families to look after. They want to do things with the children but perhaps later in life they will come along.
'The school has started up an exchange programme and we are going across to Le Chaussee at Easter and taking a small group of schoolchildren with us. We hope they will continue the friendship.'
Mary Ridgeway, secretary of the Attleborough Town Twinning Association, said it was great for the group's 50 members to learn about Nueil Les Aubiers, in France, but also the link had had a positive impact on community spirit.
She said: 'Over the years we have had some pretty good friendships formed and people know each other quite well. It's very good to find out about the way people live and the community with which Attleborough is twinned with, although smaller, is very similar in so far as it has an agricultural base around it and there's lots we have in common.
'I think twinning is still relevant as there's no harm in finding out how people live. And of course our little community has to raise funds for when the French come so we can take them out so there's community spirit here.'
The group is hosting an annual dinner in February, followed by a cheese and wine event on Friday, March 16.
Norwich's links with Rouen in France, Koblenz in Germany, Serbia's Novi Sad and El Viejo in Nicaragua, are also led by volunteer friendship groups.
There are four in place, all independent from Norwich City Council.
The Norfolk and Norwich El Viejo Friendship Link has been helping to provide education to the impoverished area in Nicaragua, Central America, for the past decade.
Ralph Gayton, secretary of the link, said the group, which has 45 active members, offered 240 scholarships a year to allow children from poor families to attend school. He said: 'It's very popular with the people. We did a very stringent review a couple of years ago to find out if it was still needed and how valuable it was and it came out strongly in favour of continuing.' Mr Gayton added that the group also sourced health materials for the hospital and encouraged schools to create gardens so they could grow their own food. They have also provided each school with one computer to enable internet access.
He said: 'We work very closely with the people there and in the school scholarship project we provide each child with a uniform, school bag and we source all this locally. In fact, we help give some impetus to the local economy, we don't buy things here and send them over.'
Norwich City Council says it contributes �2,000 a year to support the twinning links and help the associations to operate.
Officials dismissed suggestions that the trips could be seen as 'civic junkets' and said they viewed twinning as an opportunity to meet like-minded people, get to know them and improve their understanding.
The most recent twinning visit involved a Norwich delegation attending a national garden show in Koblenz. This included the Lord Mayor of Norwich and music groups who were performing at the event. The council says all costs were paid for by their German hosts.
Brenda Arthur, Norwich City Council leader, said the biennial exchange visits involving the independent twinning associations were highlights of their calendars.
She said: 'Norwich has a long and proud history of twinning links with Rouen, Novi Sad, Koblenz and El Viejo. These have, over decades, proved to be important aids to international understanding and friendship, resulting in a range of social, educational and cultural exchanges, including music concerts, photographic and art exhibitions and exchanges between youth groups, lawyers and firemen.'
Koblenz resident Gunter Hahn, chairman of the Freundschaftskreis Norwich-Koblenz, said it remains to be seen what happens with the concept of twinning, although it very much depends on the people involved.
He said: 'Twinning agreements were the idea of a generation of people who had suffered from the Second World War and felt that this should never happen again. For young people today, there is no problem with travelling to other European countries and therefore they are not interested in joining our association. This has become a big problem. The average age of our members is relatively high and it is hard to find younger members.
'One thing is for sure, twinning has definitely helped to keep up international freedom and an understanding of nations as it is put down in the twinning agreement.'
Nicholas Wright, associate tutor at the University of East Anglia's school of politics, social and international studies, said the future of twinning could include developing links with areas that had similar economies to Norwich.
He said: 'Maybe the current twinning relationships are not relevant, but what about new ideas, looking at towns in some of the new member states such as Poland and Hungary? Twinning is one of those things you need to keep revisiting in order to keep it relevant.'
For further details about the Attleborough Town Twinning Association cheese and wine event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org