Fancy an affordable European short break, where you’ll gain a unique insight into French or German life? Simon Pritchard is Chairman of Shaftesbury’s Twinning Association and he’s keen to encourage more residents to visit our twin towns.
Keri Jones of ThisIsAlfred talked to Simon about a forthcoming social evening where he’ll share more information about twinning trips and correct some misunderstandings.
Whenever you turn on the TV or radio at the moment, people are talking about our relationship with Europe. But what happens at the end of March won’t affect the firm friendships forged since Shaftesbury, Brionne and Lindlar became twin towns or, more accurately, a trinity of towns.
I met with Twinning Association Chairman, Simon Pritchard, for a chat. Simon showed me his phone messages. He’s become good friends with Lindlar resident Sven, since Simon first visited our German twin town. “His English is good enough for me to be able to just text him, converse with him and see how him and his family are getting on,” said Simon.
There are clearly culture differences between the Cologne area and North Dorset, but the two men have bonded over a mutual love of beer. “When I first started staying with him, on the first night there, we both discovered we had a love of beer. Beyond that, whatever cultural differences there were became null and void,” Simon said.
As I chatted with Simon he shared more examples of how residents who have been on twinning trips have kept in contact with their French or German hosts. Social media messaging and Skype means it doesn’t cost a penny – or a cent – to stay in touch.
It was very different in the days when the Association was formed. French teachers at Shaftesbury’s schools decided to find a place where pupils could test their language skills. The first exploratory trip to Brionne was made in December 1971. Brionne was chosen because its Normandy location meant a weekend visit was possible and practical.
The Association was formed in 1974 and extended to Lindlar in 1981. The German link was inspired by Lindlar-born Alo Hoeller, who was detained in the Shaftesbury area during World War II. Herr Hoeller felt that he was well-treated during his time working at Harding’s Farm and he wanted to establish a formal friendship link between Shaftesbury and his home town.
Simon says both of our twin towns share similarities with Shaftesbury. “The size is very similar. That’s the reason why the twinning works.” But there are also distinct difference which make visiting the two twins interesting. “Lindlar is a slightly industrial town, but it does have a nice historic centre. It’s got huge amounts of open space that run all the way through the town. It has stunning, rolling, beautiful hills all around the town, which are not too high and within ten minutes, you can get up to the top,” Simon said.
The pretty French town of Brionne sits on a tributary of the River Seine and is overlooked by the remains of its hilltop castle keep. “Brionne has the feel of a typical French town – that sort of café culture,” said Simon.
He believes that the Twinning Association offers a special insight into how German and French residents live. You can stay with locals, in their own homes and experience everyday life, rather than seeing those countries as a tourist. “It’s an absolutely extraordinary experience that is not easily available. The chance to go and live with somebody and be completely immersed in their culture. They will show you everything that they know about an area or a place.”
Simon’s made some discoveries. He’s sampled some special brews that he would never have tried if his twin town host had not introduced him to them. “The Germans have a wonderful culture where they will actually brew the beer in the back of a restaurant. You could be going to a restaurant and drink beer that’s unique and sold nowhere else. That really excited me,” he said.
And Simon has also learned that, in Lindlar, it’s best to mention that you follow a meat-free diet before your trip. “In Germany, they were particularly amused because I’m a vegetarian and vegetarianism in Germany is most definitely not widespread. I caused my host an awful lot of stress on the first day. He did a lot of driving around to try and find some vegetarian food because it’s almost a concept they’re not used to.”
Simon says that the European visits can be as formal or informal as people wish. And many Shaftesbury residents now travel to Lindlar and Brionne under ‘their own steam’. “The unofficial trips happen all the time. If you know a host family out there, they may well say to you ‘come on over’, at times outside the official trip.”
But it seems that Twinning Association travellers enjoy the camaraderie of a coach trip, sharing their experience with fellow Shaftesbury residents. It offers the most cost effective way to visit. “Our Secretary, Roy Mitchell, spends an awful lot of his time looking around for the best deals and nailing down the best prices. Once we’ve got that in place we work out how much we need to charge each person. This year’s trip will be £195 per person. I think for a long weekend away in Germany that’s actually stunningly good value,” said Simon.
The trips are offered at a cost price. “We don’t make any money out of it. The Association is a registered charity. For the last couple of years, we’ve made a loss, so it’s certainly not a business venture of ours. It’s a community service that we provide,” he said.
Many locals look forward to the coach ride because it’s fun. There are often quizzes and activities on board. “The coach leaves from the Coppice Street car park, normally on a Thursday morning, nice and early,” explained Simon. “We take a day to travel over there with plenty of stops on the way. We often go on the ferry but this time we’re going by Eurotunnel, which will cut the journey time even more. There are favourite stops on the way – sometimes a chocolate shop in Belgium. It’s quite a jolly time on the coach really with people moving around and chatting.”
What happens when you get to Brionne or Lindlar is up to you and your hosts. “Once you arrive with your host family then, no doubt, they’ll have a conversation with you as to what you want to do and what you want to get out of the trip. There will be official trips arranged for the weekend. On the Saturday there would be a trip that you would know about in advance, but your host family may well say to you, ‘if you don’t want to go on it, let’s get in the car and go somewhere else’,” Simon said.
Simon has enjoyed seeing the sights in and around Lindlar on an organised tour. “I certainly enjoyed the trip that they took to Cologne. The cathedral – that was absolutely stunning.”
Simon wants Shaftesbury residents to attend a March meeting, to share ideas for places where we can take our French and German twin town visitors when they visit North Dorset. “We’ve been to Salisbury. We’ve been up to Bath. We recently took them down to Swanage and had a lovely day out down there, and jumped on a boat and went all around the Jurassic Coast.”
Simon welcomes fresh thinking. “We’re quite a small committee. There are about six or seven of us and so we probably keep on having the same set of ideas all the time. We want to extend it out and ask some of our members or residents of the town whether they’ve got any good ideas about what we could be doing.”
Not everyone has great language skills and if you can’t speak French or German, Simon’s experience its that its is easier to make yourself understood when you stay with Lindlar locals. “You could go over to Germany and communicate with people absolutely fine. Most Germans will tell you that they do not speak English and then speak English to you absolutely perfectly for the whole weekend,” he said. “The language barrier between us and the French can be an issue and I think that if you want to go to France, you would need to take your phrasebook and do a little bit of research before you arrive.”
Simon is keen to tackle some misunderstandings about the Twinning Association and how it works. Firstly, you don’t need to be a member to take one of the organised trips. If you pay the travel costs, you can go along. Secondly, you don’t have to offer accommodation in return for the German and French visitors.
“When I talk to people, the first thing they will say is ‘I couldn’t possibly host anybody. My house is too small’ and I find it disappointing that they feel as though they would be excluded from being able to take part in our trips. The Association is open to all residents of the town. The Town Council agreed that it wished to twin with Lindlar and it set up the Association to enable residents of the town to be able to visit.”
And Simon says that, if you’re a private person, you can choose to stay in a hotel instead of a host’s home. “There’s no problem there. And if you can’t stand going on the coach, you can get on a plane and that does happen. We also have people that will drive across separately from the coach.” If you’d like to see Lindlar with fellow Shaftesbury residents, the group’s 2019 trip visits our German twin between 2nd and 6th of May.
There are 53 members of the Association and Simon would love to see more locals sign up. “We’ve had new membership from young families with children as well as older people. Absolutely anyone can become a member. You don’t have to be a member to go on the trip. It’s open to anyone,” said Simon.
You can find out more at the group’s cheese and wine event in the Royal British Legion Hall at 7.30pm on Friday 8th March. Tickets are £10. “At the same time we’re going to be having a brainstorming session and hopefully we’ll get some ideas about what we can do for future trips out. There is a small ticket fee to cover the cost of the cheese and the wine but, judging by previous events we’ve held of a similar nature, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth,” said Simon.