With continental contacts, Bridgnorth is showcasing the value of foreign friends. Neil Thomas reports
Entering Bridgnorth you are greeted by place name signs confirming that you are, indeed, in one of Shropshire’s loveliest towns. But the signs have a deeper resonance – easily overlooked on casual glance – celebrating a special bond. They tell you that Bridgnorth is twinned with Thiers and Schrobenhausen.
Like towns across Britain, Bridgnorth has embraced the town twinning movement, which developed in the late 1940s from the ashes of the Second World War. It grew with the passionate support of mayors and citizens here and on the continent, who vowed that Europe should never again be torn apart by armed conflict.
The movement gathered pace in the decades that followed, with Bridgnorth joining the twinning ‘party’ in 1978 when its association with Thiers, in central France was formed.
Schrobenhausen, in Bavaria, southern Germany, was added in 1992 and, since it also has links with Thiers, the three towns essentially became ‘triplets’.
The triple alliance has been strong over the years but in recent times has had to overcome the challenges of Covid 19 and Brexit, both of which in their different ways have made travel between Britain and the continent more problematic.
There is still a will, though, to maintain these ties, evidenced by the most recent ‘family’ gathering, hosted in Bridgnorth in June.
Visitors from Schrobenhausen and Thiers enjoyed a bumper weekend in which where they took in celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the town carnival.
Delegates visited the Severn Valley Railway, one of Shropshire’s biggest tourist attractions with 250,000 visitors a year. They attended a formal civic dinner hosted by Mayor of Bridgnorth Karen Sawbridge on the Friday evening as well as a more informal afternoon tea in a marquee at Bridgnorth Rugby Club on Saturday. The rugby clubhouse hosted a party on Saturday evening, featuring live music from a ukulele band of which Bridgnorth Twinning Association president Lindy MacDonald is a member.
“Everyone was dancing and it was a great night. Our visitors certainly enjoyed themselves,” says Twinning Association chairman and former Bridgnorth mayor Ron Whittle.
It all drew to a close on Sunday with a church service. A bench with mural was unveiled, a gift from Schrobenhausen to mark 30 years of twinning between the two towns.
“It was a fantastic experience and a very positive reaffirmation of the friendship between our towns,” Ron says.
“We managed to cover the cost and the visitors had a fantastic time, helped no doubt by the weather and celebrations that were taking place in the town. There was plenty of dancing and eating at the functions and plenty of compliments for the town.”
The chairman particularly praised Councillor Sawbridge for her role in helping the event come together.
However, for all the positivity around the weekend, it’s fair to say that Bridgnorth’s involvement in the town twinning programme is at a crossroads.
“We are due to visit Schrobenhausen next year and Thiers in 2024 but there are some issues to be considered in the meantime,” Ron explains.
“The future funding model for when Bridgnorth is next due to be host in 2025 is as yet unclear,” he explains. “There has to be the continued will on the part of the town council to keep twinning alive. Afterall, it is important to remember that as an association we are not acting for ourselves but on behalf of the town council, which signed the original town twinning charter.
“In addition, I think it is important to get more people in Bridgnorth involved, not just on the organisational side of things but more widely. “There is an opportunity for schools and local parish councils to be part of it all. It would be good if sports clubs could get involved in fixtures against one another. I know the rugby club have played matches in Thiers in the past and it would be good if we could have more clubs doing that kind of thing. There could be more cultural exchanges – music group tours, artistic link-ups and so on. Schrobenhausen has a very active music school and so local musical clubs could also be involved. It would be great to have younger people involved to encourage us that twinning has a future.
“It should be about more than relatively small delegations making formal visits once a year.”
The twinning association has also launched a drive to recruit new faces to try to reverse a dwindling membership.
“On that first visit to Thiers more than 40 years ago, we took 300 people in six coaches. Last year, our membership was down to 35, which is the lowest it’s ever been. Covid has been a factor, of course, but it was happening before that. I think it reflects a general reluctance by younger people particularly to get involved in formal organisations. Many different groups have seen their memberships decline in recent years.”
However, under Ron’s chairmanship, the association has made a promising start in reversing the trend with membership rising to 65 in the past year.
“Even that number, though, is not enough to sustain it. We need 200 to 300.
“Our small committee, though, is determined that the association will not fail and, with the help of Bridgnorth Town Council, we shall be working hard to promote the many benefits of twinning to revitalise interest.”
Ron believes that there is no reason why the twinning movement in Britain should be derailed by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
“Whatever your feelings about the Brexit vote, I think it’s important to maintain a connection with our European neighbours, and Bridgnorth’s connections to Thiers and Schrobenhausen are very strong.
“I suspect that there are lots of our residents that would welcome the chance to be part of an opportunity to enjoy fellowship with our near neighbours, either through twinning festivals in those towns, hosting visitors when we hold our twinning festival each third year or by contact through social media, individual visits and so on.
“Not only is twinning culturally enriching but in an increasingly uncertain world, it is important to let your friends know how much you value them.”
- Anyone interested in finding out more about twinning in Bridgnorth or becoming a member, please call Ron Whittle on 07801 615880 or email firstname.lastname@example.org