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History of Town Twinning in Sedbergh

How and Why We Entered Into a Twinning Arrangement
Sedbergh decided to look at the possibility of finding a twin town in 2001, eventually signing its first twin town charter, with Zreče, in May 2005. During that time we were the focus of a television programme. Here is a brief history of how Sedbergh’s town twinning arrangement came about.
2001 and the ‘Foot and Mouth Crisis’

2001 and foot and mouth disease strikes Britain. Foot and mouth is a virulent virus affecting sheep, cattle and pigs and its affect on the ecomony of the country, and on rural areas on the country in particular, was severe. There is a UK government website dedicated to the subject, http://footandmouth.csl.gov.uk/

The widespread slaughter of livestock resulted in images on television of fields of burning carcasses – disposal of so many diseased and deceased animals being understandably not that simple a job. Although the disease does not seem to affect humans in any physical way, it does in a psychological one, and the distress of farmers and those in rural areas caused prime minister Tony Blair to be forced to postpone a planned general election, evidently to his chagrin (see Guardian Politics, April 2nd 2001).

Foot and mouth disease never came to Sedbergh. No animals were slaughtered here. But the signs of closedown were manifest everywhere. There were symbols of exclusion such as disinfectant mats for vehicles to drive over on leaving the motorway, and notices telling people not to drive on by-roads, and all the footpaths were closed including, for a while, those where no livestock would be likely to set foot (and certainly not mouth).

Farming was of course affected, as farmers were disallowed from moving, and hence selling, their livestock. And those people who ran tourism-related businesses found their customers dwindled, both in terms of visitor numbers falling off and in diminished sales of leisure-related goods such as walking boots.

Images such a disinfectant mats for vehicles, while intended in some way to support the farmers, had the opposite effect, giving the message that the countryside was diseased.

Sedbergh needed a boost

Foot and mouth disease was declared eradicated towards the end of 2001, but this did not lead to jubilation in the streets. One reason for this is that it had taught us something; it had taught us that the economy of our town was fragile. No one could be sure that the problem would not soon recur, and if it did what could be done to minimise its effect. An image of fields of burning animals, even if in Sedbergh’s case it wasn’t a reality, was not good for business. The town needed something to boost its self-regard.

A number of options considered

When foot and mouth disease was declared eradicated, sub-groups of members of Sedbergh Chamber of Trade got together to see what could be done to lift the town's spirits and, above all, to get economic regeneration kick-started.

We filled flipcharts with ideas of what might constitute an initiative for economic generation, and with some argument and a bit of agreement, the list was narrowed down to about eight possibile initiatives that might be achieveable and that might have potential.

Two initiatives gained enthusiasm – one was to look at town twinning

Coming up with an idea is one thing, putting it into practice, in terms of time and money, is another. And there was the question of whether the idea would actually achieve anything to make the town feel more optimistic about itself at all.

Two of the ideas seemed to be key candidates for doing something positive; one was to give Sedbergh a focus by which it might become known as identifiable as different from elsewhere, a brand if you want to put it that way, and hence was born Sedbergh Booktown, which you can read more about on Sedbergh Booktown. The other initiative that came out as a viable one was town twinning.

Why town twinning?

The initiatives for economic generation were the result of work by the Chamber of Trade. Business people, or some of them anyway, have learned that when you are faced with a problem, one of the things you can do is to look outside, look what others are doing, and see if there is anything that can be adapted to your circumstances.

In doing this research, it isn’t usually much help to contact people who are in exactly the same position as yourself, because they are not likely to have any better idea of what to do than you. Far better to try and broaden the horizons.

Early on in this, we quickly discovered something: that of the two-and-a-half-thousand or so twinning arrangements between British towns and those overseas, just five, yes five, were from towns in the county of Cumbia. Did we in our region know something that the other’s didn’t? Or were we missing out on something here? We had a horrible worry that it might be the second.

Town twinning, which has a well-established infrastructure in place, seemed to be an opportunity to broaden the town's horizons.

Having decided to establish a town twinning arrangement, how should we begin to find a town to twin with?

Where should we look for a town to twin with? Some said France. France is our nearest neighbour and our children should learn more French. Others favoured Holland. Of the foreign car number plates we see around the district in summer, by far the largest number are Dutch. Various other countries were mentioned, influenced sometimes by individual people’s favourite holiday destinations.

What we actually did, first of all, was to erect a flipchart, and on it we wrote different people’s answers to the questions: ‘What do we want from this?’, and ‘What could be the synergies that might make this worthwhile?’.

We drew up a list of about seven or eight things that Sebergh is strong at and would be keen to develop. At the end of this we had our community-inspired twinning checklist.

Next, we put our town’s CV on the websites that existed at the time, for towns looking for a twinning partner. We also looked at other towns already on the list, to see whether there were any that seemed a suitable fit, but we couldn’t find any.

Sedbergh’s strengths and identity

Sedbergh has four schools: a long-established and well-known public (ie private or independent) school, a state primary school for children up to the age of 11, a state secondary school for 11–16s, and a residential school for boys with educational and behaviour difficulties. Sedbergh is strong on schools.

Sedbergh is a bookish and musical place. Even before becoming England’s first official book town, there were a number of bookshops and reading and theatrical groups, together with a town brass band, several singing groups, and an annual music festival.

Not all that big on sport, though there are thriving football teams and tennis and bowls.

Lots of shops for a town of its size, and a feature is that people worry about how long this can continue.

And then there are the two industries that, if you aked people what it was were the mainstay of the town, many would identify: farming and tourism. Farming is in severe decline and no one knows quite how to reverse this, and tourism has the problem shared by thousands of other places throughout the world, who also believe that their area is second to none, which is how to attract fewer visitors, with more money to spend (sometimes expressed as attracting more visitors).

A small town in Germany

As so often happens, when you’ve set in train the mechanisms for achieving something, someone comes along and says, ‘There’s a friend of mine who . . .’, and that was exactly what happened. A friend of a friend of someone who knew someone mentioned a town in Germany that was looking for a town twinning arrangement, and so closely did the twinning committee of the German town think that Sedbergh might fulfil their matching checklist, that a group of people from that town was coming over to visit. Of course, we did our best to be hospitable, and arranged visits to local points of interest and dug from the woodwork all our German-language speakers (there are quite a number) and arranged receptions, one of which was in the pub where Dennis, one of our local police officers, appeared in his uniform and said, “’ello”.

And then there was a reciprocal visit to the town in Germany, to which we took a representative from the regional twinning association, Jürgen, whose birthplace is Germany, and we were entertained most hospitably and went to a party in a beer tent and did a speech during the interval and Jürgen, on returning from the beer tent to his lodgings after the party, went behind a tree to relieve himself and disappeared, slowly like a sinking ship, down a hole in the ground he hadn’t spotted in the dark and broke his leg quite seriously and was in hospital for quite some time afterwards and all were concerned that he may never be able to walk normally again, and we thought that surely this must be propitious, and there were so many similarities between the concerns of this small town near Heilbronn, and Sedbergh, that all seemed to be going swimmingly.

The telly

The camera and jolly sound man arrive in Sedbergh

And then along came . . . the telly

Shortly after visiting our potential twin town, in summer 2004, we received out-of-the-blue an email from a television production company, saying that they were preparing a twelve-part series on town twinning, and that they might consider Sedbergh as the focus in the UK.

Representatives from the television production company came to Sedbergh during a sunny few days and met various people in the pub and seemed to think we might be quite a telegenic place.

We told them about our budding arrangements with the town in Germany but they said that set-up jobs would be seen through by the great television-watching public and that we should have to be introduced to places, which we were not told even the name of beforehand.

This is an unconventional approach to finding a twinning partner, but on the other hand the town felt that it could not reject the opportunity for some exposure on national television, and we therefore put our position to our new-found German friends, who kindly understood the dilemma we were in, and so to Sedbergh came the arrival of the cameras. You can see a description of the presence of television cameras in Sedbergh here.

Sedbergh sets up a formal town twinning arrangement with Zreče

The activities put in place by the television production company resulted in a pulling-together of the people of Sedbergh, the like of which had not been seen in anyone’s memory. The number of people who voted for a twinning arrangement with Zreče exceeded the votes given to all the other candidate towns put together, and the number of people who voted was greater than the number who turn out for most general and local elections.

A formal twinning charter has been signed and reciprocal visits are regularly underway.

In Britain, at least, Slovenians come with no baggage. Everyone likes a Slovene. The twinning arrangement between Sedbergh and Zreče has so far been a huge success. A satirical song dating from the 1950s includes the words: ‘The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans and the Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch. And I don’t like anybody very much!’ †. Fortunately, so far as we know, we have no Slovenophobes, in Sedbergh.

† lyric by Sheldon Harnick, who also wrote the words to Fiddler on the Roof

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