Twinning, as a concept, originated after the First World War, as an idea to bring peoples closer together. That didn’t work. After the subsequent carnage of World War Two it gained an additional impetus. And nowhere more so than in France;-occupied, divided and devastated by German Nazis, home grown collaborators and fought over by armies from all over the world. It was no wonder that France took the lead in seeking out twinning partners all across Europe and to this day the ‘Jumelage’ budgets from town halls across that country are generous and well supported. It was into this progressive, idealistic, forward thinking atmosphere that Bridgwater Borough Councillor Oscar Coates found himself one day in 1957 whilst on holiday in the South of France.
La Ciotat was a small port on the Mediterranean coast near Marseilles with a working shipyard and a bay which had seen a minor battle during the Liberation of France in 1944 which saw US and British ships sink a German merchant steamer while the airforce dropped 300 dummy paratroopers in the north of the town. This was of course a diversion to the main landings taking place along the nearby Cote d’Azur. The people of La Ciotat saw the battle, the German ship sink and the British destroyer rescuing 169 of the floundering sailors.
Internationalism in action
After the war the Socialist Party ran the town for the next 30 years and then after that the Communist Party. The Mayor from 1949 to 1977 was Jean Graille, a passionate internationalist, who was looking around for a sister town so that his Ville could take part in the great twinning experiment that his Nation was leading in order to stop future wars and increase prosperity by simply making friendships between people and places. Enter Oscar Coates and Bridgwater Borough Council.
Cllr Oscar Coates was a wealthy conservatively inclined businessman of Coates Fencing and Coates Cider fame who lived at The Elms, Wembdon. Born and bred in Bridgwater, Oscar had already been a councillor for 24 years, and when first elected was in fact the youngest member there only breaking his period of office for a spell in the RAF. Oscar was a pillar of the local community; Chairman of the Rugby clubs social committee and vice chair of Enmore Golf Club.
Bridgwater in the 50’s
The powerful Bridgwater Borough Council of the 1950’s was a battleground between the strong local Labour Party and the group of largely business people styling themselves ‘Independents’ (rather than Conservatives) as was often the case in them days.
1957 was a pivotal year, as the May elections saw Labour retake the Borough by 4 seats (in the Westover area in fact). The town was growing and increased prosperity promised with the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station being built and a new by-pass to relieve the traffic congestion. Great! Until you realise that actually meant today’s ‘Broadway’.
Oscar wanted to be part of all that and to see through the new French twinning that he was instrumental in setting up and on 23rd May he was elected Mayor of the town with Labour councillor Williams pointing out “ I remind him that the Labour group has power in the Council Chamber but I have confidence that Alderman Coates will exercise the wisdom and tact he has shown in the past”.
23rd June 1957- the die is cast
On 23rd June 1957 Oscar Coates was in La Ciotat with Jean Graille signing the twinning document that binded together the 2 Mayors own personal entente cordiale and paved the way for generations of young people to benefit from the opportunities set up. Oscar Coates said at the time ” To maintain friendships between two countries and exchange ideas must help the cause of world peace, and that is why twinning is so important. I hope the younger people of the town will take the opportunity of getting pen friends with similar lads and lasses. I will be in the Mayor’s Parlour at 12 o clock most mornings and I hope young people will come along and give me their particulars so that when I go there I can fix them up with a pen friend.”
Oscar was true to his word and in Jean Graille he had an eager partner. Parading through the stiflingly hot summer streets of La Ciotat in his full Mayors outfit of ermine bedecked robes and a 17th century gold chain, he did indeed meet people, promoted his town and arranged for a return visit.
By the autumn of 1957 the French had been over twice. July 57 saw Jean Graille himself in Bridgwater and, with his daughter Jacqueline, staying at the Wembdon home of the Coates family. A second visit took place in September the same year with the French staying with English families.
The Exchanges grow
Throughout the 1960’s the exchanges grew. Clearly, looking back, the students who mainly took up the offers were from the two grammar schools -Dr Morgans -where Oscar himself was educated, and the Girls Grammar School, where Headmistress Mrs Furze, took a prominent role. Of course the families had more disposable income so this was clear.
Bridgwater Borough Council continued supporting the twinning as did La Ciotat with the all powerful M.Graille doing so until his death in office in 1977. However, Bridgwater was to receive a major setback in 1974 when, after Local Government re-organisation, it lost its Borough status and submerged in the District of Sedgemoor which assumed all the Town’s powers leaving it with only the right to have a Mayor each year and a very small budget but absolutely no influence.
Winds of Change
Sedgemoor as a council was keen on seeking out a new District twinning. But with Germany. In 1979 they formally linked with the Schwalm Eder Kreis region of the then West Germany and urged the main Sedgemoor towns to link with 3 towns in SEK -Burnham with Fritzlar, Cheddar with Felsberg and Bridgwater with Homberg. So what would happen to La Ciotat?
Not only had the Borough changed to a district the Grammar school system went Comprehensive and the 2 Bridgwater Grammar schools were merged with Westover secondary modern school to form the new Haygrove in 1973. And it was largely through Haygrove that the La Ciotat link continued. The outgoing Borough council bequeathed a ‘special expenses’ budget of some £1,000 a year to its successor, the ‘Charter Trustees’ to assist young people traveling to their French partner town. Teachers Margaret Johnson and David Webb continued to organise youth trips but they needed help.
Enter the Alders
It was into this mix that Sedgemoor Councillor Derek Alder appeared with his wife Doreen. With no knowledge of French and only one ever visit there during his time in the RAF, Derek at least had a daughter who was keen to go on an exchange trip and then, as all good British volunteer parents do, found himself helping out and then , suddenly, running the show. And he did this for the next 30 years taking 30-40 young people a year on what was to become a routine journey against the clock of busses to London, train to Dover, ferry to Calais, more trains to Paris Nord, another to Gare de Lyon, another train to Marseilles and then a local bus into La Ciotat. A journey made in 24 hours.
Derek advertised beyond the old school network each year in the papers for partners to travel and to host in return, a process which would fill his family summers until the turn of the 21st century. Sometimes Mayors would travel backwards and forwards to celebrate anniversarys and sometimes Francophiles and Anglophiles inspired by the twinning would visit, make friends and visit again. And again.
21st Century Blues
However, by the 21st Century, twinning was seeking a new direction. The home hosting format was facing problems as Britain reeled from the new CRB checks which made guaranteeing hosts and volunteer workers alike more fraught with difficulties. Also , enter the low cost airline, the world wide web and the expansion of the European Union. Now more people on limited means could travel abroad as they wished and what’s more could find how to do it easily on the internet. Not only that but the EU had expanded with free movement of people, long a goal, now a reality. People were on the move now anyway, irrespective of a formal twinning agreement. The youth exchanges dropped off and then stopped altogether and the adult visits reduced to just the Giles family.
Enter Bridgwater International. In Bridgwater, a new approach to twinning had been moving up from leftfield since the early 90’s. On June 18th 1992 Bridgwater became the first British town to twin with a Czech town (Uherske Hradiste) after the Velvet Revolution and twinning now became ‘International links’, with not just schools, but rock tours, football tours, choir exchanges, trade visits, round Britain trips and EU funded projects bringing tangible benefits to partner communities. And it didn’t just stop with Czechoslovakia – in fact no sooner had Czechoslovakia stopped being Communist it split into 2 and so Bridgwater suddenly had 2 new partner countries-Czech AND Slovakia. The popular and growing Bridgwater-Czech Friendship Society took the initiative in trying to bring together the disparate local twinnings, and also tried new countries, making contacts and using them to arrange local visits. In fact Sedgemoor Unison football team toured to a different country every year including Czech Rep, Slovakia, Hungary,Lithuania,Poland,Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro.
Bridgwater Goes International
In 2011 Bridgwater International decided to take a football tour to France and where was the obvious place? La Ciotat of course. By now the La Ciotat link was struggling as described, but the Bridgwater Internationalists simply re-invented it. A mixture of, quite hard to find exactly who was who, ‘Council ‘ contacts and other local helpers unearthed in a variety of ways including local socialists, trades unionists, educationalists, sports writers and former visitors to Bridgwater, they organised a football tournament which not only included a Bridgwater team but also a Czech team, and the French link was reborn in a new format. The French Jumelage committee laid on a welcome , the Czechs brought 2 barrels of Pilsner and the Brits lost the tournament.
In 2012 the Bridgwater International programme continued, this time with a 50 strong Bridgwater choir ‘Voice of the People’. This was another ‘new’ way of doing twinning. This choir of largely middle aged amateur singers had travelled with Bridgwater International to numerous European locations each year and linked up with a local choir. They’d done Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary – in fact, all the places where contacts had been developed…so now France..and again La Ciotat.
Bridgwater International takes on the French Link
And so this was the model that the largely fading La Ciotat Group chose for the future. In 2013 Derek Alder and Kieth Giles approached Brian Smedley, the Bridgwater International organiser, to take on the La Ciotat link. Bridgwater International agreed and that’s how it’s run to this very day.
In 2014 the Bridgwater Town Council reorganised it’s twinning links on a similarly collective model and the newly united twinning groups (France, Czech, Germany,Italy and Malta) all came together and organised a Twinning Conference – and then another each year since. The French sent delegates and the Brits sent another choir down to La Ciotat along with an additional group of adult linkers including Keith and Derek and then in 2016 Bridgwater International organised the first French youth project in a decade with the help of Anna Jackson, a former La Ciotat exchange organiser, now a teacher, who offered her school-the Bridgwater College Academy, as a participant in new French youth visits. This is now in it’s second year.
60 Years of Twinning
In 2017 it’s the 60th anniversary of Oscar Coates and Jean Grailles original link and so La Ciotat invited a delegation down to see them and re-sign the document. Mayor of Bridgwater Graham Granter fronted the delegation and sat at the top table in the La Ciotat town hall along with former Mayor Leigh Redman, historic Youth organiser Derek Alder, and the veteran Keith Giles. Next to them the modern generation of La Ciotat council leaders, no longer old school socialists, but, in an ironic historic twist, new style conservatives in the guise of ‘independents’ and fronted by Mayor Patrick Bore, in power since 2001. But La Ciotat had changed. No longer shipyards and socialists, now a major centre for luxury yacht repair and tourism.
Of course, when we say ‘power’ we mean it. The La Ciotat Mayor is a powerful elected individual with Executive powers and a massive preliminary operating budget of 55.5 million euros and 32 million euros in investments and a Jumelage budget for the Bridgwater visit of 8,500 € ….which even puts the old Bridgwater Borough into the shade but certainly is a mismatch for the modern Bridgwater Town Council with it’s equivalent budget of £750,000 of which £300 is spent on the French twinning.
But in Britain we do things differently. Our tradition is one of ‘volunteering’ , fundraising, mucking in and all done in a kind of DIY style which we’re sure the rest of Europe loves and understands.
Even if they can’t work out for a minute why we voted for Brexit…..
The Future is International….despite Brexit
So the Bridgwater-La Ciotat link is 60 years old. It started with high hopes for the youth and for the unity of a continent ravaged by war. And after a period where it looked like it might be left on the shelf through red tape and/or the world passing it by, it’s picking itself up again.
For the Anniversary event the French concentrated on the early history and went to great lengths to remember those early days.
Young Jacqueline Graille was still there 60 years later, fondly remembering Bridgwater, the Coates house and the many friends she met including the young boy Christopher who said he was going to be an actor. And that was Chris Harris, the Bridgwater actor who sadly died just 2 years ago.
But there were also new people. People who hadn’t yet been to Bridgwater and who wanted to. People who had joined Jumelage to meet interesting Foreign people and to visit interesting places. And Bridgwater was there for them to discover. As was Bridgwater International – still there to offer that to them.
Love won’t tear us apart
However, signing the Charter aside, there was a special human element to the anniversary. It wasn’t just 60 years of the Bridgwater-La Ciotat link it also happened to be the 60th anniversary of Derek and Doreen Alder, who had been fortunate enough to have got married in the romantic city of Leeds back in 1957 and who were now re-affirming their vows 60 years later in the Town Hall in La Ciotat. The French pulled out all the stops to honour them – and deservedly so. Two people who for 30 years had kept the flame of the 1957 twinning alive and kept those young people going backwards and forwards between sister towns in the spirit of Oscar and Jean all those years later. And did so until the bitter end – and beyond.
Today, Brian Smedley of Bridgwater International, is the Leader of Bridgwater Town Council and Modern Twinning is firmly established , funded fairly and equally and organised co-operatively. The Town has 5 formal twinnings and numerous informal international links. But the first and the one that started all this, was La Ciotat in 1957.