Wednesday, June 27, 2012
The finger may be pointed at the teetering European economy as the reason for our economic woes and Britain certainly has had a famously hot and cold relationship with her continental neighbours.
But, despite this, one thing has remain steadfast for 40 years: the relationship between Exmouth and the French town of Dinan.
This year heralds the 40th birthday of the twinning of Exmouth and Dinan, one of the most beautiful towns in Brittany, characterised by elegant buildings, cobbled streets and medieval walled ramparts which encircle the town.
Every year since 1972 members of Exmouth Twinning Association have either welcomed French visitors into their homes or have travelled to France and been treated not only as honoured guests, but as friends.
But, this year, members paid a very special visit to Dinan to mark the bond; a relationship not forged on power-politics and the fractious backdrop of elections, banks, national debt and austerity, but by common values, friendship and the fondness of having a very good time.
One of those bonds was forged in the fight against oppression in the Second World War – David Gingell joined the twinning association in 1985, and in his first visit he recalled that the experience had him ‘totally hooked’.
But it was a visit when he was chairman in 1994 which he calls his ‘highlight’.
He said: “Our visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
“Michelle Huet made a very moving speech to us…thanking the British and our allies for helping free the French people from the tyranny of Nazism.
“I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to be a part of our life-enhancing and joyful association.”
Town councillors John and Brenda Taylor were two of the original members, and first visited Dinan in the summer of 1972.
After meeting their host family, on the Sunday 40 years ago they attended a very special ballot, recalls John, the current Exmouth Twinning Association President.
“The French were holding a referendum to decide whether the UK should be allowed to join the European Common Market (the forerunner to the European Union),” he said.
“So we duly attended the Marie in Lehon (town hall) …where our hosts cast their votes and were told that the Mayor of Dinan had said in a speech ‘Dinan has already said YES to Exmouth!” Any concern that the group would not be welcomed evaporated the instant that theystepped onto Gaulish soil.
“For our first visit the Dinanais had requested that we wore a ‘traditional dress’”, he said.
“The nearest I could think of was to wear a dark suit, bowler hat, and carry a rolled umbrella and a copy of the Times!
“Since then I have been known in Dinan as ‘l’homme avec le chapeaux melon’ – the man of the bowler.”
The visit took place just as the then Prime Minister Ted Heath was trying to negotiate membership of the Common Market for the UK.
It was only five years previously that the notoriously cranky French President, Charles De Gaulle, had famously said ‘non’ to Britain’s membership.
However the Journal had a slightly different take, and on the front page, April 8, 1972, we reported: “Exmouth into Europe Now! Well abreast, if not ahead of these Common Market times, Exmouth makes its own enthusiastic entry into Europe.”
And judging by the visit last month, when 42 Exmouth residents spent five days in Dinan, our French friends are as enthusiastic as ever about the cross channel relationship between the two towns.
The group were treated like royalty, as they were honoured at a civic reception attended by Mayor Rene Benoit and Mary Yvonne Lambert, Dinan’s Twinning Association President.
Exmouth’s Grahame Smith said: “Our Dinan friends created an imaginative and varied programme of events for the Exmouth visitors.
“It was a pleasant blend of formal and informal activities, with plenty of time to get to know host families or to renew old acquaintances.”
The day culminated in a gala evening, a drinks reception followed by a lavish hot buffet complete with ‘energetic’ dancing to a versatile French band.
He added: “It showed just how proud our Dinan friends were of our long association. The desserts were accompanied by fireworks and hearty singing of Land of Hope and Glory and the waving of Union flags.”
However, one of the many things the two countries has in common is the erratic weather. Despite torrential rain, a few hardy twinners visited the arts and crafts shops and botanical gardens in La Gacilly, a famous village situated on a river in South West Brittany.
The visitors were also treated to a history lesson in Dinan Castle, followed by a magnificent medieval buffet and dancing , and a chance to peruse 40 years of photographic memories.
Mr Smith said: “Five days of hospitality, renewing friendships and making new friends was a perfect reminder of the importance of maintaining these bonds with our French neighbours, whose lives are just as challenging and eventful as ours in these tough economic times.”
As a final gesture, Mary Yvonne Lambert had arranged with the ferry company for some of the Exmouth contingent to visit the bridge as the Brittany Ferry Amorique sailed into Plymouth.
He added: “This was an unforgettable experience and a fitting finalé to a great visit.”