The French connection
PUBLISHED: 09:11 08 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013
In 2008, Halstead celebrates 25 years of its association with Haubourdin, its twin town in France. Nicky Adams finds out all about the town's French friendship
WHEN families from a traditional Essex market town pop across the Channel to visit the citizens of their twin town in northern France, there's a lot of laughter amid the broken French and English.
After a 25-year association, the people of Halstead feel quite at home with their hosts in Haubourdin, a suburb of the city of Lille. In fact, when a group of Halstead residents last spent a weekend 'en famille' with their French counterparts, several opted out of the organised activities entirely to take part instead in birthday parties and even a Christening. One Halstead couple only narrowly avoided missing the bus home, so wrapped up were they in family life in Haubourdin.
But in 1983, when the idea of finding a twin for Halstead was first suggested, no one could have predicted just what sort of a relationship would develop. The mayor at the time was Michael Gage and he remembers very clearly that Halstead was offered a variety of contenders for the post of French twin by the Twinning Association of Britain. 'We didn't want to travel too far and five out of the six towns they suggested were in the south of France,' explains Michael. 'So we settled on inviting a party from Haubourdin to Halstead and then we made a return visit. Both groups really liked what they saw and the people they met. We realised how near Haubourdin is to Lille, with its associations with Flanders, and we were hooked.'
A year later, Michael asked his Haubourdin counterpart why his committee chose Halstead and was told that it was because of the warmth of the welcome the French delegation received in the homes of Halstead families. That set the tone for the closeness that has grown up between the two communities ever since. Although Halstead is a typically English market town and Haubourdin is now virtually on the edge of Lille, there is one thing that the two places have in common, according to twinning committee member Dermod Malley. 'Both Halstead and Haubourdin are inhabited by friendly, small-town people with a love of good food and family,' he says. 'It would have been silly to have chosen a place identical to Halstead in terms of size, rural location and outlook - we would not have gained any new experiences and neither would the French.'
And new experiences are what makes the twinning scheme such a vital part
of life in Halstead.
For the past few years, trips across the Channel between the two towns have taken place regularly every six months, in May and October each year. Rather than staying in hotels, the guests are put up in family homes for a real taste of life in their twin town and a chance to practice their language skills, if they have them. Nine-year-old Nick Mayes made his first visit to Haubourdin last year and found his day in a French school a real eye-opener. 'We sat in on an English class and the French children asked me some questions in English,' he explains. 'They seemed to understand my replies and I was impressed that, although the classes were larger than ours, they were quieter. The lessons were shorter too.'
John and Jenny Ruder from Halstead went to Haubourdin last year and enjoyed it so much they were late for the coach home. 'We stayed with a young family,' says Jenny, 'and their grandparents and great-grandmother joined us for the weekend. It was great having four generations around us. We visited the old city of Lille and later went to a party celebrating the youngest child's fifth birthday. We enjoyed the trip immensely, so much so that we were given a mild ticking-off from our coach driver for keeping him waiting, even though we were staying with the family nearest to the point of departure.'
Apart from getting to know French families, the people from Halstead who take part in the twinning also enjoy cultural evenings with their Haubourdin counterparts and plenty of social functions. Last October, Halstead's mayor, Helen Catley, and a group from the town visited Haubourdin to congratulate the French maire, Bernard Delaby, on the new hôtel de ville (town hall). After a tour of the building, Helen made a short speech in French and English expressing the good wishes of the people of Halstead and presented an official certificate of congratulations from the town council of Halstead to the maire to mark the occasion. Halstead Twinning Association chairman Mick Radley also handed Bernard a specially-bound presentation copy of a book by Doreen Potts called A Look Back at Halstead.
There are sure to be many more speeches in both languages later this year, when the 25th anniversary of the twinning is celebrated. Two exchange visits are planned with a group from Halstead visiting France on the weekend of May 16-18 to stay with families in Haubourdin and to take part in events to mark the occasion, while their French friends will make a return visit on October 19-21 to attend a dinner and dance at the Earls Colne Golf Club and look back with fondness over a quarter of a century of twinning.
Many founder members of the associations in both towns are still enjoying contact with their original twin families and have become firm friends. One of these is Edna Suckling, Halstead Twinning Association's life president, who was its first secretary in 1983 and is a former chairman. Edna is still in touch with the family she met on her first exchange visit to Haubourdin and is convinced that town twinning has great benefits for everyone who takes part. 'It's about ordinary people from two countries meeting, becoming friends and showing each other warmth and sincerity,' she says. 'That really is the best way to promote understanding between people of different nationalities.'