The last twelve months since my election to Ashford Borough Council has been a steady succession of firsts and new experiences. I can say, without a doubt, that the most joyous and memorable of those experiences was meeting the members of the Ashford Twinning Association for the first time and joining them on my first Civic Visit to Bad Münstereifel. I’d like to thank each member of the Ashford Twinning Association present on the visit for their warm welcome and friendliness.
The trip started with us all waiting in the Stour Centre Car Park, looking out for a coach. After a slight delay we were on our way and in no time were across the Channel, through France and on our way to Bad Münstereifel. Many people had described to me how beautiful Bad Münstereifel was. Mile after mile of bland motorway passed, until we finally left the Autobahn and made the final leg of our journey through countryside and forest. After a short while, we began winding our way down the valley into Bad Münstereifel and it was at this point I realised the beauty that everyone had told me about.
What struck me most as we entered the town, were people waving at the coach as we passed. The French delegation had arrived a short while before us. At this point, I had my first real sense of the purpose of the twinning and the good that it does.
After a welcome reception in the school, we departed to our hosts’ homes for the evening. It was a lovely evening with our hosts Bernhard and Elisabeth, Christoph and Brigitte from Fougères and our very own Peter Cocks and Andrew Buchanan.
Friday began with a trip of both delegations to the Vogelsang. I found the tour to be quite moving and very interesting. Moving because in an area so naturally beautiful, there had been a place built to teach and promote the most evil of humanity. I’ve been to Germany many times, but this visit struck me as the first time I had heard Germans talk at length about the Third Reich. I found it to be very interesting. It’s easy to teach and remember history from one side of a war, very different to those who were occupied by the forces of the other side and whose country witnessed the horror.
After a lunch overlooking the lovely landscape surrounding the Vogelsang, we headed back to Bad Münstereifel for a plaque unveiling in memory of David Kaufmann and a visit to the Jewish Cemetery.
Later on Friday, our host Bernhard took us on a tour of the town. This included climbing one of the gate-towers on the town wall and the castle. We then drove out of Bad Münstereifel to the remains of the Felsennest. The Felsennest was one of Hitler’s Führer Headquarters. He spent some time there in 1939 and then stayed again for one month from May 1940 to oversee the invasion of France, including the Battle of Dunkirk. The Felsennest was destroyed by the Wehrmacht as they retreated from the approaching allies in 1945.
Saturday included one of the main events of the visit - the presentation of the young people and speeches by the three mayors in the Rathaus. The students of Highworth Grammar did Ashford proud with their presentation and demonstration of their French and German language skills. I also found the presentation by the students from Fougères particularly poignant in regards to ongoing political events. The three mayors each gave fantastic speeches and exchanged gifts.
After the presentation I took some time to properly explore Bad Münstereifel, which included climbing the city walls. Bernhard then took us for a tour of the wider local area, which included; Roman Lime Kilns, other Roman ruins and the Radiotelescope - the size of which takes a moment to comprehend. We were also fortunate enough to see it move and change position as we were leaving. The size of the structure is a feat of engineering alone, never mind the technology of the telescope itself.
On Sunday Bernhard and Elisabeth took us to see some enormous open-cast coal mines, about half an hour drive from Bad Münstereifel. These mines were vast, the vehicles driving at the bottom appeared the size of toys. The machines used to excavate the coal are as equally as huge as the mines - the teeth of which must have been longer than 10 feet.
We then had afternoon tea and cake with Elisabeth’s parents, who were lovely and live on a beautiful old farm. They’d put on a great spread for us and it was pleasure speaking to them both. It was then time to head back to Bad Münstereifel to get ready for the reception and dinner that evening.
The dinner was brilliant, the food and company were both great. Heino even made an appearance - which seemed exciting for our German friends, but I must admit that I hadn’t heard of him. I have taken the time to listen to some of his music since returning home... an interesting artist indeed is all I will say.
Before I knew it we were back with the coaches, all packed up and everyone saying goodbye. The four days had flown by, yet I’d made some fantastic friends with people I’d only met a few days earlier. I’m looking forward to visiting Fougères next year and am joining the Ashford Twinning Association as a member.
This Civic Visit was an education for me in the importance of twinning, the work it does and everything it represents. It was lovely to witness some of the relationships members of the Twinning Association have made with their counterparts.
In a world that increasingly feels insular, where there is talk of borders and walls and particular politicians around the world are starting to promote mistrust of neighbours; it is vital that these twinning agreements continue, to promote inclusiveness, tolerance, share culture and build relationships across borders.
Thank you for a great visit, I look forward to the next one.