“I’ve muddled up the dates” were my first thoughts as the taxi drove away from the Stour Centre, leaving me alone in the car park. Within a few minutes, my fears were alleviated as faces old and new joined me on the damp grass. After some hasty introductions for those taking part for the first time, including Duncan the coach driver, sports leaders and councillors, we were off.
Other than a few badly behaved toll booths, our journey was traffic and trouble-free. We paused for lunch in Honfleur and were treated to some stunning views as we crossed over the river Seine.
We arrived in Fougères a little later than planned and were hastily ushered into the Town Hall where our hosts and delegates from Bad Münstereifel were already making light work of the nibbles. My mind was cast back to my initial trip to the town, remembering the first time I walked through those doors into a sea of unknown faces and language. This time around I was greeted by familiar smiles and countenances from both our twin towns. Gradually people drifted away clutching welcome packs, off to spend the evening with their hosts.
On Friday morning we assembled for breakfast and began our coach tour of the various sports facilities offered in the town. These included sports halls, an artificial grass football pitch, Velodrome, and "L'Aquatis" - an aquatic centre with indoor and outdoor pools. At "Salle Mimi Renno" we watched demonstrations of Fencing and other sports, and it was explained how the venue had innovatively been transformed from a swimming pool to its current multisport setup. The Mayor of Fougères, accompanied by his peers from England and Germany, unveiled a plaque commemorating the venue's namesake - Emile 'Mimi' Renno - a key instigator of the twinning between Fougères and Bad Münstereifel in 1967. Cllr George Koowaree added a personal reflection; "I had the privilege and honour to have known Mimi and joining him in many twinning visits. He was a formidable man full of enthusiasm.’’
The students and teachers spent Friday morning on an orienteering race around the town, and after a substantial lunch, the afternoon was an opportunity to experience new sports including archery, fencing and palets (a typical Breton game throwing flat metal discs).
Following a brief respite with our hosts, it was time for the Medieval Banquet - hosted deep in the forest. A delicious barrage of courses were presented, intertwined with a bewildering but nonetheless amusing array of Medieval entertainment, the highlight being the audience participation period dancing!
The exhausting programme continued on Saturday morning when it was the turn of the student delegations to give their presentations. Teachers Paul Cafferty and Jane Harvey from Holmewood school looked on proudly as their three students Anya, Josie and Ellie talked on the theme "Sport and Citizenship" and screened an excellent video showing the sports facilities at their school and in the local community. The visiting students were then presented with t-shirts which they later covered with each other's signatures as a souvenir.
The event continued with speeches by the Mayor of Fougères, Bad Munstereifel and Mayor of Ashford Cllr Winston Michael, who talked of the continuing commitment to friendship and twinning. These were followed by a rousing performance by La Maîtrise Saint-Léonard choir and instrumentalists.
Saturday afternoon and the majority of Sunday were spent with hosts, and some (including myself) opted to have a restful day of walks and even a spot of sunbathing! Sunday evening arrived and it was time to scrub-up for the official dinner.
The evening commenced with drinks and conversation outside "Les Urbanistes" and we later moved inside to enjoy an excellent menu. A cake celebrating 50 years of twinning between Fougères and Bad Münstereifel, and 33 with Ashford was bought out with fanfare and sparklers! Dancing was accompanied by music from the band that Bad Münstereifel had brought with them. An excellent and enjoyable evening all round.
Monday morning arrived all too soon and it was time to say farewell. We gathered at the coaches for a group photo and our journey back to England commenced.
The drive home was speedy and comfortable, and there was much talk of how enjoyable and productive the weekend had been. Discussions also turned to next year, when Ashford will host the civic exchange.
Thanks as always to everyone who worked so hard to make this trip such a great success. I've now completed the cycle, having taken part in a civic in each town and I look forward to many, many more.
Story by Matthew Forest