Ilkeston’s long-running link with its French twin town is to be celebrated this weekend as a party of civic dignitaries and sporting youngsters cross the channel to mark 60 years of friendship.
Representatives from Ilkeston and Châlons-en-Champagne signed a twinning charter on April 11, 1957, cementing one of many such relationships which sprang up across the country in the post-war years.
Ann Hill, who is now the chairman of the Ilkeston Twinning Association, said: “For some places, their twin town is just a name on a road sign, but it’s different for us.
“We run exchange visits every two years, and through that many people have built close friendships. Everyone really looks forward to seeing each other. It’s like family.”
Twinning became popular in the mid-20th century as a means of redeveloping links between countries and communities, encouraging people to break down the barriers and prejudices which could reignite conflicts.
Don Trulove, who has been involved with the association since 1970, said: “It was a way for towns to get to know each other and make reparations for damage done.
“Lots of towns in France, Germany and Britain wanted to twin, and Ilkeston and Châlons was just luck of the draw - but it’s worked out very well indeed.”
In the early days, the relationship was managed by Ilkeston Borough Council with the support of business leaders and organisations who were looking to build trading relationships.
One memorable exchange saw an entire training college of French teachers visit Ilkeston in the 1970s, while the Co-op hosted a long line of French waitresses later on.
Erewash Borough Council now supports activities with funding and logistics, and councillor Mike Wallis will lead a delegation to meet their French counterparts at the Châlons town hall - but it is mostly run by volunteers.
The programme has evolved over the years to put more emphasis on sport, with local youth teams competing in friendly fixtures of rugby, tennis, boxing and fencing.
There have also been one-off visits arranged for an Erewash photography group, and a choir who travelled to France to perform in a Christmas festival.
Ann said: “We are always looking for new groups to come on board. The links are already there so it’s an obvious way to offer opportunities.”
The group of 68 departing for France on Friday will include Erewash Valley Gymnastics Club and players from the Ilkeston Outlaws basketball team.
Ann, a former teacher at Granby Primary School who first got involved because her daughter was a gymnast, said: “As much as anything, I do this to give children an experience of going away, of learning about French culture, and making new friends.
“For a lot of the children who have been on visits to France, it’s been their first time going abroad - and many of them stay in contact as pen friends with the people they meet for years afterwards.”
Don agrees, saying: “These exchanges are still important for the same reason they started: to maintain friendly relations with our European neighbours and give young people from both countries the chance to see another way of life.
“There is a real education and enjoyment to be had from seeing things differently, and I have learned so much from the champagne caves to the magnificent cathedrals.”
The plans for the weekend also include a civic reception at the town hall, a visit to Disneyland Paris, and nights of singing, dancing and French food.
On Sunday, the sports will kick off, and Ann is looking forward to the atmosphere: “Everything is done in such good spirits, it’s amazing to see how supportive the young people can be with each other even when they’ve just met.”
In such circumstances, new friendships are forged and Don hopes that a new generation will understand the value of that possibility.
The link has already produced one wedding, with a man from Derbyshire moving to Châlons to start a family several years ago.
Don said: “My own grandchildren now visit families in France who I knew from the earliest days of twinning.
“Those friendships have made all of the work worthwhile and I’m very grateful to have had this chance.”
It will of course be the first exchange since last year’s EU referendum, which may place new strains on cross-border relationships.
Ann said: “A friend of mine over there emailed after the result to say how disappointed she was, but the topic hasn’t come up too much yet.
“We don’t know how it will affect things yet, but twinning was happening before we joined the EU and this is about fun and sporting exchange. It’s possible links like this will become even more important.”