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Double The Pleasure

Michael Hasted investigates Cheltenham’s links with towns in Europe and around the world. crack

If you have ever walked through Sandford Park, you will have noticed a rather strange sculpture consisting of three, large metal shapes echoed by a metal motif set into the paving. If you have stopped to read the notice you will know that this installation, by South African artist Neville Gabie, symbolises Cheltenham’s relationships with its twin towns around the world.

The idea of twin towns is not entirely new. The earliest recorded occasion in Europe was between the German city of Paderborn and Le Mans in France as early as 836. However, it is only really since the Second World War that twinning has become widespread as a way of bringing European people into a closer understanding of each other and to promote cross-border cultural and commercial projects.
Cheltenham is twinned with towns in America, Russia and China but its strongest ties are with Göttingen in Germany and the French town of Annecy.

The beautiful, central German town of Göttingen lies between Bonn and Berlin, near to the spectacularly beautiful Harz Mountains. It became twinned with Cheltenham in 1951. I remember visiting the town during the 1960s as a child when the Iron Curtain was still in place.

The frontier passed right through middle of the Harz Mountains and I can remember the strange sight of the forest coming to an abrupt end where the trees had all been cut down on the East German side leaving miles of ugly stumps and armed guards watching us from behind bushes. There was a ski jump on one hill whose landing area was in the East and was obviously not in use any more – not the case had it been facing the other way I’m sure.

The town grew to prominence after of the founding of the University Georgia Augusta in 1734 which grew quickly into one of the largest academic institutions in Europe producing more than 40 Nobel Prize winners. Like Cheltenham, Göttingen is famous for its music festivals. There are the annual Handel and International Organ Festivals, as well as a Jazz Festival and Arts Fair.

The old town, surrounded by the medieval ramparts, harbours many well-preserved or carefully restored buildings. The main landmark and symbol of the town is the Gänseliesel. The art nouveau figure, bronze fountain stands on the marketplace in front of the old town hall and depicts girl herding her geese. It is customary that students, having passed their examinations, festoon this maiden with flowers and give kiss her on the cheek. It is claimed she has become “the most kissed girl” in the world.

Annecy is one of the most beautiful towns in France nestling, as it does, under the Alps and beside one of the cleanest and most spectacular lakes in the world. It formally became twinned with Cheltenham in 1956 on the French national holiday - July 14th.

Annecy has a population of 115,000 and is situated in the Haute Savoie department of south east France, close to the Swiss and Italian borders.

The Lac d’Annecy covers and area of over 10 square miles and is central to many of the leisure activities that take place in the town. It provides a haven for water sport enthusiasts in summer, the mountains a skiers’ paradise in winter and the many bars and restaurants in the lakeside villages and old town are a gourmet’s delight. Situated on the lakeside is the Promenade Cheltenham where there is even a red, old-fashiond British telephone box.

Early twinning exchanges involved small parties of young people but over the years, these exchanges flourished and developed into the Cheltenham/Annecy Schools Exchange Programme. The 1970s saw a considerable widening in the range of exchanges. Over the years there have been exchanges between choirs, cyclists, sports groups, dancers, language clubs, gardeners, naval associations, business students, senior citizens, social clubs and young farmers.

Annecy has a rich cultural life and it too has an important annual programme of festivals. The magnificent Lake Festival takes place on the first Saturday in August, when the lake is ablaze with lights, music and fireworks. The Old Town Festival is held in July. The International Music Festivals are held at Easter and in August. The Animation Film Festival has developed into one of the most important of its type in the world since its creation in 1960.

It would seem obvious to twin up with towns in other countries that share our name and that is exactly what has happened in the United States. Cheltenham Pennsylvania has a population of 35,000 and is located just outside of Philadelphia. 

By virtue of a shared name, it has been Cheltenham’s twin town for over 50 years. 1950 records a visit by the then Mayor of Cheltenham UK to Cheltenham Pennsylvania, when a silver salver was presented. The American Cheltenham is a mixture of elm lined roads and elegant tree tranquil streets.

Other towns twinned with Cheltenham are Sochi in Russia and Weihai in China.

The history of the twinning link with the Black Sea resort of Sochi dates back to the 1950s when there was a strong drive towards forming twinning links with towns and cities in the former allied countries. The city of Sochi was chosen by the Soviet Embassy as a potential twin for Cheltenham, presumably as both Cheltenham and Sochi are Spa towns. The first official visit to Sochi took place in 1959.

Weihai is a coastal city on the north east side of the Shandong Peninsula of the People’s Republic of China. Surrounded by sea on three sides it has developed into a flourishing port and major fishing centre.
Cheltenham’s link with Weihai was initiated in 1985 and a formal protocol agreement for the promotion of understanding and friendship between the people of Cheltenham and Weihai was signed by the Mayors of the towns in July 1987.

The Council granted full twinning status to the link in 1998. Exchange visits have taken place and joint venture business agreements have been established.

Weihai, like Cheltenham, is a health spa with hot mineral springs. This, together with its mild winters and moderate summers, attractive mountain scenery and good beaches make it a famous resort and tourist centre, attracting over a million visitors a year from all over the world.