Don Rouse, deputy president of the Oxford-Leiden Link, holds forth on the benefit of town-twinning for the city

ON MY first visit to Leiden, I checked my Dutch/English phrase book and proudly announced to my hosts in Dutch that I was a ‘boer’ – a farmer.

They laughed and told me the correct wording was ‘boer pummel’, a phrase I constantly used to introduce myself.

It was several years later that I discovered the true translation – I had been telling everyone I was not a farmer but the ‘village idiot’.

It is a phrase that has stuck with me throughout my 57 years as an enthusiast for Oxford’s twin city links.

After such a long spell, your readers will understand my surprise when I read an Oxford Mail editorial, headlined ‘What is the point of twinning mania?’ and describing those links as “vanity projects”.

Volunteers of Oxford’s twinning links have put many hours into organising sporting and cultural exchanges and creating many long-lasting friendships.

Thousands of people, young and old, have enjoyed the thrill of meeting, exchanging ideas and sharing experiences with those from other countries.

For some, me included, our twin cities have given us our first opportunity to go abroad – in 1946, when it all began, families were lucky if they could go to Bognor or Blackpool for a holiday.

Now, when Britain is breaking away from Europe and becoming independent, surely it is important that we, as a community, remain friends with those overseas?

Oxford, which voted against Brexit, has taken the view, through its council, that we should maintain our long-established links which have proved so successful in the past and seek new ones.

Oxford Mail:

Friendship began with Oxford pledging support for Leiden and Bonn in Germany after the Second World War.

Since then, more links have been established, with Grenoble in France, Perm in Russia, Leon in Nicaragua, Padua in Italy, Wrocław in Poland and Ramallah in Palestine. The latest proposal is to join with a city in Taiwan in East Asia.

My first visit to Leiden as captain of the Oxford weightlifting team was a great success and despite my ‘village idiot’ tag, I’ve established a wonderful rapport with my Dutch counterparts that still exists today.

As I write this, we have Dutch artists and musicians, including a 30-piece brass band, raising money to visit Oxford next year.

There have been many memorable events between Oxford and Leiden over the years, including one in 1989 when we took part in Leiden’s annual carnival parade.

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We took with us a red Oxford double decker bus, two City Link coaches, a Nipper bus, Royal Mail van, a police car, fire engine and dustcart complete with crews.

Among the 180-strong party were pipers, schoolchildren, cricketers, oarsmen, golf, tennis, rugby and bowls players, morris dancers, barn dancers, Sea Scouts and postmen. It was an amazing sight.

Oxford Mail:

Another notable exchange involved handicapped horse riders from Oxford and Leiden.

Youngsters who could not walk unaided, rode and controlled horses by themselves – the look of happiness on their faces was unbelievable.

One of the most successful exchanges is one inaugurated by the Oxford-Leiden link between the football teams of Kidlington Youth and RCL Leiderdorp, which has been running for 30 years.

A Dutch band, one of the finest in Europe, came to Oxford and delighted crowds by marching through the city and performing at the Town Hall and Botley Gala.

I also remember when Karavai, a musical quartet from our Russian twin city of Perm, gave a concert at St Mary’s Church, Bampton, and raised £2,000 for Holy Trinity Church in my home village of Lew.

Another important aspect of twinning has been study groups, meetings of officials from our twin cities exchanging ideas on how to tackle problems such as flooding and planning.

Of course, not everything has gone right. One year, our coach on its way to Holland was delayed by crowds at a pop festival and we missed the North Sea ferry from Harwich and had to spend the night on a dance hall floor.

Oxford Mail:

On another occasion, when home hosting was the norm, Oxford Boy Scouts were looking forward to sharing their bedrooms with visiting Scouts from Leiden. We then discovered that Scouts in Holland included girls!

The Oxford boys were still willing to host them – after all their motto is ‘Be Prepared’. But we and their parents stepped in!

We also fell foul of officialdom when, at the invitation of Prince Charles, we proposed to celebrate the tercentenary of the Protestant King William and Queen Mary of Orange with a carnival at Cutteslowe Park.

City councillors were worried that we would upset the Catholic community, given tensions in Ireland. The carnival went ahead to great acclaim, but with ‘William and Mary’ dropped, a concession we had to make to be allowed access to the park.

Generally, however, our exchanges and other activities have run smoothly, including our two major events of the year – the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Oxford and Leiden for our war dead.

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In recent years, Oxford’s twinning associations have worked increasingly together under the auspices of Oxford International Links (OIL), inviting young people to take part in concerts, stage shows and sport.

Of course, twinning costs money and some comes from the public purse, but all our organisations hold fundraising events and members dip into their own pockets.

What’s more, all the links are run by volunteers – they are the backbone of twinning. Over the years, we have planted trees, unveiled stained glass windows and mosaics, named streets, boats and bridges after our twin towns, but most of all, have built lifelong friendships and enriched many lives. There have even been marriages.

Have you had any experience of twinning? If not, try it – you will find it infectious.