50 years of Twinning history

It's quite common these days for towns in England to display their connections with other parts of Europe, to the extent that maybe we take such things for granted. However, 50 years ago, such displays of civic ties and friendship were rare. It's therefore with some pride that we celebrate the very special relationship between Ely and its twin town of Ribe in Denmark, with the 50th anniversary of the twinning that was initiated in September 1956.

Perhaps the history behind that first meeting is a little sketchy, but we know that the then British Ambassador in Copenhagen, Sir Eric Berthoud, lent his support to ties being established between two towns which he thought had great similarities - not just the imposing cathedrals and the historical buildings that surround them, but also the agricultural hinterland. Perhaps we should also credit him with appreciating how well matched the two towns were through their people, because despite many changes that have occurred in both places over the years, the people of Ely and Ribe have always had some kind of instant rapport with each other. This friendship is at the heart of everything that we do together 50 years on.

So it was on September 20th 1956 that a small party of dignitaries from Ely, comprising Colonel John Beckett (Vice Chairman of the Ely Urban District Council) and Canon Patrick Hankey (Dean of Ely), travelled to Ribe to meet their counterparts for the first time. In a meeting at Ribe Town Hall on September 22nd, they were greeted by the Borgmester L C Nielsen and representatives from the Kommune, and church and civic organisations in Ribe, including Pastor Johannes Bitsch-Larsen, Stiftsprovst Villiam Grønbæk (Dean of Ribe), Dommer Gregers Friis (Judge) and Dr Arne Sander. The principle of the twinning was agreed at that meeting, and thus began a lasting relationship between two communities.

Visit to Ely, 1957

Of course, foreign travel 50 years ago was not as easy as it is today. The route to Denmark was usually by ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg, and quite expensive in relation to the average wage. Possibly for this reason, the early contacts between Ely and Ribe were generally between civic and church dignitaries, and members of the respective Round Tables. In June 1957, the Urban District Council welcomed an official party from Ribe for a 5-day visit, which included a number of programmed functions as well as the opportunity for guests to see a little of life in Ely. Apart from a river cruise, they were given guided tours of the cathedral and Kings School, the local brewery, and visited St Johns College in Cambridge. There was also a chance to meet people with a similar professional or business interest, a feature of the twinning that has been repeated many times since.

Official records and private letters of the time confirm what an impression travelling to a twin town made on the individual. Immediately there was a sense of comradeship, of exploration as new sights, sounds and tastes were experienced, and always a longing to welcome new friends for a return visit.

During the 1960's, regular links were maintained, but for the first time exchange visits were organised between schools in Ribe and Ely, with the pupils being accommodated privately with host families.

Opening of Ribe Court, 1970

In March 1970, Pastor Bitsch-Larsen returned to Ely, to formally open the new UDC housing at Ribe Court, and in June of the following year, both the Chairman and immediate past Chairman of the Council were invited to Ribe to attend the opening of the new Vittenberg School. In 1973, the cathedral connection was maintained by the visit of the Bishop of Ribe, to participate in a special service in Ely Cathedral to mark the 13th Centenary of the city.

Cllr Theobold plants the oak tree, 1974

October 1974 saw a new departure, with the Ely Standard newspaper organising a short trip to Ribe by coach and ferry for the princely sum of £10, which gave a number of Ely residents their first chance to travel to Denmark. One of them was local schoolgirl Belinda Lane, who was travelling with her grandfather, the Mayor of Ely, Councillor Sidney Theobald. Some weeks before, Belinda had thrown a bottle into the sea at Snettisham in Norfolk, containing a message from her school in Ely. Little did Belinda know that the bottle was finally washed ashore in Esbjerg and found by schoolboy Torben Schlander from Hjerting. He and his classmates were there to meet the Ely visitors at the quayside, and there began a friendship that was to continue through letters and exchange visits.

During the same visit, the Mayor of Ely planted an oak sapling in a Ribe garden. He went on to say:

"As this oak tree grows, so I hope will the friendship between our two cities increase. And it is my hope that our children and our children's children will come to see this tree as it grows into a hearty English oak."

From these small beginnings grew an increasing number of connections between our two towns. Whilst there are too many to mention in detail, what follows gives some idea of the variety of connections that has developed.

In the mid-1970s, there was a two-week exchange between two groups of young apprentices, in which they sampled life and work in their twin town. Kevan Lee, a trainee manager with Tesco in Ely, was one of the four young men to visit Ribe, where he spent some time working in the Kvickly store.

Trainee electrical engineer Flemming Fogtmann worked for Electrical Services Ely and was able to put his excellent English to good use whilst developing his technical knowledge. Both students and employers alike described the exchange as a very worthwhile exercise.

In 1977, Ely was represented in a sports festival held in Ribe.

1978 saw the Dean of Ely, the Very Rev Michael Carey and Colonel John Beckett visit Ribe for the 750th anniversary celebrations of the Sct Catharinæ church, at which the Dean had the honour of being presented to Queen Margrethe of Denmark. They spoke together about her recollections of Ely during her period of study at Girton College, Cambridge. The Dean made a brief address in the service, and he gave a message from the Dean and Chapter of Ely Cathedral. Colonel Beckett conveyed a message of congratulation from the Mayor of Ely to the vicar of Sct Catharinæ, Pastor Bitsch-Larsen.

In the 1980's, contacts were maintained at various levels, with Mayor and Mayoress of Ely Councillor Maurice and Mrs Joyce Hobbs welcoming guests from Ribe in May 1981. They viewed the Hospital Sunday Parade and took part in the service outside St Mary's Church. The following year, Ely Mayor Councillor Florence Oakey led a party of Ely people on a visit to Ribe, to commemorate 25 years since the first official visit in 1957. In 1984, a party of students and teachers from the Vittenberg School spent time at the City of Ely College, and in May 1989 the Ribe Men's Choir gave performances in Ely.

Ribe Gymnasts at Aquafest, 1991

And so to the 1990's when the relationship developed significantly in terms of friendship between two like minded associations. Whilst the civic links between the City of Ely Council and the Ribe Kommune remained important, the resurgence of the Ely-Ribe Association in Ely to match the already flourishing Venskabsbyforeningen I Ribe, brought about new contacts between the citizens of the two towns.

Arriving by Viking Longboat, Ribe 1996

Firstly there was a visit to Ely by a group of young Ribe gymnasts and folk dancers in 1991, followed in 1993 by the first group visit from Ely to Ribe for a number of years. Ribe teacher Gudmund Mouritsen made a number of visits to Ely and London with his groups of adult English language students, while Ribe resident Ejvind Martinussen spent a month working at the Princess of Wales Hospital in 1994 as part of an exchange programme.

Medieval Festival, Ribe 1998

Ely folk attended both the 500th anniversary of Ribe Town Hall in 1995 and Ribe's Medieval Festival in 1998, donning historical costumes on both occasions to enter into the spirit of the festivities, whilst actors, painters and the Ely Tapestry Group participated in an arts and crafts fair in Ribe and Esbjerg.

Signing of the Charter, Ely 2001

And finally, with the turn of the new century, civic leaders joined nearly 100 members of the two Associations in Ely in May 2001 for the signing of a Twinning Charter. Oddly enough, the relationship had lasted for 45 years without a formal charter, but that oversight was corrected as Ely Mayor Councillor Richard Hobbs and Ribe Borgmester Jørgen Elsted Hansen signed copies of the Charter in English and Danish, which now hang in the respective Council offices. Councillors from Ribe Kommune also took the opportunity to visit Ely-based Danish company Dako, and the Hereward Housing Association.

As a direct consequence of this visit, contacts were established between scouting organisations in Ely and Ribe, and these continue to develop.

Our exchange visits, which of late have taken place alternately in England and Denmark, are usually over a long weekend, based on a local event such as the Ely Folk Festival or the Ribe Viking Market. It's refreshing to see that each time we meet there are new faces who have joined us, as well as those who have participated in each event over the years. In addition, more & more people are making private visits to long-standing friends across the North Sea.

50th Anniversary, Ely 2006

As the special relationship with Ribe passes its 50th anniversary, there is a lot to celebrate and be proud of. The celebrations in September 2006 showed how much value we all put on this unique friendship.

Whilst the tapestry was undoubtedly the centrepiece of that weekend and a very visible statement of the importance of the twinning, each of the individuals involved has his or her own memories of special times. Over the years, two very long-standing and respected communities have learned a lot about each other, worked together and played together. They have come to recognise the great similarities between them, and to value the differences in their lives that allow them to see the world from a different perspective.

And of course they have become, and remain, the best of friends, which is what a twinning arrangement is all about!

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