Sudbury - The joy of getting to know EU

Sudbury's town twinners have been at it for nearly 30 years now.

Beavering away in the background, spreading goodwill and building links with Europe.

First Germany, then France, now Denmark. They quietly worked on at grassroots level, under the international crossfire as rows raged over the Euro and the EU constitution.

Never in a million years did they think they were controversial.

So when a councillor attacked plans for Sudbury Town Council to spend 2,000 on a dinner to celebrate twinning with a Danish town, it came as a bit of a shock.

But it made them realise a lot of people might have no idea what they were all about.

Now they are making a determined effort to let everyone know who they are, what they do ... and how they can help local groups from schools to choirs to football teams.

"The idea that it's just a lot of middle-aged, retired people, who go trotting off to various places to visit their friends, is not true," said Sudbury Town Twinning Association press officer Mary Dunk.

"The association exists to help everybody who is interested in forming links with our neighbours in Europe.

"We are very much a people organisation. Anyone is welcome to join. We are very keen to recruit new members. You just have to be willing to welcome European visitors and get to know them.

"We can help build lifetime friendships across international borders.

"It's a way to break down prejudices. Really we have far more in common than separates us, and far more that brings us together than keeps us apart.

"I suppose it won't appeal to everybody, but then, what organisation does?

"There must be lots of groups that get public funding that not everyone would want to join."

Long-term friendships have been established between families in Sudbury and its twin towns, Hxter in Germany and Clermont in France.

Often people get together outside organised trips.

Now Sudbury is about to get a new twin. Association members have been working for three years on links with Fredensborg in Denmark and the twinning is due to be made official later this year.

But you don't have to be a member to benefit. A big part of their work is promoting sporting, cultural and educational links with Europe.

It is 27 years since Sudbury first twinned with Hxter. Clermont followed five years later.

Since then, hundreds of students from local schools have visited Germany and France on exchange trips.

Several friendships made during the visits have carried on into adulthood.

There have also been work experience exchanges and opportunities for university students to study abroad.

Choirs and orchestras have been involved, giving concerts in each other's towns.

And sports teams have got a taste of international competition.

In June, Cornard Dynamos youth football club sent a team to a tournament in Clermont.

Club president Tony Ashby said: "The twinning association came to us looking for a team to go and play in the competition.

"I worked with their chairman Eileen Clayton and they helped arrange the whole thing for us.

"They helped find a hotel and negotiated good rates. Eileen also did a lot of translation for us.

"We were looked after extremely well by the people of Clermont. All we had to pay was our travelling expenses. We were really impressed."

Through twinning, the name of Sudbury has become well known in Europe, says Mary. When the people of Fredenborg in Denmark were looking for an English twin they decided Sudbury fitted the bill.

"They came to us," she said. "We have been working with them since 2004, and the official twinning celebrations will take place in Sudbury this October.

"People might ask why Denmark. Actually I didn't know much about it when I first visited, but I was astonished and very impressed.

"It's one of Europe's most dynamic democracies. They are very forward-thinking and keen to promote contacts abroad.

"English is a compulsory subject in their schools from the age of about six."

Danish pupils have already visited All Saints Middle School in Sudbury, and there have been teacher exchanges.

Leading artists from Copenhagen chose Sudbury as the venue for a recent workshop and invited local artists to join in, too. The enthusiasm of Sudbury's twinners is shared by their counterparts abroad.

Fredensborg's town twinning chairman Flemming Romer said: "We are delighted the people of Sudbury and Fredensborg have this chance to meet each other and explore all their common interests together.

"It's really a great opportunity to make friends with our European neighbours and we're looking forward to an exciting future.

"It is our hope to involve many people in twinning activities, also children and young people, as this will be an asset for their further development."

Gunter von Ah, from Hxter, said: "Twinning is the best chance, especially for younger people, to get in contact with another country, to understand another way of life, and last but not least, to become Europeans without giving up being German or English."

Sudbury's twinning association has around 70 members who each pay a 15 a year fee.

It gets an annual grant of 1,500 from Sudbury Town Council. Mary is keen to stress it is the council which officially twins with the other towns, while the association promotes the connection and keeps it going.

The council pays for the initial celebration but in each case that is a one-off. Apart from our grant we finance ourselves through fees and fundraising events," she says.

"When we go on visits abroad we pay our own fares.

"People stay with host families in the twin town, and we do the same for them when they come here.

"We also pay to entertain our own guests – taking them on trips, for instance. One year we took our German visitors to Sandringham.

"We have been an organisation that does a lot behind the scenes and doesn't shout from the rooftops.

"We have had exhibitions in Sudbury library, and take part in the Sudbury on Show events.

"But I am now in the process of making a website. We have an email address and can also be contacted through Sudbury Town Hall, or the Tourist Information Centre.

"We would very much like more people to join us."