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This blog post was written and researched by Thomas Sturgess

As an undergraduate history student at Oxford Brookes University, I get to explore a wide range of historical topics. My personal interests in political and cultural history were complemented by my placement at MOX as I could explore a unique part of Oxford鈥檚 history and further my research skills.

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History

The system of twinned towns in the UK is not one commonly known to the public, despite its long history dating back to the end of World War 2. In an effort to foster peaceful relations, various towns and cities in European countries such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands were formally linked to locations in the UK; the earliest established links included the likes of Dresden and Coventry, who both suffered heavy damage from bombings, and Oxford鈥檚 own link to the Dutch town of Leiden. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the town twinning scheme was boosted by the expansion of the European Economic Council (later European Union), and international events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. By 2006, there were over 2000 formally twinned UK towns and localities. In recent years, due to a lack of resources within local governments, some have come to question the value and necessity of town twinning outside of economic and trade advantages, however the cultural and educational opportunities should not be understated. Oxford is one of the leading cities in the UK for town twinning, with its most recent twin being Padua, Italy in 2019 – home to Italy鈥檚 second oldest university, and Europe鈥檚 oldest covered market, Padua is home to many students and cyclists just like Oxford!

A photo looking over the city of Padua with buildings, trees and a river

View over the City of Padua

The benefit of town twinning may not be immediately apparent to members of the public, but fostering these multicultural relationships with towns both similar and different to Oxford has many advantages. All of Oxford鈥檚 twinned towns have their own presence outside of the council, with associations and charities dedicated to establishing contact and aiding each other. These organisations offer exciting opportunities to those involved, through activities, exchanges, and events. Developing our understanding of cultures and fostering good relations also aids the development of Oxford as a modern city, as it can receive new ideas to bolster city planning, sustainability, community, and arts development.

Leiden, Netherlands

Starting with the longest active town twin in the country, and one of the oldest (since 1946), the Dutch town of Leiden shares many similarities with Oxford in terms of culture and cityscape. Home to the oldest university in the Netherlands, plenty of cyclists, and picturesque canals, Leiden was the obvious choice to be paired with Oxford – yearly exchanges in May and November ensure the link is constantly being strengthened and improved.

The collaborations between Oxford and Leiden are mainly related to cultural activities, such as sport and music, fostering relationships for their respective teams and exchanges. Annually, musicians come from Leiden, such as the Leiden Youth Orchestra and Leiden English Choir, in order to perform with Oxford鈥檚 own musicians and to share their musical culture. Remembrance events are also very important to this link, with the Lord Mayor attending the annual visit to Leiden last year to lay wreaths alongside the Burgomaster of the town. In sports, hockey and football teams from Leiden have visited and played against Oxford鈥檚 teams, and in 2018 Ronald Mcdonald House staff raised money for their charity by doing a sponsored cycling event from Oxford to Leiden, which is 300 miles!

Bonn, Germany

Another link that goes back to the 1940s, Bonn and Oxford have been linked since 1947

thanks to the efforts of the Military Government鈥檚 representative in Bonn Colonel Edward Brown, his personal assistant Katia Bayerwaltes, and General Bishop. Brown, who was from Oxford, was eager to make links with Germany, and Bishop utilised his connections in Oxford to secure support for a link with Bonn; the Oberb眉rgermeister of Bonn was happy to accept the outstretched hand of Oxford, thus beginning one of the strongest town twinnings in the country.

Bonn University, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Just like Leiden, Bonn shares many features with Oxford including an old university, botanical gardens, and an iconic river (on the Rhine River). The birthplace of Beethoven and renowned for its architecture and history, Bonn holds many opportunities for exchanges of culture and the arts. Another significant part of Bonn is its commitment to environmental health and sustainability; the city hosts the WHO European Centre for Environmental Health, further showing their passion for creating a sustainable future.

Le贸n, Nicaragua

The town of Le贸n in Nicaragua poses as one of Oxford鈥檚 most unique twins, being the only South American country and longest non-European twin. The Oxford Le贸n Association was started in the 1980s, with more official ties being created in 1985 with the Oxford Le贸n Trust. The Association and Trust work to generate support for Le贸n, share cultures, and bring the people of Oxford and Le贸n closer.

Nicaragua has faced many economic, political, and environmental challenges since the 1980s, so the main function of the Oxford Le贸n Trust is its charitable work, such as raising money for clean water and educational NGOs. Fundraising activities have included sponsored swims, youth concerts and the annual Misa Campesina, which is the only one held in Europe. Remote communities are provided with clean water, agricultural developments are shared, educational resources are provided and first aid is taught, among many other contributions from the Trust.

Ramallah, Palestine

The Oxford Ramallah Friendship Association was formed in 2002 after volunteers from Oxford called for support as Israeli tanks entered Ramallah. The ORFA has since sent delegations of people to meet with those who have things in common, such as working in the same industries, whilst children and women have visited Oxford in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2014.聽 In 2018, Oxford City Council decided to move towards an official twinning relationship, which was formalised in 2019 by the then Mayor of Ramallah, Mayor Musa Hadid and former Lord Mayor, Colin Cook signing the agreement.

The Oxford Ramallah link is one that embraces the cultural similarities and differences of each city, alongside its primary objective as a charitable organisation that strives to give relief to those in Ramallah, like the refugees living in the Al Amari camp. Similar to the Le贸n link, ORFA鈥檚 charitable aims are humanitarian and seek to make the voices of Ramallah鈥檚 citizens heard, offering them support and aid from the UK. One avenue of support is the sharing of art in Oxford, such as the Palestinian History Tapestry Project, which was displayed in the Town Hall in 2021. This exhibition was met with very positive feedback, using art to convey emotion and the history of Palestine to an audience which may never have experienced that beforehand.

Now more than ever, this link between Oxford and Ramallah needs support; the humanitarian crisis that is ongoing in Palestine requires attention, and associations like ORFA are working hard to maintain contact and deliver relief to those in Ramallah. In 2023 and 2024, protests were organised and attended by members of ORFA in order to call for an immediate ceasefire, along with vigils to remember those who have passed. The Gaza Monologues, created in 2010 but still continuing, were read by members of the Mandala Theatre in 2023 – these stories were written by children living in Gaza and witnessing the attacks and deaths inflicted upon them. The Oxford Ramallah link is possibly the most relevant of all Oxford鈥檚 twin cities at this moment in time, with the people of Ramallah and Palestine as a whole needing support and as much hope as they can get.

The Future

Between the 7 and 14th July, all of Oxford鈥檚 twin cities will join together for an international Youth Concert, ending with a concert in the Town Hall. A sponsored swim and performance of 鈥楳isa Campesina鈥 is being organised by the Le贸n Association, with dates to be announced.

The Grenoble link will be celebrated between the 2 to 9th April, with the DIY Theatre group visiting for the 120th anniversary of 鈥楨ntente Cordiale鈥, which was signed in 1904 to signify the end of war between England and France.

An International Youth Theatre Festival is being planned by the Mandala Theatre for July, with a focus on environmental sustainability and climate justice.聽 It will bring together around 150 young people from Oxford, Ramallah, Grenoble, and other international cities. This is building on the Mandala Youth Theatre鈥檚 visit to Ramallah in 2022 in which they collaborated with Ashtar Theatre.

Artists from Oxford and Bonn (BOx collective) are preparing an exhibition for August, after meeting in 2022 during Bonn Week in Oxford,聽 to build upon their friendship and artistic collaborations.

 

Sources

Holly Eva Ryan & Caterina Mazzilli, 鈥淒ebating the Value of Twinning in the United Kingdom: The Need for a Broader Perspective,鈥 British Politics (2021): https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-021-00163-x

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/articles/twinnedtownsandsistercitiesgreatbritainandeurope/september2020

https://www.oxford.gov.uk/oxford-international-links

https://www.oxford-ramallah.org/

http://oxford-leiden.org.uk/index.html

https://oxfordleon.home.blog/

https://oxbonnlink.org.uk/