Bonds of a historic friendship which spans the English Channel were reaffirmed last month, as the towns of Buxton and Oignies celebrated a half-century of twinning.
A party of 57 High Peak residents travelled to north-east France for five days over the Bank Holiday, May 25-29, including deputy mayor Councillor John Walton and his wife Ginny Priestley.
There was time for revelry and for reflection in a busy programme of activities which honoured both the wartime ties the towns share and the many friendships which have blossomed in the years since.
Friends of Oignies committee chairman Derek Thomas, 53, said: “Ours is a unique twinning relationship with real foundations and shared history.
“Sometimes twinning is a bit arbitrary, it’s a case of stick a pin in a map. But Buxton has a special place in their hearts, and vice versa. It’s important we treasure that.”
The relationship dates back to May 1940 when six soldiers from Buxton were among 18 Sherwood Foresters killed in Oignies as they bravely fought to slow the German army’s advance towards Dunkirk.
Derek said: “People know about the Dunkirk evacuation — but the operation would have been nowhere near as successful if it hadn’t been for the sacrifices in Oignies.
“It was one of the key crossings over a canal, and the resistance bought vital time for the evacuation. It was a very significant part of the war.”
The town was the first and largest to be given official martyr status after the war in memory of the civilians massacred when the defences fell.
The Buxton soldiers have been revered ever since, their graves carefully tended by the people of Oignies, and the annual twinning exchanges always include a service of remembrance.
Derek said: “Every time someone new experiences it, they always find it a moving moment when the lone piper starts. It was nice to see three young people from Buxton lay a wreath this time, to pass that memory on.”
Ceremonies were held on the Saturday morning at the French Mausoleum and alongside the graves of the British soldiers, with Kim and Gareth Flanagan, from Fairfield Brass Band, playing alongside counterparts from the Harmonie de Oignies.
The day began with a parade through the town of military vehicles and heritage enthusiasts in period dress.
Derek said: “It almost felt like the Liberation of France by the Allies in 1940.”
There was an added note of poignancy too, as a Japanese cherry tree was planted in the cemetery and a plaque unveiled in recognition of the twinning link and l’Amitié Franco Anglaise.
Derek said: “We felt it was time to commemorate those founder members who grew this link.
“Most were in their 40s when it began in 1968, and so we have said goodbye to a great many of them in recent years.”
Two Buxton residents rolled back the clock in their own way, having cycled all the way to Oignies via the Hull- Zeebrugge ferry.
Chris Clegg and Ian ‘Perce’ Calvert were recreating a journey taken by two cyclists for the 25th anniversary in 1993.
Chris said: “We set out at 6am and were just getting warmed up when we found 150 cows crossing the road at Chelmorton — not what you need with a ferry to catch, but we managed to make up the time.”
There were some wrong turns, detours and a snapped chain along the way, but the pair still managed to pedal into Oignies to arrive with the main coach party on Friday night, accompanied for the last few kilometres by some local cyclists who rode out to greet them.
Chris said: “Perce and I were each presented with a genuine cobblestone or ‘pavé’, from the Paris-Roubaix Cycle Race route by Les Amis de Buxton in recognition of our efforts. A very nice thought.
“Sections of the route are currently being repaired with new pavés, so our originals have likely been ridden over by some of the cycling greats.”
There was also a gift of bon viveur in the other direction, as the Buxton group unveiled a cake built from 15 kilograms of British cheese at Saturday night’s 1970s fancy dress ball.
Derek said: “It was a bit of fun, taking cheese to France, but they really enjoyed it.”
Saturday night also saw Oignies emerge victorious in the annual sporting contest for the Albert Boitrel Cup, reclaiming the trophy with some expert cup stacking.
Sunday saw barbecues all over town as families and friends caught up on all the latest news since last year’s visit to Buxton.
On Monday, the Amis de Buxton literally pushed the boat out with a lunch cruise aboard a ‘bateau mouche’ while cruising down the River Seine past the sights of Paris.
In true French style, the day’s journey was punctuated by rest stops for croissants, coffee and champagne.
After a weekend of high emotion, there were tears as friends old and new said au revoir on Tuesday morning.
Chris said: “Our thanks for a terrific visit go to the committee of Les Amis de Buxton in Oignies, particularly to Bernadette Callot who is standing down this year as president.
“We would like to thank all of our friends in Oignies for the fantastic hospitality, and for generously accommodating us in their homes. We look forward to the return visit to Buxton, April 12-16, 2019.”
The 57 people who travelled to Oignies this year represented a 20 per cent increase on the party which made the trip in 2016, and the Buxton committee is keen to keep the numbers flourishing to ensure the relationship’s future.
Friends of Oignies currently has 68 members from Buxton and the High Peak, and are always keen to welcome new families or individuals into the association.
erek said: “When I moved to Buxton 20 years ago, I got involved in twinning as a way to put down roots, I’d always been a bit of a Francophile too. We are a very active organisation, with language groups running throughout the year, and we have facilitated links between schools and get penpal relationships going.
“We are always open to new members, and new projects people might be interested in. Sometimes people might assume they have to have a perfect house with plenty of room for visitors, but there are lots of different ways to get involved.”
To find out more, visit www.friendsofoignies.com.