Revitalising Harrogate’s twinning with Luchon

The St John Fisher Tour de France cycling team at the entrance to Luchon (S)
The St John Fisher Tour de France cycling team at the entrance to Luchon (S)

The Mayor of Harrogate Coun Mike Newby has recently visted our ‘official’ twin town in France, and believes renewing the link ahead of the Tour de France coming to the district would be a great idea for all sections of our community.

The cancellation of the Starbeck Gala left a hole in the mayoral diary over the August Bank Holiday weekend. It did, however, provide me with the opportunity to visit Harrogate’s twin town of Bagneres-de-Luchon , a small town nine kms from the Spanish border in the French Pyrenees.

Harrogate has a twin town? Yes it does, and the twinning is reputedly the oldest in the country going back to 1952 and the determined efforts to foster European co-operation and friendship after the horrors of the Second World War.

Do we have anything in common? Well, yes we do. We both have a very strong spa heritage, we both pride ourselves as floral towns, we both have an economy reliant on tourism and hospitality and we are both at the heart of districts that offer some of the most beautiful countryside you could find anywhere. And we both have an interest in the Tour de France, but more of that later.

Many older people in Harrogate will have nostalgic memories of what was once a flourishing link. Unfortunately in recent years that link has had little impact on either town although Luchon’s enthusiasm can be gauged from the splendid sign welcoming visitors at the entrance into the town, proudly naming Harrogate as its British twin.

Lately there have been attempts to rejuvenate the historic link. Two of my predecessors as mayor, Coun Pat Jones and Hon Alderman Les Ellington visited Luchon in 2009 and 2011 respectively. The latter facilitated a groundbreaking visit by Harrogate’s award-winning Tewit Youth Band to Luchon in August 2012. Dennis Richards OBE, former headteacher at St Aidan’s School and currently a teaching assistant at St.John Fisher School is also rebuilding ties. Mr Richards, who is a fluent French speaker, is pursuing a number of educational partnerships. He has recently returned from Luchon with the St John Fisher Tour de France cycling team which completed the prestigious and gruelling La Lapebie cyclo sportif over four mountain passes in Luchon at the beginning of this month. There are also ambitious plans to link St John Fisher at all levels with the Lycee Edmond Rostand in Luchon.

Which brings us back to cycling and the Tour de France. If we are to rebuild our ties with Luchon this is the time to do it as the Harrogate District looks forward to hosting the Grand Depart next year. Luchon is the fourth most visited town by the Tour with 52 stage starts and finishes, most recently in 2010 and 2012. It owes its Tour de France significance to its geographical position between a number of the best known and iconic Tour de France climbs.

So what would a rejuvenated twinning arrangement mean?

Well not free junkets for the mayor (I was the only Harrogate council tax payer who paid for this visit!). I have already mentioned potential educational benefits but one key link between Harrogate and Luchon is the Tour de France and tourism. A number of ideas are already being explored in this area and I hope that they will bring mutual benefit.

There are, of course potential cultural benefits enabling people from both places to enjoy what the other has to offer. Luchon holds a flower festival at the end of August which attracts visitors from all over France and beyond. This year’s festival featured a parade of 21 decorated floats interspersed with dancers and marching bands with entertainment continuing over a full weekend. Further pictures can be viewed on my Facebook page ‘Mayor Michael Newby’. It is a huge event for a town that has a very small resident population but is just one of a series of events and festivals that take place throughput the year. Plans are being made to invite one of Harrogate’s leading bands to perform at the festival in 2014, building on the huge success which Tewit Youth Band enjoyed in 2012. It would be great to see Luchon represented at the Harrogate International Youth Festival; perhaps next Easter?

It would also be great to see many of our community groups linked; I am sure that there is a lot that we can learn from each other as well as expanding our own horizons. Given these recessional times it would also be a huge bonus to see a rejuvenated twinning arrangement lead to business opportunities both in England and in France.

Let’s hope that this twinning will see new opportunities for both our communities.