The first memory I have of my hometown is of a dead fish. It was lying in the middle of the road, eyes glazed and mouth open, as if shocked to find itself on this patch of weathered tarmac. It was a big fish – a cod, maybe – with freckly, green scales and a white belly. I knelt down, staring at it, remembering that my Grandma had once told me she’d seen frogs rain down from the sky. They’d been swept up from the river by a storm and blown into her garden; their sticky bodies falling on her as she weeded.
I confidently decided that this is what must have happened to this particular fish. I was six years old and in a new town where anything might happen; even falling cod from a cold December sky.
As it happens, my new town was just 13.1 miles from where I’d begun my days in Milton Keynes. Yet aged six, this new place – Buckingham – with its cobbled streets and ringing church bells, felt miles away from what I considered ‘home’. On our first night, as my Dad tried to light the fire, I was told that we were now living in a ‘very old’ town: one where secret passages ran under our floorboards and where the Danes and the Saxons used to fight. Henry VIII and (one of) his wives had even visited here, gliding along the cobbled streets outside our front door. I remember turning our new town’s name over in my mouth for weeks after, pronouncing its three syllables very clearly whenever I was asked where I lived.
“Buck-ing-ham” felt strange to say, and an even stranger place to live.
Eventually, of course, this strange town would become home. Buckingham of Buckinghamshire, with its fourteen hundred years’ worth of history was a place that I’d spend seventeen years. Yet, there was one side of my town that remained a mystery; a secret family member kept hidden from me. One day, in 2002, I spotted a new sign: ‘Welcome to Buckingham’, it said, ‘Historic Market Town Twinned with Mouvaux, France’. Buckingham had a sibling? A twin? Apparently, somewhere across that cold English Channel was a place that was now family. I remember being fascinated by this, imagining a parallel universe existing somewhere out there in Northern France. I wondered if there was a little French Laura walking around it, too.
After my initial excitement, however, time passed – years, in fact. The new sign was no longer new, and like the recollection of the marooned fish, it faded from memory. Life took over and I left Buckingham for university. I imagine that likewise, life went on for French Laura too.
* (I like to imagine she went to Paris to study art, and now lives in a studio apartment with a handsome man called Mathis).
For over 15 years, I’ve not really thought about Buckingham or its twin, until – that is – a fateful email landed in our inbox last month. From DFDS, the email described their new campaign – ‘Destination Sibling’ – aimed at reuniting UK towns with their European relatives. Rather than promoting the usual destinations, this campaign instead focused on seeking out unvisited France: those everyday towns perhaps no different to your own, yet with their own distinctly French flavour. I was intrigued – it all felt a little ‘Long Lost Families’. Here was an opportunity to finally meet Buckingham’s estranged sibling: a twin who rather than remaining in leafy Buckinghamshire, grew up instead in historic Flanders, speaking a mix of French and Flemish, and dining on Carbonnade flamande.
We agreed immediately to embark on this reunion. All that was needed now was Davina McCall to come along and hold my hand.
Growing up, we were seasoned ferry goers thanks to regular family pilgrimages across the English Channel. I’d stand out on deck come rain or shine, and stare fixedly at the horizon, waiting for France to appear through the mist. As I’ve got older, however, it seems that I’ve forgotten my sea legs. I’m not quite sure why. Our journey – which would see us sail from Dover to Dunkirk – reminded me that ferry crossings are not only incredibly easy (no airport queues, or lengthy security checks), but affordable. Indeed, with DFDS, you can get a Dover to Dunkirk return trip for just over £100, inclusive of your car and two adult passengers. Moreover, the entire journey was stress-free. Having driven straight up onto the ferry, we headed to the Premier Lounge to enjoy the leather sofas, TV, a free glass of Prosecco, and limitless hot drinks and pastries. We spent two relaxed hours here – Claire using the free WiFi to reply to work emails, me using the free WiFi to watch cat videos on YouTube.
After disembarking seamlessly on the other side and driving our parents slightly aged Citroen down the A25, we reached our final destination: Twin Town. A storm now making itself felt, we peered past our clunking windscreen wipers for our first glimpse of Mouvaux: our brethren town. Our first spot was its grand church, sat on a big hill. Now, maybe this is complete coincidence – or maybe it was the slightly distorting effects of the now pounding hail storm – but it did look a little like Buckingham’s St Peter & Paul’s Church, which also sits proudly atop a large hill. Within seconds of registering this, Claire confidently shouted: “it’s just like home, it’s all like home”, before beginning to power walk into town. I’m surprised she didn’t open her arms wide, before running towards locals like a long lost child. We spent the next two hours marching around in the pouring rain, playing an elaborate game of spot the difference. Indeed, would our twin towns be identical in their DNA? Or would they be the non-identical sort?
In terms of size, the two are very similar: quiet, countryside towns. They have similarly sized high streets, dotted with shops and little restaurants, and share an obvious love for tree-lined streets. Whilst Mouvaux boasts its grand Boulevard Carnot – a tram track majestically lined by ancient oaks – so Buckingham has Stowe Avenue, a long road flanked (unsurprisingly) by trees. Walking down to the town’s pretty park – Parc du Hautmont – we were also struck by how similar it was to Buckingham’s very own Chandos Park (a place that saw me once get bitten by a fish and wet myself out of shock). This park, with its established leafy trees, ponds and trickling streams, seemed to me to be a little slice of Buckinghamshire.
However, past these immediate similarities – Buckingham and Mouvaux didn’t seem to have a lot in common. Far less than twins, they were more like adopted siblings: two very different step-brothers, united as one awkward family.
On the way back into town, trainers now squelching with rainwater, I felt a bit deflated. Where was the parallel universe? The alternative reality? Where was French Laura? Just as we rounded the corner, however, we spotted a man carefully sweeping rainwater off a cluster of outdoor tables. He seemed to be the owner of Le Saint German, a place described in our guidebook as ‘a traditional and friendly’ restaurant. Now both starving, I asked if he spoke English. “Oh, yes, of course! “ he said: “I love the opportunity to speak English!” (Apparently, he wasn’t being sarcastic). Now huddled together under one umbrella, we explained that we had arrived from Buckingham and were spending the day exploring our twin town. “Buckingham!” he shouted. “I know Buckingham!” He grabbed my shoulders as though he suddenly recognised me: a long lost child who had made their triumphant return home from exile in suburban Bucks. There was a moment of stunned silence before we all started laughing; jumping around under a small pink umbrella.
We spent the next couple of hours talking about our twinned-relationship over some lunch. He told us that over one hundred of Buckingham’s residents had already made their way to Mouvaux, and that he planned on visiting our town one day – he’d heard there was a good Indian restaurant there. Pouring a beer, he also explained that the French called ‘twinning’ ‘jumelage’, and the concept had been introduced after the War to heal British, French and German relations. It was a way to make us feel connected, safe and part of a wider European family.
He handed us a bowl of chips and smiled: “they’re on the house”.
As he spoke, I realised that I’d misunderstood the whole point of Twin Towns. These linked siblings have nothing to do with aesthetic similarities, but are based on human relationships – a feeling of being connected. As ‘twins’, we are no longer strangers, but part of the same team; ready to welcome each other inside away from the rain, with a beer and some frites. Sure, it might have begun as a post-war relationship building exercise, but as we sat in Le Saint German nearly 70 years after ‘twinning’ began, we were testament to the fact that – quite simply – it works.
As we left, our host mentioned that a visitor from Buckingham had once bought with them a small gift. It was one of those corny signs that you see in gift shops, and read: ‘Friends are like stars, you don’t have to see them to know that they are there’. I’d normally have cringed a little at this sort of quote, but in this moment, it seemed entirely apt. Since 2002, I’ve known that across the Channel sat a town that was somehow linked with my own: a friend, an ally. As I had discovered, although it may not look like my town, offering no surreal French replica, it still felt like my town – warm, welcoming and familiar. As a twin myself – one who is constantly reminded that my eyes are smaller than Claire’s, or my head bigger – I maybe understand more than anyone that it doesn’t really matter about looks, or your likeness to one another, but it’s your bond – your friendship – that counts. Buckingham and Mouvaux may be different, perhaps one has a bigger church, the other a shorter town hall, but in the hearts of the residents, these twin towns are most definitely siblings and, I hope, friends for life.