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European elections 2019: The village (sort of) twinned with Paris

Julie with her memorabilia
Image caption Julie Healey remembers how a unique "group of characters" were the driving force

Perhaps the most ambitious example of the European post-war craze for town twinning is the tiny village of Whitwell - population 41 - which set its sights on a partnership with Paris.

But with the European elections imminent, do the residents still believe in close ties with our European neighbours?

Image caption The A606 that runs through the village - not quite the Champs-Élysées

"It's amazing what a few pints of beer can do," explains Robin Church, a former parish clerk, as he remembers how Whitwell in Rutland came to be twinned with one of Europe's largest cities.

Well, sort of.

The village may, as one resident put it, have "more ducks than people", but official signs at either entrance proudly declare the partnership, even if the French capital is completely unaware of the honour.

As many of the best ideas do, it began with a group of mates down the pub.

Julie Healey, 80, was the landlady of The Noel Arms at the time, and is one of the few people who can still remember a momentous Friday night in 1980.

"Basically we had this outside toilet, a pissoir (French for urinal) as we called it, and using that is what gave [the regulars] the idea. They were great characters," she said.

Image caption This plaque still decorates the pub, where for many years Bastille Day was celebrated

The group decided to write to then Mayor of Paris - and future French President - Jacques Chirac, saying that if he did not reply, they would assume the city accepted their offer.

No response came. So the self-styled committee duly organised a French-themed parade to mark their twinning.

As Monsieur Chirac failed to RSVP, a local French teacher - and the only French person to attend - was dressed in a Napoleon-style hat and driven to the pub in an open-top Citroen.

Image copyright Unknown
Image caption A speech declared the twinning a "historic day in the development of a united Europe"

Mrs Healey, who still lives next to the pub, said: "It was very tongue-in-cheek - our 'mayor' was wearing a toilet chain.

"But the parade was a lot bigger than we were expecting, there were hundreds of people - we don't know where they all came from."

Eventually, the French did reply, with a firm "non", pointing out it was "pas possible" because they were already twinned with Rome. But by then it was too late - a local legend had been born.

Image copyright Unknown
Image caption Geoff Hamilton, presenter of Gardeners' World, attended the ceremony because the programme was made in the neighbouring village of Barnsdale

By all accounts the twinning was the result of drunken enthusiasm, but do the people of Whitwell - whose county Rutland voted 50.6% to leave the European Union - still believe in closer ties ahead of Thursday's elections?

Mrs Healey certainly does. She said: "I'm an 'inner', because I think it is far, far better to be part of Europe.

"Everyone says we are 'Great' but look on a map, we're a very small country and I would prefer to be part of the European family than on our own."

Image caption Mrs Healey is still a committed Remainer

Tony Godwin, 64, an architect, agrees. "This planet is very small," he said.

"We have far bigger problems than the EU and we should work together.

"At the moment we are stuck in a world where everyone is fighting for themselves, we need to be part of a bigger block."

He said his main concern was to stop Nigel Farage. He explained: "I do not want to see that man wasting Europe's money sitting there and objecting to something which he has not contributed to."

Image caption Tony Godwin said he would vote as tactically as possible to keep Nigel Farage's Brexit Party from power

Kevin Mullins, 58, a company director, does not plan on voting on Thursday because "politics has left a rather bitter taste in [his] mouth".

He said: "I think this creeping federalism in the EU was something the average Brit felt was not for them, it was not the club we joined all those years ago.

"It is moving us further and further away from the heartbeat of a community, therefore I am absolutely against that."

Image caption Kevin Mullins changed his mind and now supports Leave, saying Europe has shown its "true nature" since the referendum

Karen Moule, 53, added: "I think we should do what was promised. In some ways we should have close relations, for travelling and sharing skills and research.

"But they have too much say in what we do. They are bullying us and they will continue bullying us into submission, we need to be independent."

Et voilà! So it seems that even in the smallest of villages, la différence continues to vivre.

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