Saturday, 9 November 2013


Czech Family Centre workers at Eastover Childrens Centre
Our second major EU funded project of the year saw 13 Family Centre and related workers from our Czech  twin town Uherske Hradiste and it's environs spend 2 weeks in Bridgwater to study social inclusion in the Eastover ward. Well, some of them spent a bit of that time in Worcester studying the Snoezelen project, but they were all here for carnival.
Simon Hann enthusiastically gets down to work

This is the 4th project fronted by Akropolis Director Dagmar Mega, and the aim this time was to do a thorough survey of Eastover, match 'needs' to 'resources' and meet the people from all walks of life who made up that Community. To make sure something tangible came out of this we roped in Cambridge Graduate Simon Hann and are expecting the 'Hann Report' by the  end of the month.


Sadly not roped in anyway was Cllr Julian Taylor, who was on the scene on Day 1 to share
Julie Simmonds explains Eastover visions and values
his Social Work expertise with the Czechs and provide them with the methodology for the project and  lay out some ground rules whilst trying to convince them of the relevance of 1940's sociological theories.

The key visit for the Czechs was to the Eastover Childrens Centre, where centre manager Julie Simmonds and her staff were available to show them round the place and to introduce them to centre users so they could ask for themselves.

Bridgwater Senior Citizens get stuck in

One extremely rewarding day involved a meeting with the Bridgwater Senior Citizens Forum who instantly proved warm and friendly and immediatly engaged them with a list of problems in the town and district as long as their combined ages. 

For a weekend break they popped down to Devon and stayed overnight on Dartmoor -which in between the showers turned out to be rainbow central. You couldn't move for them. And a special treat was in store. Having been moved out of the hostel we were meant to stay at we found ourselves in an obscure little moorland hostel yet with the only other 2 guests being a possibly fictitious elderly couple from a Middle England that long ago ceased to exist, who had brought their concertinas and entertained the Czechs with traditional English songs and dances into the early hours.

The Czechs join the crowds at Carnival

This of course prepared them well for the Bridgwater Carnival - a 400 year old saturnalian feast commemorating the hang drawing and quartering of catholic rebel Guy Fawkes - but who knows that these days...mind you when people say the only man to enter Parliament with good intentions was Guy have to think that maybe re-introducing a feudal dictatorship from Rome might not have been 'such' a good outcome...But the carnival these days has very little (maybe nothing) to do with persecuting catholics and was a merry night out for everyone concerned which the Czechs loved. Especially Zdenek the cave dwelling didgeridoo player (don't ask) who had to stop the bus 3 times the following morning to 'take the air'.
Simon and Eeyore (Simon is on the left)

The group were able to visit West Somerset to compare and contrast the Eastover experience, and were welcomed to Alcombe Childrens centre in Minehead by cllr Maureen Smith and the staff there. This was accompanied by talks in the new Minehead Eye with staff from Homestart.

Back in Bridgwater the group visited the newly established 'Food Bank'. Shown around by volunteer Ted Stock who explained it was a sad reality in modern Britain that such places existed.

In Bridgwater the group had to study all levels of Government and were invited around Sedgemoor District offices by Chairman Cllr Peter Downing and supported by Communities officer Julie Cooper 

The key youth provider in Bridgwater, the YMCA . was host to a session on youth networking and workers from various sectors welcomed the Czechs to take part in a mapping session of wider youth provision . 

Marcela sums up for the Czechs

A wash and brush up session at Bridgwater Town Hall included contributions on Housing from Deputy Mayor Cllr Steve Austen and community engagement from cllr Ian Tucker. A working buffet lunch was provided by Mayor Cllr Dave Loveridge who also spoke of his triple hatted role as a town,district and county councillor. 

But it wasn't all work  for the Czechs. They were able to sample the wider delights of Somerset in their free time and outings included climbing Brean Down and shopping in Burnham on Sea, Climbing Glastonbury Tor and shopping in the Hippy Bazarres, pebble gazing in Watchet, Cathedral roaming and shopping in Wells, and yet more shopping therapy in Bath and Bristol.

And it wasn't just shopping. On a couple of nights we had a bit of a sing song. Noticeably at the Bridgwater Arts Centre and again at Cllr Tuckers house. Where we also had a firework display. Thanks Ian and Sonia.

On one weekend they found time to visit Oxford where they were invited to observe a Family Centre group run by the Russian community and follow this up by a fish and chip supper in Stratford on Avon. Exactly the traditional British night out that Shakespeare himself would have had.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013


Getting down to serious talks
Early in 2013 Bridgwater's twin town of Uherske Hradiste gained European funding to help it's workforce investigate Local Government practices in their EU Partner towns. From Mayen in Germany they chose to study the Education system, from Priverno in Italy they looked at Tourist and the Museum service and in Bridgwater they looked at Town Planning and the Environment.

In June this year they visited Sedgemoor District Council - the relevant service provider in these areas for Bridgwater, thus concluding their tour of European Council offices. In October a major Conference was held in Uherske Hradiste to bring together the findings.

The Sedgemoor Delegation + Martin Sevcik
The Bridgwater delegation was led by Conservative District Chairman Cllr Peter Downing from Cheddar and Bridgwater Labour Cllr Brian Smedley along with Senior Planning Officer Nick Tait and Head of the Environment Section Adrian Gardner.


The Sedgemoor group were able to spend a night in Prague before driving the 3 hours eastwards to the Moravian twin town where they were joined by the German Delegation which included the Burgomeister and 3 Head teachers from the Rhineland towns schools. 

On this occasion there was no show from the Italians as elections had got in the way and the new administration was 're-looking at' the towns apparently extensive list of twinnings.
UH-Azilovy Dum / Homeless hostel

For the Sedgemoor team the visit included not only the usual ceremonial fanfares and touristic 'look at our town and how lovely it is' programme, but an insertion into the rougher end of the townscape and the councils work. One visit included a Homeless hostel, which was essentially a line of 'containers' fenced in and clumped together. One 'inmate' described how they obviously got 'very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter'. And of course there had been protests from the (somewhat distant) neighbours against even siting it near them on what was essentially an industrial estate in the first place.


Adrian is shown around a typical residents flat
Another visit included a Womens refuge. On this occasion in the suburb village of Vesky which was a remarkable contrast being a several story high Moravian country house run by caring staff and in a pleasant environment. The residents were happy to invite the Sedgemoor officers into their homes, to take photos and even had tea and biscuits ready for us.

The conference itself saw extensive presentations by the Czech Council departments into what they found in their partner towns and how they operated. For the Czechs, Jaroslav Bican and Martin Sevcik, the heads of the planning department in UH found several similarities - noticably the opposition they had run into in the siting of a major supermarket on the edge of town site of a former military barracks and a narrow 14-13 vote to get the development through, yet the conclusions were odd. They admired the 'strategic' perspective of Sedgemoor and it's District overview, because their town, Uherske Hradiste, had to stop it's planning at the town boundaries and couldn't influence it's neighbours - meanwhile in Bridgwater the issue is our town can't seem to influence the wider Sedgemoor District planners NOT to do what they like with our townscape.
Bican & Sevcik outline Czech planning policies


But the conference wasn't about trying to say who was right or who was wrong but to compare and contrast , learn-if necessary, and reject where useless.

The UH planners were very impressed by the 'Bridgwater Vision' approach to longterm planning especially it's end target of 2060 and also to the Developer  surcharge on planning in floodable areas to 'build up a kitty for future flood defences'. The Czechs saw this as the Brits taking seriously global warming and environmental change and considered their own strategic and longterm approach comparatively weak. They were also very impressed by the water harvesting scheme planned for the Steart peninsula in the same vein. This controlled inundation was something they would consider for management of the Morava river and nearby floodplains. They were also  attracted to the idea of constant evaluation of the projects and plans and keen to know from Sedgemoor about their approach to wider 'consultation' .

Nick Tait discusses supermarkets
At the subsequent workshops and roundtable discussions both sides got to grips with practical approaches to problem solving and questioned each other on policies and reality. Nick Tait observed that the Czech town plans were far more detailed and prescriptive than the UK ones leaving ours more flexible. In theory. 


It was of course made clear that 'planning' was associated more with the Communist period which involved '5 year plans', and whilst officers appeared to crave this  security, it was an uncomfortable absence in the modern capitalist Czech Republic for fear of this 'association'.

The conference came to it's wash and brush up session and Nick Tait was pushed behind the main michrophone to give the verdict of the UK jury. Very impressed by the barrack development and it's perceived 'regeneration'  but on the whole hoped that 'we'd all learned from each other and the co-operation would continue into the future as a practical example of the benefits of our twinning'.
Barbora and Pavel share a glass of Moravian vino

The Moravians then let us let our hair down. Which isn't easy with a bald patch as it may never return.

Thanks to the UH council for organising the event and to Barbora Szolonyova for her 24 hour assistance.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Somerset Ambassadors of Song Sing Out Across the Danube

A few years back, natural voice practitioner Yvette Staelens founded the Voice of the People Choir at the Bridgwater Arts Centre to help people find the singing voice that she believes everyone has inside them. For almost as long, we have taken these musical ambassadors to the four corners of Europe to meet other singers and prove that songs, smiles and a cheery disposition are universal.

This year we did Hungary. 

Flying out to Budapest from Gatwick the 48 strong group from all over Somerset landed into lovely sunny autumnal weather. Which was just as well as it had been bucketing down icy rain only the day before. Met off the plane by globetrotting nutjob Cllr Smedley, they stayed the first night at the Hotel Benczur in the leafy streets around the 19th Century Andrassy Avenue, next to the  evocative Hosok Ter (Heroes Square). 
Anytime,Any Place Anywhere


Under Andrassy runs the European mainlands first underground railway. Petite, yellowing and inches from the surface it should take 10 minutes to get to the centre of town. Not tonight though as there had been an accident and replacement busses were suddenly waiting for us at the Octagon (formerly Mussolini Square, due to Hungarys war time alliance - but tonight no trains ran on time...).

Several Hungarian supporters of the Bridgwater-Sarvar link were waiting in the centre for us. Well, in the Hard Rock cafe as we were so late, but they dashed out to show us around the waterfront area of downtown Pest with the stunning views looking towards Uptown Buda.
Juggling 'something'


The next day the sun shone brighter and we took a tour of the main sights of the city. Starting on Buda's castle hill the group burst into song around the Fishermans Bastion and St Matyas Church, then again down the Siklo Funicular to Clark Adam Square. More singing. This time not especially entertaining the crowds who mistook them for the queue to the Funicular and waited patiently in line next to them. Lesley entertained everyone with some juggling. Nobody, not even the horticulturalists knew what exactly she was juggling, but hundreds had fallen from the trees nearby. 

Crossing the Chain Bridge we wound up at St Stevens basilica, then split up for lunch. Then arranged to meet at the Parliament Square to set off out of town. 

 Bocsánatot kérek

A couple of councillors
Sarvar is some 3 hours from Budapest, and everyone was happy to jump into it;s famous Spa and Wellness centre where they were offered a range of treatments including putting hot stones on their backs and various flavoured fruit massages.

That evening we went to the Nadasdy Restaurant where we were welcomed by local Councillor Zsolt Nemeth and his famous palinka (that's an apple brandy) (which  'for purposes of recognition' has pictures of him on the bottles). He gave Yvette one. The portions were stupendous. But lest this descends into a Carry On script, I refer of course to the meals.Phwoar lumme etc.

On the saturday we went to the nearby town of Celdomolk and were greeted by the Deputy Mayor who spoke of the wine growing tradition and invited us to the nearby volcano. Which was  extinct. Or 'probably' extinct. A big EU subsidy had built a massive building that taught you everything you wanted to know about volcanic eruptions. And then it was 'Carry on Up the Community Centre' for the highlight of the weekend -the concert!

 Hogy hívják?

Tommy Tucker speaks (Hungarian) to the world
The Lizst Ferenc Choir were a professional bunch of singers, uniformed and using sheet music. Voice of the People complimented them perfectly. And then did their set. 

The performance was not only terrific, it was incredibly moving in places. Apart from Yvettes enthusiasm for the power and inate talent of people wherever and whoever they are, you suddenly had to wake up and think 'bloody, hell this is a group of  ordinary people from Somerset singing to the world with voices they never knew they had and not holding their own but bringing the house down.' And that's an achievement for everybody involved.

Neptune blesses a passing choir ion Vienna
Both choirs took the stage together in an unrehearsed , spontaneous and quite lengthy, rendition of the Spanish Adios Amigos. Then they had some wine. Then they went off to the Spa again.


And that evening saw more wine, beer and large plates of Hungarian food being consumed. This time local teacher Ildiko turned up with her guitar to teach them a Hungarian song. Mr Nemeth sang the praises of Yvette and the Choir while Cllr Ian 'Tommy' Tucker could relax after his third performance of a speech in Hungarian. And then was told that one of them had been filmed by Hungarian TV and was being broadcast to the Nation that night. He had another glass of wine.

The following day the group trekked off to Vienna with the assistance of local guide Gabor and had a relaxing tour of one of Europes most beautiful cities before catching the late afternoon flight back home.
Gabor 'tells it like it is' (and later bursts into song)

The reception in Sarvar and the groups programme had been organised with the hard work of local helpers Beata Kovacs and Mr Nemeth, and the partiicpation of Beata's students Berci and Balint  helped everyone understand where they were that little bit more.

 Nem tudok magyaru

Cllr Smedley on the other hand was off to Prague and decided to save his last 2 euros by walking 4km to the Meidling train station then get himself a nice cup of coffee. Which he did. And then proceeded to spill all over himself.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

All Change in Priverno - But Bridgwater Links to Continue

Angelo Delogu-New Mayor of Priverno
A few years back we made contact with the Italian town of Priverno in the Lazio region just South of Rome when we met their people in Uherske Hradiste, their and our Czech twin town. The Mayor Umberto Macci, had been a regular attender at the UH wine festival and during his time in office had clocked up over a dozen link towns around Europe. In May this year he went the way of many Berlusconi acolytes and the Left swept to power in Priverno suggesting that they would be doing away with most of Macci's international links. Bridgwater International administrator Brian Smedley hurried down there to put a word in for Somerset.

New Mayor of Priverno is 34 year old Angelo Delogu, a Labour rights Lawyer from the Sinistra Ecologia Liberta Party (Green Socialists basically) who won office with the backing of the centre left Partito Democratica (Democrat Party). His deputy Mayor is Anna Maria Bilancia (PD).


Angelo is dynamic, friendly and popular. He lives in rented digs in the ancient centre of Priverno and seems to know everyone he meets on the street. During the visit Italy was hit by torrential downpours and Priverno was hit by Mudslides -Angelo was out on the streets on the spot helping deal with the looming catastrophe.
Anna Maria Bilancia (Deputy mayor of Priverno) at the new Roman museum

Smedley said "It became clear quite quickly that the new Mayor and his Council wanted to not only continue but develop their link with Bridgwater and much of our time was spent discussing ways to make the link work for both communities and concentrating on clear and achieveable goals."


Bridgwater were planning to take a youth football team-Rhode Lane Wanderers, across next autumn - Priverno would organise community teams of the same age for them to play against and a social programme to help foster understanding plus some joint coaching sessions . 

Priverno were keen to send Italian students to England to either stay with families or take part in English language courses or summer camps. Bridgwater International agreed to facilitate this.

Bridgwater College wanted to send their media students to Italy to visit the Cinnecita film studios, Priverno would supplement the trip with their own media students and organise social events to encourage an environment for best interaction.

Priverno were keen to look at the English Local Government system and consider solutions to potential problems that they are increasingly facing -such as flooding (Priverno is situated just above the ancient pontine marshes, reclaimed from the mosquitos in the 1930s) but also at cultural and educational link ups ; they are particularly proud of their newly opened Roman history museum based on the site and surviving relics of the ancient Roman town of Privernum.

Bridgwater was keen to send it's community choirs over to the land of song to meet singers and sing and perform together. Priverno has several choirs that were very keen.
Nearby Oasa di Kufra on the Med

Finally both sides wanted to promote tourism. Priverno is less than an hour from Rome (which is 2 hours from Bristol) and the train costs a mere 5€ to get there!  A short drive to the coast is the beach hotel of the Oasa di Kufra, whilst in the Appenine town of Priverno there are  several B&B's and at leas tone sizeable Agrotourism project the Regina Camilla.


We agreed that both our towns were ideal jumping off points for the touristic riches of the surrounding area. From Bridgwater you were in easy reach of the Quantocks, Exmoor, Cheddar Gorge, Wells , Glastonbury and the English Channel resorts whilst in Priverno you were a similar distance from the Mediterranean, the second world war sites of Cassino and Anzio and of course the Eternal city itself.
Priverno station- 5€ south of Rome
Anyone wishing to help us develop these links can contact us at Both sides agreed that co-operation would continue 'with a view to a twinning'. But at this stage "treat it as a courtship..." suggested Angelo. At which point I went down the pub and watched the football.

Saturday, 12 October 2013


On the Charles Bridge
For many years we've taken singers from Somerset to far flung destinations to sing with people of many Nations. This autumn we took a group of singers from several choirs scattered along the A303 'trunk road to the tropics' off to the Czech capital Prague to sing with our old friends the Labyrint choir who had visited Somerset earlier this year on a barnstorming tour. Largely of barns.

Harmony 303 are mainly women. They'd be the first to admit that. About 30 of them. But with an enthusiastic 4 man bass section. Fronted by the energetic and enthusiastic Caroline Rigby they sing songs from around the world and a few from Somerset. Which these days is included in that.


In the Hotel Arlington
We stayed at the Hotel Arlington in the Liben district of Prague, right next to the O2 arena and the Harfa U.S style shopping mall. A friendly, affordable and cosy hotel run by the delightful Veronika and her hard working staff, the Arlington is just 5 stops on the metro (yellow line) to the City centre.

We had a supply of  local helpers on hand to guide the group around Prague including 2 Ondrejs, a Gabbi, a Bara and a Dana. Gently strolling around the Old Town Square area, across Charles Bridge and up to the Castle the group got to know the city and after a while could cope with the transport system themselves.


Martin Lauer on the bass with his band
Dana, an experienced Prague guide, told them the history of the city, Gabbi, a former resident of Somerset and who has married a Somerset bloke, made them feel like they'd never left  Martock and Ondra took them to what he considered the best restaurant in Prague. It turned out to be KFC, but 'horses for courses' - which isn't the best expression when considering restaurants these days....

Reeling and rocking at the saturday night fish fry
The Sensational Martin Lauer Band, well, Martin and a few mates he'd forced to turn up and play with him, entertained the group on the first night in Prague at the Hastalsky Dedek bar, with their easy listening jazz ballads with the occasional unexpected treat when their beardy ttrumpet player got out his ukelele and played a bit of Ivan Mladek. Not a double entendre in Czech terms.The band played on into injury time and the Harmonistas got up and danced. 


Sunday night and it was off for the big concert at the Mother Teresa Community Centre in the edge of town suburb of Haje. Some excellent publicity and promotion from Labyrint had led to a large turnout to see the choirs perform. Labyrint are a classically trained close harmony group led by the classically trained Lenka Charvatova, a kind of cross between the Red Army Choir and the Swingle Singers, and of course everything they put their vocal chords to turns to gold, especially outstanding being a falling descant version of Michelle. And everybody loves a bit of Beatles.

Harmony 303 won over the audience from their opening sentence as they introduced themselves in near perfect Czech to the people. Applause followed song followed humourous double act between Caroline and Czech interpreter Petr, followed song followed applause followed more of the same as the audience took the Somerset singers to their hearts and  cheered loudly. A small Czech girl was delegated to present Caroline with a lovely flower ( which proceeded to survive the metro and plane journey back)  and the two choirs celebrated their evenings work with a meal together in a nearby restaurant.

It was only a short break but another milestone in cultural links between Somerset and the Czech Republic.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


7.Smedley kicks a football as a Czech fails to keep up with him 
It was like a scene from a Biblical epic. Or at least one of the better performances by the great Leeds United squad of the 1960's. After 5 years of defeat after defeat at the hands of Czech Factory team Altech there were suddenly 'No more years of hurt' as Bridgwater International refound their form and smashed their twin town opponents into the hallowed (and slightly undulating) turf of Cranleigh Gardens. "Without a shadow of a doubt the performance was simply down to the genius of one man, centre forward Brian Smedley" said Centre forward Brian Smedley, after the game.

Being the 21st Anniversary of the Bridgwater-Uherske Hradiste twinning, Czech co-founder Antonin Machala had agreed to bring his company football team Altech over to Bridgwater for the Fair. And also to play a couple of matches against old rivals Bridgwater International and Sedgemoor Unison. Confident as they were, despite lacking several of their usual key players, and having just travelled 24 hours across Europe by coach, Altech were raring to go and had already brought along 2 barrels of Czech beer for the 'inevitable' celebration.
1.Altech (blue) v Sedgemoor Unison (white)

Spartan Legends

For 10 years, Sedgemoor Unison had travelled to different foreign destinations with Altech on an annual basis and played mini tournaments against the local teams - Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro etc. But the main event on these occaisions was the Altech v Sedgemoor match. However, in recent years Unisons trips had petered out into a welter of bath chairs and middle aged ambience. So this time Altech were surprised to see a fully formed and fit body of Spartan legends waiting for them on the Victoria Park playing ground.

Unison had a couple of secret weapons this time round. Rob Semple, fresh from saving someones life at the Fair, was fit,fast and furious and put Sedgemoor into an early lead while Matt 'Basher' Weston, fresh from moving someones furniture, devastated the Altech defence with a string of well taken goals.  Despite a brave fightback by the still sleeping Czechs the game ended 7.3. "The English are back" noted a bemused,but inwardly pleased, Machala afterwards.


2.Altech (blue) v Bridgwater International (white)
But it wasn't all over yet for the Czechs. After a night out at the Bridgwater Arts Centre where a lavish feast of fatboy proportions weighted down by litres of moorish Pilsner beer, prepared Altech for the next match. To their dismay that was to be 10am the following morning in Cranleigh Gardens against a revamped Bridgwater International team which this time included several people who could play football.

3.Hot footballing action as both players miss the ball
For years now Bridgwater International have formed scratch teams from the groups of various tourists who have travelled with us to Uherske Hradiste and played against Altech on their own factory pitch, always losing by cricket scores. But this time it would be different.


The rain stopped on cue and the drizzle parted like a curtain for the opening act and off went the Bridgwater team quickly taking the lead as a miskick by Stevie 'Steve' Miles fell at the feet of the goalhanging Smedley who pounced like a leopard waiting for the traffic lights to change tapping the ball across the goal line.

Lightning fast wing action from former quite good player Alan Hurford saw another cross into the centre, another miskick from Miles , again the ball fell at the feet of Smedley and, without the aid of his glasses, a chip over the small fat goalkeeper and Bridgwater were 2 up.
4.Hurford, about to 'nutmeg' a Czech


Altech fought back valiantly but were outclassed by the skillfull  Bridgwater midfield, the fierce Bridgwater attack and the dirty as anything Bridgwater back 4. The game mashed backwards and forward with 2 more goals from the home team then 2 replies from the Czechs until finally the hat trick came via an edge of penalty area shot from Cannonball Smedley, well, from the evidence of the pictures it looked like he had swallowed a cannonball, with the final result a devastating 5.3 victory for the Bridgwater team. Councillor Smedley said after the game "I'm 55 you know".

There was nothing left for the Czechs to do except visit Bridgwater Fair, eat a massive pot of Slovakian Goulash, made by Slovakian Goulashateer Milan Hajster, drink yet another barrel of Czech beer and join the Mayor of Bridgwater, Dave Loveridge, in the Town Hall for acknowledgement of a great 21 years of Twinning.
5.In desperation to even get a single goal Miles gets dirty


But the misery didn't end there. On the Sunday the Czechs were forced to watch the Stoke City v Norwich game. A scintillating 1.0  snooze in the park for the East Angular team, before heading home.

6.Antonin Machala with wallplaque

Bridgwater and Uherske Hradiste were the first British and Czech towns to form a twinning link after the Velvet Revolution  and had signed the oath back in 1992. In acknowledgement of Antonin Machalas consistent support and good natured optimism from foundation to humiliating football defeat, the Mayor presented him with a 21st anniversary commemorative wallplaque and his co-founder, Cllr Smedley, with the match ball. Which he then ate.

7,2,3,4 Photos by Andy Slocombe
5,6 by Jana Branecka

Sunday, 15 September 2013


It's that time of year when we try to plan the BRIDGWATER INTERNATIONAL programme for  the next year.

If you'd like us to organise a trip for you in 2014 (or winter 2013 for that matter) or if you’d like to  have a chat about what we can offer then get in touch with us now so we can slot in some provisional dates and discuss it.

To see some of our destinations have a look at our web sites
Or the Czech version

Our European destinations include
Czech Republic
And our British isles destinations include
English canals

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


Cllr Smedley stands by Bridgwater
In June 1992 Bridgwater and Uherske Hradiste became the first British and Czech towns to twin in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. Since then we've had 21 years of happy twinning together. And one of the annual highlights is the UH Wine festival.

This year there was no official Bridgwater delegation - just a few hardy travellers. However, the walls of the town hall that greeted them were adorned with massive full colour display boards of all 7 of UH's twin towns with the pride of place going to a Bridgwater display featuring photographs taken during the Spring and Summer by Czech exile in Somerset Jana Branecka.

Twin Towns on display

The photos, which featured the Cornhill, St.Mary's church, Blake Museum, West Quay, the town Bridge, King's Square and Brownes pond,  stand out with their green and blue hues , easily holding their own against the Italian mountain town of Priverno, the German Mayen, the Hungarian Sarvar,the Polish Krosno and the (not so far away) Slovakian Skalica.

The Mayor of Strani 'having a dance'
Well, the event's actually called the 'Festival of Wine and Open Monuments'  because some bright spark had the great idea to combine a town full of dancingly merry drinkers with opening up all the museums to the public at the same time. This time, to add to the 'merriment' they'd opened up the Former Austro-Hungarian Empire Prison building - later used by the Nazis, the  Communists and the Democrats, until it;s closure in the 1960's. (Not for any 'moral' reasons, just because they wanted to move the prison service to Zlin...the county town).

Cheering pavements of bounciness

The wine festival is basically a costumed procession of slavic folklore wearing countryfolk who wend their way from the winelands of  the Maratice hill to the East of UH, through pavements of cheering towns people, handing out wine and slivovice while playing cimbal or dechovka music, stopping to dance, or showing off their lavish hand made costumes.
UH prison corridor

Once in the main square the town fills to an overcapacity of dancing , drinking, eating and general mayhem. The visit to the prison alone involved a patient queue of literally hundreds at a time cramming into the entrance yard to take the tour that others would have gladly avoided 40 years ago.

Footballing like it was 1966 (in Albania)

But another regular feature of the wine festival is the annual football match between Altech and Bridgwater International.  Altech is the stairlift company founded by Antonin Machala, now employing some 150 workers who have their own works football pitch. Bridgwater International on this occaision featured 3 travelling Bridgwater Brits and a group of Foreign guestworkers from the nearby Akropolis Family Centre, from Spain, Russia and Slovakia.

Altech in yellow Bridgwater in white
The game was fierce and even having conceded 11 goals Bridgwater weren't prepared to give up. 3 goals from Trig Engineerings Phil Rogers  and another from Davide the Spaniard from Toledo made it 4 for the visitors. And of course it could have been 5 if the referee had accepted Cllr Smedley himself crashing arse first into the oppositions net - albeit without the ball.

People at a wine festival
Antonin provided some Czech beer, kofola and sausages, and the Akropolis provided several extra French, German, Czech and Spanish fans to help with the eating and drinking of it.

The sun shone, but then it always does at the wine festival.

Mad nutter's on parade

Mad nutter Andrew 'Wildman' Napthine, who has failed to find his way out of UH now for over 20 years having moved there from Bridgwater shortly after the first twinning visit, was a sight for sore eyes - well, I mean,  if you wanted sore eyes, you only had to look at Andrew...but his happy cheerful who am I and what am i doing here helpfulness is always a welcome introduction to Moravia. And long may he stay there.

Wildman engages Jana Hubena in 'a little chat'
Next year will be a major visitation to the wine festival and we'll soon be looking for names to join us on what will again be a civic trip plus guests, plus footballers and plus anyone who wants to come keep your eyes peeled.  Then salted. Then sent in a small cardboard box to the Wildman so he has someone to talk to for the next 11 months.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

10 Days in the Caledonian Sun

The heatwave that had swept England had come to an end and the birth of the Royal baby had coincided with a lightning strike on Manchester railway station. What better time to get away from it all to the sunny climes of tropical Scotland where summer had just begun and the people were happy chatting about the options for next years independence referendum. Seeking refuge in a minibus full of Czechs and not being Nigel Farage, I assumed I'd be safe.

Every year a bunch of Pražaks (people from Prague) led by the formidable yet minimal Vera Bobovska and mainly called Jan, investigate a different part of the British isles. This year it was to be Scotland. Alongside the Bohemian 8 a couple of Moravian divkas half their age made up the contingent.

A tropical heatwave

Scotland was having a heatwave. A tropical heatwave. Temperatures were rising and it was hardly surprising that by the time we reached Edinburgh we were sweating like monkeys who had been locked in a room with a box set of Chuckle Brothers DVDs. It was hard to explain. Scotland wasn't normally like this.

But make the most of it! Let's go hit the fun capital of Europes next new nation state. We went to a bar. The Royal Oak on Infirmary street. Small and cosy with a good selection of whisky and an indifferently casual range of musicians sat around the room playing now and then and when they felt like it. The largely touristic crowd loved the 'Scottish' music they played. Only, it was Cajun. And incessantly so. "Is he singing in Gaelic?" asked a German "No, its French", "Why is he singing in French?" asked a Dutchman "I have no idea. He appears to like cajun music". "Ma grandmere est ma mere et mes oncles sont mes freres" he chansoned over a rickety accordion.

 No fire was put out

Youth Hostels are a great and cheap way to get around. Edinburgh central is, well, 'central' and so thats a good thing. A bad thing was the fire alarm going off at 4am. "It does that" said the chirpy chirpy cheap Aussie receptionist as dozens of sleepy foreigners stood in the middle of the road while no fire was put out because there wasn't one to put out.

So we headed north. Across the Forth and across the Tay , through the kingdom of Fife, up the east coast to the granite city of Aberdeen. 'Granite' because the grey buildings gleam silver in the sun and because it's about as interesting as a 3 hour documentary about granite. As the oil runs out and the granite doesn't Aberdeen will doubtless go on. Which is what we did as soon as we could the next day. 

Heading up into the Highlands our first stop was the Braemar area town of Ballater - home of the historic Farquharson clan...'MY' clan...for what that's worth...tracing back through my Irish/Scots/Finlay ancestry...these are my people...I come from a long line of Farquhars..they'll welcome me back as great high clan chief and let me get off with their sisters and give me a pet badger. I'll try the cake shop. No hint of recognition. 'would you like a cake?' asked one . Things were looking up. I had a cake.

Hoot-a-nanny time

Driving over the Cairngorms we could see England on fire in the distance as the lightning storms bounced off the Scottish border. But by now we were in sunny Inverness. Time for more Heeland music. the Hoot-a-nanny pub..that sounds the place. Again, oddly, full of foreigners. Then a man with an accordion turned up, then another , then another and it was like Hitchcocks 'The Birds' suddenly there was a whole band of them sat round a table playing diddly aye dye dye music while the audience cheered along , happy that they had found the Scots saturnalian hoe-down of their dreams.

Next day it was down the Great Glen and Loch Ness. Where IS that bloody monster?? Not in the Drumnadrochit gift shop for why's everyone looking in there and buying Nessie tea towels "as used by Nessie herself don't you know!!". The day got hotter, yet no-one dared take the plunge into the tempting waters of the Loch. So we headed down the road to the isles and Eilean  Donan castle. Which of course isn't on Loch Ness..unless you watch the Ted Danson film of the same name where the producers thought it ought to be..and so it was. 

Cuillin down a bit

Over on Skye it was more like Equatorial Guinea. But with more midges. Driving into the
Cuillin Hills we stopped at the remote Glen Brittle. It was unavoidable, the Bohemians trekked to the mountain tops and the Moravians jumped into the crystal clear waterfall opposite the youth hostel. I got my guitar out. How is it that whenever you want to be inspired by the grandeur of the Scottish scenery all you can play is bloody 'Mull of Kintyre'. Well, that's a question for Paul McCartney. I picked up the hostels communal 4 string ('s left) guitar , open tuned it and suddenly I had discovered Gaellic modal reels - and so i went for it like a Jacobite jukebox.

And the music continued through the night. Brno conservatory trained Lucie sang her way through the 4 Irish song books we'd brought with us while a short haired Dutch hiker girl tapped her feet randomly in one corner and suddenly a passing Fell-Walker from Stoke could contain himself no longer and joined in. It was like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. But without any Arabs.

Also on Skye is the Talisker whisky distillery. So that was worth a visit. Very nice pub on the lochside adjacent. Very nice food. If you like panini and midges.

Also on Skye is the fish town of Portree. If you weren't on a diet and only eating salad you could do worse than pop down to the harbour and get some freshly caught haddock from a tasty battered window just there. 

Also on Skye is the far north Hebridean ferry terminal of Uig, from where you could see the Outer Hebrides. And take a walk down the fairy glen. Although the 'fairies' were largely 'midges'.

We stayed at Uig. A marvellous hilltop location with views across the bay from where you could see the CalMac ferries arrive and deposit their load of tourists. Who immediatly headed south because, to be frank, there's bugger all in Uig.

Up the Dusty Ben

Next day it was the long awaited Ben Nevis climb. 8 out of 10 made it to the top. Although the 2 Moravians hadn't made the summit, over the next few days they surely felt like they had as the Bohemians constantly relived their exciting experience. "We went up the mountain to the top, and then we came down" " Yes, was it like that for you Jan?" "Yes , pretty much."

Heading West we hit the Argyll coastal town of Oban. The Czechs jumped a ferry and continued to the isle of Mull and spent the day in 'Whats the story? Craignure ferry terminal. And then a one hour bus journey to Tobermory" . But they were back in Oban for tea and another little music bar. In this case 'Markie Dans'. Right where the main road hits the sea front. A boysterous yet happy saturday night crew. Jolly and fun loving. On the whole, pissed.

Glencoe is one of the nicest spots to have a wander in the Highlands. The Clachaig inn is the perfect base. You can walk the sites of the 1692 massacre and see the more recent cottage of Jimmy Saville now daubed with anti-paedophile graffitti. A lasting memorial to a man who had given so much of himself and who once posed alongside that very cottage with Prince Charles in kilts.

 Stirling wheels in motion

So a couple of days in Stirling. The Czechs were keen to know about the Independence debate. So we asked some locals. Billy and John were ex-army, Glasgow Rangers supporting lowlanders. Hmm, wonder what their views are?? "See, it's just these Teuchters from the North who want independence" said John "Aye, them and the plastic paddies" added Billy. I explained to the Czechs that there was a wider range of opinion in Scotland than maybe their media had suggested. So we went to find some music. Tonight the choice was Molly Malones -oddly an Irish bar. And tonight appeared to be an in your face drunken arsehole theme night. Don't open your English mouth  seemed to be the message. So that was depressing. But then the next night my faith was restored as we made a more sensible choice of pub. Nestling in the old streets below the castle, Nicky Tams is a cosy bothy of a bar. Tonight one of Scotlands legends 'Ted Christopher' was playing a low key event. Singing and playing at least a hundred songs and segues over about a 3 hour period none-stop, kilted, Nationalistic and Internationalistic in the same measure, self deprecating and gently ribbing the English, he was great. A highlight was his song 'Where's the River Mel?' a poke at Aussie historian Mel Gibson for his silver screen re-enactment of the battle of Stirling Bridge - minus the bridge. The crucial message for me goes back to James Connolly - 'you can't be a Nationalist without being an Internationalist" .

City Foxes

The next day I felt like taking someone up the Trossachs. Having got that out of my system I drove the Czechs to the highland lowland town of Callender. And then we went to Glasgow. The youth hostel is on a high peak full of victorian terraces in Kelvinside. Down the hill it's Sauchiehall street and 20 minutes left and you're in the city centre. Nightfell and city foxes brazenly roamed the terraces not even scarpering when i turned the minibus lights on them. Good job I didn't try to punch one!

But there's a few more interesting things to see in the lowland belt of Scotland. Linlithgow Palace -birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, who married the famous Lord Darnley (from Leeds) and thereby united the Scots and English thrones. Rosslyn Chaple , where the rubbish Dan Brown book has made them billionaires and the fascinating Falkirk Wheel - a ridiculous goliath crane of a lock gate experiment for getting canal boats between varying heights by way of a fairground attraction. 

Onwards and downwards

And then it was over. An early morning (4am) drive to Edinburgh airport to get them back to where they once belonged and a mere 10 hour drive south for me and the Moravians. We must do more Scotland's a pretty interesting time I'd say. As Dick Gaughan said "You don't have to be SNP to want Scottish independence" and as Nigel Farage learnt , the last thing they'll tolerate in Scotland are English Nationalists! And who could blame them.