Monday, 23 June 2014

On the Trail of the EU Grant

Bridgwater Mayor on the Square in UH

 This year we had a shake up of Twinning in Bridgwater.  We agreed that we have 6 twin  towns. 4 official ones and 2 that we’re working on.  We decided to target the EU and it’s attractive funding and training packages  and to do this in co-operation with our key partners around Europe by identifying projects and people who would benefit from them.

Uherske Hradiste in the Czech Republic has been one of Bridgwater’s twin towns since 1992 and as an ‘accession’ country has a good track record of achieving EU funding. Together we have brought in funds to our 2 towns through mutual co-operation on projects ranging from Family Centres to Town Planning to student exchange projects. UH council is a strong supporter of International links and has a Twinning committee, a grants officer, a jet setting programme of exchanges and a budget to match. In Bridgwater we  tend to treat twinning activities as a hobby  and Brits  who visit pay their own way.

This week we took a delegation over to UH to investigate and kick start some potential EU projects and arm twisted a useful team along to back up our Mayor and Mayoress, Steve and Stella Austen. 

A delegation

Steve and Stella sign the visitors book
Steve Austen has been a councillor for just 3 years and a Mayor for just 3 weeks. He agreed to lead the delegation to support the town council's policy of encouraging beneficial EU link projects.  In UH they have a Mayor with full executive powers and a workforce, including a Town Police force, at his fingertips covering everything from housing to environment to arts and culture. 

Bridgwater Town Council has an unpaid  Mayor with a limited hospitality budget and a workforce of 3. 

To make the links match up we need to include Sedgemoor District Council. On this occasion we were able to take along Estates Valuer Tim Mander , Press Officer Claire Faun and Environment boss Adrian Gardner.

Town Wall remnant world
Flying out from Gatwick to Vienna the group was met by  Karel – a man in a minibus sent by UH council, and whisked the 2 hour journey  through the Austrian Czech border lands to the heart of Moravia and UH itself. Guided by twinning officer Adela Tobolova and shadowed by International Commissar Smedley, the group set about their first priority – watching the England v Uruguay Match. 

Temperatures plummeted in  Moravia as blankets were issued on the terraces, and temperatures soared in Rio Capitalisto as our brave boys in white headed inevitably home.

Down to business and the next day we met the UH council leaders in their ornate Town Hall –and every Mayor who goes over there says “We must get something like this in Bridgwater”.  And of  course we should. UH is a historic town and proud of it’s past –even though, like Bridgwater, much of it has disappeared. Castles, fortifications, moats and gates  have all gone under the developers hammer. There  museum has an interactive computerised simulation of a walk through their city in 1670-when it was a major fortress on the border with Hungary with it’s network of Vauban glacis’ and canalised defensive ditches. I'm sure some bright spark could get a grant to do that in the Blake Museum.

Cabbage soup in abundance

Adrian Gardner is shown flood mapping data
Main visit of the day was the Bata University. Although based in nearby county town Zlin, the Uni has a faculty based in UH. In a new housing development created from a former army barracks. The Department of Crisis Management had a special interest in flood response and nuclear safety and this was the place to focus on for our links. We were shown an interesting device they had developed called ‘Drone 2’ which was basically a remote controlled flying camera that could be sent into areas of flooding and send back data that was crucial to understanding the developing situation. The key target of this link-up was to put Bata Uni together with Bridgwater College and this seems now likely with a special focus on the Energy Skills centre back in Bridgwater.

Drone 2 takes to the skies
All the Sedgemoor officers present had worked at different levels of Flood response during the recent Somerset emergencies and were able to discuss the differing approaches with authority with their Czech counterparts and take back or share valuable information and ideas.

Lovely leather trousers

The cultural event of the month in UH was the Kunovice Leto . Kunovice is one of the 3 towns that make up historical Uherske Hradiste, and this was basically a childrens folk music and dance festival. We were taken to see various floor shows of whirling folk costumed kids ensembles from all across East Europe – Romanians, Slovenians, Hungarians , Russians and at one point taken outside of the town to taste the ‘mineral waters’ in the spa town of Luhacovice. Almost being physically sick, the stout Mr Mander commented on the taste of sulphur and similarity to rotting eggs. No-one said getting healthy would be easy! For him it had the opposite effect.

Tim and Adrian in costume

Back in UH the 3rd town of the local triumvirate ‘Stare Mesto’ was suddenly the focus of attention. We watched the 6-9 year olds singing and dancing competition. The Mayor of Stare Mesto was the judge. Stare Mesto contestants were surprisingly successful in every  single category. Who could have predicted !

Debbie Harry

Our next important visit was the Akropolis family centre.  Fronted by Dagmar Mega, Akropolis have been successful in numerous EU grant projects in the past and have linked up with almost all the family centres in Bridgwater. Now we wanted to widen our link and see what else we could do. This meant bringing in Erasmus funding by co-operation with the Bridgwater College. We spoke of projects ranging from the UK tradition of volunteering –almost unknown in the Czech Rep with their history of virtual full employment, working with special needs departments especially in the area of training, and projects where we could establish work placements in each others towns. 

Working with the Akropolis was statuesque,blond, pop starlet lookalike, Marcela Bradova from nearby Kromeriz, who informed us that the first project had already been approved and so we came away with an offer of a placement for a lively young UK worker who might like to work with kids at their centre for 12 months starting in September – for more information contact us here at Bridgwater international!

Dagmar at the Akropolis centre snoezelen room
One of our most important contacts in UH is Antonin Machala who started the link back in 1991. Antonin runs the Altech factory in UH and every year his workers come with our workers on a sporting trip (exclusively football thus far) to another partner town elsewhere in Europe. This Summer we agreed to go to Sarvar in Hungary – another of our target partner towns. Watch this space.

Raving Ambassador

'Mildman' Gardner is introduced to 'Wildman' Napthine
One of our most enigmatic exports has been people. Several Bridgwater people have uprooted themselves and settled in UH. The mysterious Andrew ‘Wildman’ Napthine has been in UH since we wouldn’t let him back on the original tour bus back in 1992. A teacher and , in a strange way, something of a ‘roving ambassador’ he kept popping up. And so on the final evening we let him join us as we went to the  main Kunovice Festival itself . The highlight of the evening was the band PULS from Slovakia whose stage musical version of cymbal music took everyone by storm. Shortly before an out of control hot air balloon nearly landed on us before veering off towards a minaret. And then there were fireworks. Not the ones you might have prayed for involving Wildman and a lathe, but a genuinely startling display of pyrotechnics that lit up the Moravia plain as night fell.

Slovakian group PULS
Brush and Wash-up

There was plenty of time to consider future projects. Evening socials in wine cellars with almost everyone who dropped by picking up and playing some instrument with amazing talent and ‘light snacks’ at lunch times which turned into  diet busters for the rest of the group except me and my endless plates of salad. Without a doubt we’ll be linking Akropolis, the Bata University and Altech with Bridgwater partners through the forthcoming years and the Town Council were also especially keen on one idea to link up our police forces. An idea that found some support in the Avon and Somerset constabulary so the prospect of uniformed British police showing little old ladies across the road in UH while armed Czech response units deal with the issues in Blake Gardens might not seem so fanciful….
The delegation(s)

If it's June it must be another cultural-awareness-raising-English-language-practising-on-tour-residential

Eva samples Beer

In 1992 Bridgwater twinned with Uherske Hradiste…but it was a close run thing as at the same town the South Bohemian town of Ceske Budejovice also made a similar request. That’s how popular we were. We had of course already committed to UH so on June 18th that year we became the first British Czech post velvet revolution twinning. But that didn’t stop the boys and girls from Budvar keeping up their Bridgy link. Every year since then they’ve sent over their students on tour programmes which we’ve called ‘Practice your English in England’.  The main conspirator in all this is English teacher and anglophile Eva Kordova and this year naturally they came again. 

The easiest way to Somerset from the Czech Republic is flying from Prague to Bridgwater International Airport (Lulsgate, Bristol) – but sometimes the cheapest is Prague to one of the London airports. So this time , spotting a cheap flight to Gatwick, Eva chose that one. Which meant myself and fellow councillor Ian Tucker, who has already circumnavigated the globe  on numerous occasions as a matelot, drove up one bright Summer  morning to collect them and bring them back to the land of loveliness itself. Well, after a winter of rain a bit of sunshine was rather welcome.

Lost Czechs
Minehead and Chips

Stopping for a break at the Avebury stone circle – the only stone circle with wifi in the middle of it (c/o the pub there) we reached Somerset by mid evening. Minehead in fact. There’s a lovely youth hostel there. Badgers feast off the remnants of your evening meals, deer wander fleetingly through the forests and squirrels join you for breakfast.

That first night however we had fish and chips. That saved cooking.  And where better to eat them than on the sea wall looking directly at Port Talbot. 

Found Czechs
Dead Bohemians Ditched

The following day we sent them all off on a trek over Exmoor to Dunster –which they liked – so we thought we’d  set them an orienteering challenge and give them a few maps and loose them on the Quantocks. Which was exactly what happened. We lost them on the Quantocks.  Well it seemed a good idea on paper. Starting at Lydeard Hill and with Dead Woman’s Ditch clearly marked as a destination it just meant you had to follow the contours and you’re there. So they didn’t. They descending crow like in a straight line, which took them down into thick forest, a wooded and streamed valley  and several hours longer than we hoped.

Finally, while the Quantock ponies had almost completely eaten Ian’s minibus, they appeared from the opposite direction. Phew. Not lost after all. And what better reward than an afternoon’s shopping in Bridgwater. 

IQ levels put to the test
How do you spell France?
Next up on the British cultural tour was a pub quiz. The kids of course weren’t pub age but the ‘quiz’ is becoming a fad in modern Czecho so we thought we’d run one for them.  And to make it more interesting each of the 4 Czech teams was provided with at least one English Cultural Attache – of varying degrees of helpfulness. The Czech kids joined in enthusiastically and competitively…and in the great British spirit of things. Cheated.  Well, of course in my day we never had phone apps that could recognise the name of a tune just by humming into it… mixed feelings on that one….should people be able to use ALL modern options at hand?? Marathon runners be given Triumph Bonnevilles? Wrestlers be given chain saws??  Not sure . The Juries out. (is it eckerslike the cheating little sods).

So after a lovely traditional British chilli in pitta bread meal provided by Purple Spoons Kate Gardner (which hopefully they choked on whilst fighting back the spasms of guilt) it was off back to Minehead.

Interesting places to see as Ian prevents a child crossing

The crooks and nannies of Dorset
One of the best things about Bridgwater is how  ideal it is for visiting other places. From Bridgwater we could easily taken in Wells and Glastonbury  and even get down to the South Coast for a swim in the  (still too cold for them) English Channel as it forms the cosy Jurassic nooks and crannies of Lyme bay. The little port of Beer has a very well equipped youth hostel. And that doesn’t just mean a telly where we could watch the world cup. Although it did. And we did. A perfect self catering kitchen where we  cooked a traditional English meal of largely Mexican origins and let them wander off to Branscombe in case any ocean going cargo ships had beached and could be pillaged clean by the ‘finders keepers’ locals.

Then it was further west. A sunny drive to Plymouth, which had a nuclear submarine paying a visit. Luckily, one of ours. If the Czechs ever built any nuclear submarines – look out Slovakia!! (well, keep your eyes open for periscopes in the Danube, Bratislava maybe…)

Enter the Squirrel....
Dartmoor or less
Hotter and sunnier even was Dartmoor. A perfect place to be in gorgeous blue skied sunshine and summer warmth. Dropping the group at Postbridge, stocking up with supplies from the local shop (there is just one, and it is ‘local’ – they even slapped clotted cream on my ice cream-but don’t tell Jana) they headed off along the river Dart until they joined us drivers at the nearby (but not too near) Bellever Youth Hostel.

Bellever is a very well situated hostel right on the edge of the forest, alongside the river and slapbang in the middle of the moors. They pride themselves on their closeness to nature. They even have a ‘wildlife viewing area’ well, a ‘window’.  Ian was able to engage them in conversation for most of the night with his tales of seafaring adventure, battling the 3 nosed spiny terrorfish of Guatemala, boarding  ship to ship with cutlasses in mouth, grappling hooks tight in the rigging. Well, they didn’t know at the time it was a French cross channel ferry.

'Wildlife viewing area'
London and out

And then it was all over. Well for us anyway. We drove them up to London  (stopping at Bath en route) and left them at Holland Park – another well located hostel and the most central of the YHA stock. Good for them for the many walking tours of London they’d mapped out for themselves for the next few days.  Sadly, it’s going to be closing soon.

These cultural-awareness-English-language-practising-on-tour-residentials have been a feature of  Bridgwater International for over 20 years now and remain ongoing, open to any Nationality and a good way to get to know Britain. So diaries are open for the rest of this year , next term and 2015.