Coleshill has been twinned with Chassieu, a town in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, since 1982. Annual visits alternate. This year it is the turn of Coleshill twinners to visit their French opposite numbers. On the morning of Wednesday 20th May we fly down to Lyon and a couple of hours after leaving Birmingham Airport and England's cool unsettled weather we are being greeted by our hosts and taken, couples and singles, to their homes. The houses of Chassieu with their gently sloping pantile roofs and their rose and ochre colour-washed walls bask in the sun. The temperature is 30oC and will remain so for the duration of our stay.
Our first outing is to the Atelier de Canuts, a silk weaving mill in the neighbouring town of Vaulx-en-Velin. Our guide, Christine Dégurse, comes from a long line of weavers. She invites each of us to make a square of cloth, of our own design, on a small board over which warps of brown thread have been stretched. We weave the weft choosing colours from the bobbins scattered across the worktables. Hand weaving is very relaxing and some attractive designs are produced. Christine shows us a portrait of her mother which we take to be an old photograph but is in fact a picture woven in silk. She also introduces us to the famous Jacquard looms and we have the privilege of watching these machines as their shuttles hurtle back and forth making exquisitely patterned brocade.
Later, in the Salle Polyvalente at Chassieu, the town mayor, Alain Darlay, welcomes us and mentions the concerts that the Coleshill Band gave in the town a few weeks ago. He tells us with regret that the traffic roundabout, known as the Square de Coleshill, was recently damaged when a car ploughed across it. He reassures us that it has now been replanted and will soon look better than ever.
On Thursday we travel to the Château de Fléchères at Fareins, 40km north of Lyon. Our coach sets us down in an avenue of stately old trees. As we wait to be admitted we hear a loud noise, like the cawing of crows, which turns out to be the frogs in the moat croaking a welcome. The château was built by Jean Seve in 1636 on the ruins of a medieval fortress that guarded a ford on the Saône. Seve was mayor of Lyon and leader of the silk merchants guild. His Protestant faith influenced the design and the top floor of the house - for no one should be above God - was constructed as a church for local Hugenots. Recently the house has been saved from demolition and the decorations and furnishings are being restored. Our guide shows us an exquisite parquet floor that is soon to be reinstalled. It had mysteriously disappeared and would have been lost forever had it not been spotted in a magazine article describing the home of a Belgian antique dealer.
We have lunch nearby at the Ferme-auberge de la Bicheronne where tables are set beneath the trees. All the food on the menu is locally sourced. First a tasty sausage in brioche, next dauphiné potatoes and guinea fowl, then cheese and finally baked alaska, served with wine and coffee to follow.
With lunch taking two and a half hours there is little of the afternoon left for the next item on the itinerary, a visit to Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne. We stroll past the shops and half-timbered facades of the town centre but as it is Ascension Day the shops are closed, the streets are deserted and the inhabitants, apart from a lively group of youngsters break dancing around a CD player in the old covered market, are enjoying a siesta.
On Friday we journey beyond the Monts-du-Lyonnais, the hills that lie to the west of Lyon, to the hat museum at Chazelle-sur-Lyon. Our guide, a stocky man wearing an apron and a black hat (all the employees at the museum wear hats) tells us that it takes the fur from five rabbits to make one felt hat. Amazing! and there is another amazing thing about making a felt hat: once the coarser fibres have been removed, the fur is formed into a floppy cone five times as big as the finished hat. Our guide, grinning and joking, shows us how, over the course of ten days, the cone is rolled, wetted, rubbed, wrung out, sprayed with acid, dried, shrunk, dyed, shaped, shaved, moulded, brushed and trimmed until it's ready to wear. After learning how hats are made, we see the museum's comprehensive collection of headgear and then visit the shop where, for 99, one can buy a hat made just as our guide had described.
We are taken to lunch at La Neylière, a large house near Pomeys, that was once the place where Catholic Marist missionaries studied and took their vows. Here we are treated to another generous lunch after which there is the chance to see the interesting collection of objects brought back by missionaries from their early travels to Oceania.
At the farewell party in the Salle Polyvalente on Saturday the evening begins with folksongs and dances from the far corners of the Republic after which dinner is served. Between courses an accordionist plays music for dancing. Shortly before midnight, the mayor, Alain Darlay, takes the microphone and in his farewell speech reminds us of the forthcoming European elections and that our twinning is a part of a movement in which 27 nations agree to forget past differences and to strive for future peace and solidarity. Malcolm Butler, the new chairman of the Coleshill Twinning Association, thanks his French counterpart Aline Duret, the members of the Dialogues Chassieu-Coleshill and the Mayor for hosting us and for a most enjoyable itinerary. To mark the occasion he presents her with a photo-montage of Coleshill. In reply Aline Duret says that, despite the English not liking frogs legs and despite the French inability to appreciate our jelly, the bond between our two towns is as strong as ever and continues to bring great pleasure.
On Sunday afternoon we fly home saying it all went too quickly.
If you would like to know more about the twinning please contact Anita Butler on 01675 470443.