They may live 600 miles away, but a lot of us in the Spalding area consider them friends.
They are the citizens of Speyer, the cathedral town in south-west Germany that has been twinned with this district for the past 60 years.
During those years, we have sung with them, played various sports with them, and introduced the German townsfolk to some of our quaint English foods and customs.
What we haven’t done, in the main, is learn to speak their language because, as an early (unnamed) chronicler of the twinning arrangement wrote: “Any organisation contemplating a link should not be put off by the language barrier, as most Germans learn English as a second language.”
Having said that, the link has been enthusiastically supported by some of South Holland’s schools, including Spalding Grammar School, Spalding High School, and the former Gleed Girls’ School, so there has been an exchange of education, pen-pals formed, and culture shared during repeat twinning visits.
Over the 60 years, exchanges have also taken place between young people keen to gain work experience in businesses in a foreign country, as well as footballers, Round Tablers, choirs, swimmers, morris dancers, gymnastics clubs, hockey players, bands, farming families, churches and sailing clubs, to name a few.
Visits have gone both ways for important occasions, such as the official opening of South Holland Centre in Spalding, and for the German Christmas Market, at which the “English tea and home made jam and marmalade they brought with them were soon sold out” at the pop up tearoom created on Speyer’s bandstand.
Lots of individuals have made the journey each year, many of them having made firm friends in their twin town and happy to travel independent of the official twinning visit.
The Friends of Speyer chairman for the past ten or 12 years Angela Newton sees this as the future of the twinning link, as she says this year’s visit to Speyer, in July, will be the last organised as a group.
Naturally, over the years people at both ends of the link have grown older, and some now struggle to make the long coach journey.
Angela says: “Unfortunately, there have been some bereavements and other families have indicated they are getting too old to get involved, so we are feeling we won’t do things as a group.”
Angela and her husband Alan are among those who will continue to make regular visits to what have become almost life-long friends in Speyer.
The couple’s involvement with Speyer goes back to 1981 when Bob Cole, then secretary of South Holland District Council, which was at that time responsible for the link, appealed for more host families in Spalding.
Their visitor that year was Wolfgang Shultz, who remained involved in twinning until the last six years or so.
Angela recalls: “He hardly spoke any English and I don’t speak German, but with a lot of arm waving and help from translation books, we managed.”
However, it was in 1991 that Angela met the German woman and her family who became firm friends, Marie-Luisa Kowalke, her partner Deiter and their son Gustav, now 19.
Angela says: “Alan and I will certainly continue to do an exchange with our family, and we think some of the others will too.”
Angela looks back regretfully to the time in around 2001 when the decision was taken by Coun Gary Porter as leader of South Holland District Council that the link would no longer be officially supported.
From the outset, it was an official twinning arrangement, with dignitaries from the former Spalding Urban District Council travelling in 1956 to Speyer to meet their counterparts in Germany.
At that point, twinning between British and German towns was encouraged, says Angela, “to foster better relationships with people in Germany after the war”.
In Angela’s experience, being involved has certainly had that affect on her family.
She says: “I suppose it has opened up our eyes to how things are in another country. Marie-Luisa’s family came from East Germany so she tells us her memories of being a child in East Germany.”
Traditionally, our council hosted a civic function for the Germans’ biennial visit to Spalding, and Angela says our visitors were always “quite taken” by our organisational skills.
“Nobody organises receptions like we do,” says Angela, “but that’s since petered out because the decision was taken that the council was not going to support the link any more. So we have been completely self-funding since then.”
By contrast, the civic hosts on the other side of the Channel have continued to support the twinning link.
Ultimately, the twinning arrangement has depended on the hospitality of people in both towns, and this has continued as far as possible to this day.
For instance, Angela says the late Francis Hanson and his wife Barbara were really good Friends of Speyer, and even when it got to the point that Francis was no longer able to travel, would host the German coach driver, Andrew, something Barbara did last year after Francis’s death.
Angela regrets that the link on both sides has struggled to attract new people into twinning.
She adds: “It’s not that people are not hospitable. Everyone involved pushes the boat out and has a good time. We have heard from the clerk in Speyer saying he is pleased to hear the families themselves intend to carry on the link.”
Speyer will once more be extending its hospitality to people from Spalding and the wider district this summer.
The final trip organised by The Friends of Speyer will take place on July 6. It will last for six days with an over-night stop in Belgium, and stops planned at other places of interest en route.
Around 26 or 28 people already have their names down to go, but Angela says there are seats still available if anyone would like to join them.
The cost is about £250, but contact Angela for full details on email@example.com or phone her on 07939 559764.