Tallinn's unlikely twin
By Abdul Turay
First published November 2008

The idea behind twinning is that two vaguely similar cities exchange cultural links for their mutual benefit. Warsaw is twinned with Coventry – both cities were flattened by the Luftwaffe, after all. Tartu, the famous Estonian university town, is twined with Uppsala which is the home to the oldest university in Scandinavia.

And Tallinn… Tallinn is twinned with Dartford. Come again, Dartford!

For those of you who don’t know Britain well, Dartford is a dull dormitory suburb on the back end of London. Dartford is in the county of Kent, the so-called “garden of England”. Technically it is both a town and a borough , but it is not a city since it doesn’t have a Royal charter to call itself that.

Say the word “Dartford” to most Britons, and they will answer back “tunnel”. The Dartford crossing is both a tunnel and a bridge. It links up Kent with London both above and below the river Thames.

When City Paper called up the town’s marketing people to find a reason why anybody would visit this little corner of England the responses ranged from nervous pauses to sheer panic.

“I am not quite sure why anyone would visit Dartford…but Kent is a beautiful part of the country,” said a spokesperson from Visit Kent, the regional tourism board, after much hesitation.

“Em… Jane Austen stayed here [once],” said Mike Still assistant manager of Dartford Museum.

Still pointed out that Dartford is a historic town. The trouble is the town was heavily bombed during the Blitz and much of historical Dartford doesn’t exist anymore

“It doesn’t look medieval. In fact it looks like a new town,” Kerry Bishop, who works for the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel and Bar, admitted.

Finally Tom Courtney, marketing director of Dartford Borough Council, came up with a good reason why someone might want to visit Dartford.

“It is quite well placed. You can pretty much get to Paris in the same time it takes to get to the other side of London,” Courtney said.

Courtney was referring to the Ebbsfleet link which opened in 2007. The link can take passengers to the centre of London in 15 minutes and to Paris or Brussels in under two hours. So it’s not just the tunnel. Dartford is an all purpose transit point. So it seems the only reason why anyone would go to Dartford is if they were on their way to some place else.

Which begs the question, how on earth did this nowhere, this non-descript place, this glorified junction, this place even salespeople can’t sell; end up being twinned with a world heritage city, the beautiful medieval and dynamic city of Tallinn?

Well maybe the answer lies in the spirit of the people of the two towns.

Both Tallinn and Dartford suffer from misconception about their potential. That was especially true in the early 90s when the twinning happened. Tallinn was once a run down, post-Soviet and impoverished but its people had aspirations of being something better. The people in Dartford likewise hoped for the future. Dartford is not exactly metropolitan but like a lot of small towns on the fringes of London its people are not parochial, in fact they are quite urbane and forward thinking. There were plans to build a university with a focus on IT. Both Dartfordians and Tallinners saw technology as the key to greater prosperity and a higher profile in the world. Sadly the university never happened in Dartford, though Tallinn has had more success in becoming a technological centre.

Dartford has other attractions. Despite having been almost bombed almost out of existence 60 years ago, it still does have the odd historical building. There are churches that date back to the Middle Ages and a house that Henry VIII bought for Anne Boleyn, whom he later beheaded. Richard Trevithick, the inventor of the steam locomotive, was born there – or maybe he just passed through. No-one seems exactly sure.

The twinning has subsequently dwindled into a junket for municipal bigwigs. “Most senior people have been there (Tallinn),” Courtney said, adding that he hasn’t been there, maybe because he isn’t considered important enough.

Where the two places share a heart is in the rampant consumerism. Tallinners like to shop, and the Dartford borough boasts the Bluewater shopping centre. This hideous beast is, to paraphrase Baron Munchausen:“a shopping complex of such monstrous proportions that you could not, even with a telescope, see the end of it.”

Bluewater is terrifying to every man who ever hated shopping and paradise to every woman who ever loved it. Its 154,000 square metres make it the fourth largest shopping centre in Europe. It employs 20,000 people and has every type of shop imaginable.

So that’s Tallinn’s sister town: a train station, a nice park, people who are full of hope for the future, and the mother of all shopping centres.

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