The Twin Cities of Oxford, Cambridge and London
The history of twinning towns dates back to the 9th century, but the practice really took off after the Second World War.
With deep divisions between countries in need of healing in an increasingly globalised world, twinning towns in countries that had formerly been enemies was seen as a way of bringing people together. Possibly the most famous example is the twinning of Coventry with Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Dresden, all of which had been very heavily bombed during the war.
While Oxford and Cambridge (unlike London) survived the Second World War mostly unscathed, they joined in with the twinning efforts, in particular by connecting up with other famous university cities around the world. Twinning is more than just a symbolic act; particularly when travel between countries was more difficult and knowing someone at your destination more valuable, it meant the establishment of school exchanges, pen pal links, tourist visits and even some transnational marriages. More recently, it’s been used to help encourage business partnerships and trade. One charming example of a town partnership was that of Dull (Scotland) and Boring (Oregon), which, while too different in size to be officially twinned, have nonetheless been partnered since 2012.
Today, Cambridge has two twin cities, Oxford has five, and London has no fewer than ten. Here’s where you can find them, and how they compare.
Twinned since 1957, Cambridge and Heidelberg are a natural fit. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, and the University of Heidelberg in 1386. Both boast beautiful, historic architecture, with the grand Heidelberg castle dominating its city, and tourists flocking to see the elegant King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. And while many students are attracted to the Hogwarts-like nature of Cambridge’s colleges, JK Rowling must have decided that Heidelberg fit well into her magical universe: it has its own Quidditch team, the Heidelberg Harriers, mentioned in the book Quidditch Through the Ages.
Cambridge and Szeged don’t seem that much alike; Szeged, as the third-largest city in Hungary, is rather larger and significantly grander than its fenland twin, whose charm is more quaint than opulent. While Cambridge’s narrow medieval streets have survived until today, Szeged was almost completely destroyed in a flood in 1879, leading to it being rebuilt on an imposing scale appropriate to a jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
But the connection between the two cities is logical: Szeged is home to one of the top two universities in Hungary, and Cambridge is home to one of the top two universities in Britain.
The twinning of Oxford and Bonn took place in 1947, making it one of the very first post-war twinnings to take place between Britain and Germany. A particular feature of this connection is musical: choirs and orchestras from each city frequently perform in the other. Bonn, as the birthplace of Beethoven, is noted for its music. Both Oxford and Bonn have served as de facto capital cities: Oxford during the Civil War, when Charles II’s court fled from London (which was a strongly Parliamentarian city) to Oxford’s Royalist sanctuary; and Bonn from 1949 to 1990, when Germany was divided into East and West.
Grenoble is another city with an ancient university (founded in 1339, compared to Oxford’s so-long-ago-we’ve-forgotten) but that’s where the similarities between the two end. Grenoble is vastly bigger than Oxford, with a population of over half a million, driven by an economic boom based on research and technology. While Oxford is set in rolling hills, Grenoble sits nestled in the Alps – which means that Oxford doesn’t have hills high enough to adopt one of Grenoble’s other features, a cable car system leading to the Bastille fortress, which overlooks the city. The city itself is flat, so Grenoble and Oxford share one more feature: lots and lots of cyclists.
Leiden is the city with which Oxford has been twinned the longest; their partnership dates back all the way to 1946. Visiting Leiden from Oxford or Oxford from Leiden feels remarkably familiar: they’re roughly the same size, with pretty buildings, endless cyclists, attractive walkways, a medieval university, and a location a train ride away from the capital city. The cities hold two official exchanges every year, in May and November, for the remembrance days of their respective countries. Alongside Oxford’s other twin cities, they have also collaborated in a conference on flood risk management – an area where the Dutch have particular expertise.
Home to the second oldest university in Central America (founded 1813), León continues the trend in Oxford’s twin cities. The second largest city in Nicaragua, it has a population of 200,000, somewhat higher than Oxford’s circa 150,000. Like Oxford, León is known for its architecture, in particular its range of beautiful churches in the colonial baroque style. Unlike Oxford, León is in the vicinity of several volcanoes, and Oxford has helped the city by raising money for aid after natural disasters including volcanic eruptions and hurricanes. The two cities also share a tradition of poetry; many of Nicaragua’s most famous poets have called León home, just as Oxford is known for its literature.
While Perm does have a university, this city is better known for its ballet school than for its academic credentials. Skaters, dancers and singers feature as heavily in its list of notable residents as writers and politicians do in Oxford. It’s the most easterly city in Europe, on the banks of the river Kama, with a population of just under a million. There’s quite a contrast between the rolling hills of the Cotswolds, where Oxford is located, and the less hospitable landscape of the Ural mountains near Perm. But just as Oxford features in a host of novels, Perm was also immortalised in the novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, where it appears as ‘Yuriatin’ – just as Oxford became ‘Christminster’ in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
It makes logical sense that London is mostly twinned with other world-leading capital cities, and Beijing is a great example of this. After all, it’s from Beijing that the Olympics were passed so successfully to London, from 2008 to 2012. When Beijing was first settled is lost in time; homo erectus skeletons have been found in nearby caves, dating back a quarter of a million years. It’s been the political centre of China for 800 years, nearly as long as London has held that position in the UK, and now has a population that is a little over double that of London.
Germany’s capital city and London’s capital city have a lot in common, for all that the latter is nearly three times the size of the former. Both are socially and culturally distinct from the rest of their countries – in both cases being younger, more racially diverse and more left-wing – and sometimes find themselves at odds with the rest of the country as a result. In Berlin, this is perhaps even more marked than in London, as the city has developed a lively counter-culture since reunification, while London is a little more staid.
Colombia’s capital city is quite different from London – for instance, it’s 2,640 metres above sea level, in comparison with London, which is between 35 and 220m above sea level. Londoners might well be jealous of their Colombian partners soon, as sea level rises risk giving the British city wet feet at high tide. Like London, however, Bogota enjoys myths related to gold: its airport is named after the mythical El Dorado, the city of gold which some explorers believed to be in Colombia. One of the most enduring stories about London is that of its mayor Dick Whittington, who travelled to London from far away in the mistaken belief that the streets were paved with gold.
Another capital city, Moscow is a good bit bigger than London, with nearly 17 million people within its urban area. While the population of Russia overall is falling, Moscow, like London, continues to grow. Moscow is also a little bit grander than London – compare the imposing fortress of the Kremlin with the Houses of Parliament, St Basil’s Cathedral with St Paul’s, or the enormous Red Square with the more modest proportions of Trafalgar. The twinning hasn’t been without controversy, however; many prominent Londoners have called for the partnership to be ended in response to anti-gay legislation passed by the Russian Parliament.
New York City, USA
One of the rare exceptions to the rule about capital cities twinning with other capital cities, New York makes a lot more sense as a twinning partner for London than the USA’s capital, Washington DC. The population of New York proper is almost the exact same as London, though the surrounding areas are more densely populated. Unlike London’s tendency to favour low-rise buildings, New York is famous for its skyscrapers, many of which have been the tallest building in the world at one point or another. It has more than 50 skyscrapers over 200m tall. Perhaps it’s envy of the skyline of its twin that have led London authorities to start approving more high-rise buildings in recent years.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The capital city of Malaysia is much smaller than London, with 1.7 million people in the city itself and just over 7 million in Greater Kuala Lumpur – but you wouldn’t think that to look at its skyline. The vast Art Deco-inspired Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004. Another landmark is Kuala Lumpur railway station, built during the British colonial era and representing an elegant combination of Eastern and Western styles. With average temperatures above 25 degrees every month of the year, Kuala Lumpur also has a climate many Londoners would envy.
The capital city of Chile is at a low elevation compared to Bogotá, but it’s still 520m above sea level, sheltered in a valley surrounded with towering snowy peaks – the Chilean Coastal Range to the west and the Andes to the east. These mountain ranges exist because Santiago sits at the boundary of two tectonic plates, on the Pacific Ring of Fire, so the city is at constant risk of earthquakes. Like London, much of its civic architecture is neoclassical and neogothic.
Though Beijing is China’s capital, Shanghai is its largest city, with more than 34 million people in its metropolitan area – that’s more than half of the population of the UK in a single city. Like London, it’s a financial hub, and it’s another city with a famous skyline, with the Oriental Pearl Tower as perhaps its most distinctive landmark. It’s also home to the world’s busiest container port, having overtaken Singapore in 2010. But unfortunately, one other feature that the city shares with London is that its tremendous industrial output has resulted in smogs, though the city’s many parks offer some respite.
This is another controversial twinning, given the political tensions between the UK and Iran. But politics aside, the two cities do have a fair bit in common – not only the usual similarities of size and national significance. Just as the Tower of London is home to the Crown Jewels, so Tehran hosts the Iranian Imperial Crown Jewels, which may well be the largest jewel collection in the world (don’t tell the Queen). And admirers of St Paul’s might also wish to see the stunning dome of Tehran’s Shah Mosque.
Finally, Japan’s capital city rounds off London’s collection of virtually all the best-known cities in the world; Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney may be wondering what they did wrong, or perhaps Sadiq Khan is on the phone to their mayors right now. Or perhaps it’s themed around the Olympics, which went from Beijing, to London, to Rio de Janeiro (also due a partnering phone call any day now) to arrive in Tokyo in 2020. In Tokyo, skyscrapers sit alongside national parks, and like many of London’s twins though not London itself, is surrounded by mountains and subject to earthquakes. It’s also arguably the most populous city in the world, with nearly 38 million people in its urban area – making London’s 10 million or so seem rather small.
Image credits: heildelberg; szeged; bonn; grenoble; leiden; léon; perm; beijing; berlin; bogotá; moscow; new york; kuala lumpur;santiago; shanghai; tehran; tokyo; featured image.