THE Twin Town Challenge began in grand style on Friday when 50 competing cars lined up along the driveway at Cornbury Park, the imposing stately home near Charlbury.
And as they roared out of the gates on their way to famous British racetrack Brands Hatch, in Kent, there was palpable excitement in the air.
The teams were faced with the challenge of taking cars which cost just £500 on the 1,000-mile journey to Witney’s twin town Le Touquet, on the northern coast of France, tackling 12 challenges along the way.
The event attracted a host of sponsors, including Oxfordshire firms Wychwood Brewery, STL Communications, Gamma, Brethertons and others. Money was raised through corporate sponsorship and the £995 entry fee each team paid to take part.
So far the event has raised more than £80,000 and that is set to be boosted when the cars are auctioned off tonight in Witney.
Some teams, including “Mafia”, who were dressed as mobsters, were more confident than others. After arriving at Brands Hatch for the slalom and blind drive challenges, David Maundrell, from Wantage, said: “Our car is a real beauty and she’s got seats as smooth as a baby’s bottom. We got it for £200, a true bargain. There’s no air conditioning or airbags, but its got its MOT and that’s all we need.”
The slalom challenge saw teams tackle a timed obstacle course, with racetrack employee Steve Howard revealing the game was rigged from the start.
He said: “We wanted to give them a challenge and watching some of them struggle round has been fantastic.
“They might not realise, but it’s actually impossible to make some of the turns without reversing.
“But some teams took it pretty seriously and asked if they could strip the car.
“I’ve never seen anything like this event before, we’re considering entering a car of our own if there’s another one.”
Driving blind was one of the challenges faced by drivers at Brands Hatch
The blind drive, which saw blindfolded drivers tackle another obstacle course, was more varied. Most teams achieved times between four and six minutes, but the Super Mario Tarts clocked in at a rapid one minute and 14 seconds. After a victory lap of Brands Hatch the teams were off again for the long drive to Le Touquet, with many arriving in the evening. They were welcomed at a civic reception hosted by deputy mayor Bernard Baudoux at the town hall.
He hailed the charity event as a landmark in the relations between Witney and its twin town.
Mr Baudoux said: “We would love it to become a regular event.
“One thing we are particularly happy about is being able to share in raising the money for charity, it is a really important partnership. I’ve worked on the twinning committee for five years and this is the best thing it’s organised.”
The charity of the hour was SpecialEffect, based in Charlbury, which helps adapt video games systems for disabled people.
Liz Watson from Charlbury taking part in a car booty challenge at the Croix-en-Ternois circuit
Chief executive and founder Dr Mick Donegan said: “What we wanted most for this event was to echo what we try and do as a charity, which is make things fun.
“Instead of just asking for money, we were able to give something back and that makes a big difference.
“The reason we do what we do is because although there was no shortage of tools to help disabled people communicate or learn, there was a big lack of technology which had been adapted just to help them have fun. Many people who have severe disabilities can lose opportunities to have fun and compete independently, so it is so important to give them that.”
An example, he said, was a young man who lost the ability to use a video games controller because of spinal muscular atrophy.
But the charity created a special interface which now allows him to play games such as Grand Theft Auto. A video of him using the system has received more than 45,000 views on YouTube.
Dr Donegan added: We are getting more requests for help every day, which is why we need this extra support.”
Prime Minister and MP for Witney David Cameron also paid tribute to the charity in a a pre-recorded video message at the event. He told the audience: “You should all be extremely proud of what you’re doing. Have a great time, I hope the cars hold out.”
After the evening of meeting French officials, teams set out the next day to Le Mans, the home of Europe’s famous 24-hour race.
On Sunday teams raced south to the Croix en Ternois racetrack, challenged on the way to collect a selection of items for the “car booty” challenge. That was followed with a wheel-change competition and a set of laps.
A James Bond themed night out in a crowded Le Touquet
Then it was back to Le Touquet for the last night, a James Bond-inspired party in the centre of town that played on its history with author Ian Fleming, who often visited the town.
Teams had to photograph as many Bond references as possible, before arriving at the event for a final charity auction.
The civic reception the fundraisers were invited to at the town’s Hotel de Ville, hosted by deputy mayor Bernard Baudoux
Event mastermind Brendon Cross, managing director of STL Communications, said: “It has been a fantastic weekend and the generosity of everybody who took part has really shown.”
How Specialeffect changes lives
Chloe Streeter, six, and Ella Mitchell, eight, both have neurological conditions which restrict them from taking part in many physical activities with friends.
Chloe, left, uses a walking frame and Ella, right, is wheelchair-bound.
But technical experts at SpecialEffect adapted Kinect movement-detecting technology used with the Xbox video gaming console so they could play together.
Ella’s dad, John Mitchell, said the change it had brought to his daughter’s life was hard to describe.
The 41-year-old said: “She is just one happy little girl. When she finds out that because of the technology she can do something, she gets this massive smile on her face. I don’t know if it could ever have happened if we didn’t know about SpecialEffect.”
The name's Touquet, Le Touquet
Famous British author Ian Fleming, the creator of fictional spy James Bond, used to visit Le Touquet often and owned a home in the town.
In the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, the MI6 agent stays in Royale-les-Eaux, a town supposedly south of Le Touquet.
Fleming drew inspiration for the casino of the book’s title from the one next to the Palais d’Europe conference centre in the town. A portrait of the author is displayed in the Westminster hotel, which has also been visited by Bond actors Sir Roger Moore and Sean Connery.
- Town twinning started after the Second World War to rebuild friendships, as part of efforts to avoid another war and create a more unified Europe.
Witney is twinned with Le Touquet, in France, and Unterhaching, in Germany. It has been twinned with Le Touquet, the main destination of the Twin Town Challenge, since 1988.
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