Talbot House
Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson

  • Job: Freelance travel writer and author of Flanders: The Bradt Travel Guide
  • Favorite destination: Belgium
  • Likes:Travel writer, editor, broadcaster, photographer
In this month's blog post, Emma enjoys a real English Tea and discovers 'Life behind the Front' in Flanders Fields' cosiest museum: Talbot House.

October

"Never judge a man by his umbrella; it might not be his", reads the framed browning sign above the door. I giggle quietly to myself. They’re the words of jovial Reverend Philip Clayton – aka ‘Tubby’ – an Australian priest who set up this bed-and-breakfast in Poperinge – nicknamed ‘Pops’ by soldiers – with friend, and chaplain, Neville Talbot during World War I. They named it after Neville’s brother, Gilbert, who died fighting in 1915.
Tubby had visited the ‘slums’ (trenches) several times and had seen first hand the unspeakable horrors soldiers faced, so he established Talbot House as a place of ‘light, warmth and laughter,’ where the men could get an undisturbed night’s sleep and try to shrug off the stresses of war for a few hours. Here, everyone was equal: another sign reads ‘All rank abandon ye who enter here.’

Talbot House is unlike any other museum I’ve visited in Belgium. Carefully preserved, but still brimming with life; it’s as if the soldiers just stepped out for the day. In the Chaplain’s Room, a gramophone needle sits poised over a record; black-and-white memento photographs are haphazardly pinned to the pink floral wallpaper; and a coffee mug stands beside a newspaper, ready to be sipped from.

Downstairs, hanging beside the visitor’s book, are typed up yellowing pages taken from Friendship’s Corner – a noticeboard where soldiers would leave cards or notes in envelopes asking others if they knew of a friend’s whereabouts. I trace my finger over the faded text and try to picture the faces behind the messages.

Hanging by the entrance is a map of West Flanders. Poperinge, Ieper and the Western Front line are covered in brown smudges – the result of thousands of soldiers’ muddy fingerprints pointing to where they were stationed. This small detail shrinks the distance between them and me and I feel a lump rise in my throat.

Upstairs, I find the General’s Room. It was famous for being the only room in the house with proper bedsheets – a luxury that cost five francs and was the prize of many a card game. I peer into the narrow room and run my eyes slowly over the single iron bedstead, wooden chest of drawers and lonesome wooden chair. It’s so spartan and I feel spoilt when I think of my bed back home.

I climb the steep spindly stairs to the roof, which was converted into a makeshift chapel. I sit on one of the simple wooden benches and look at the red-drape altar. It’s believed Tubby baptized 50 men, performed over 800 confirmations and delivered communion to tens of thousands of soldiers beneath these eaves.

On my way out, I pass another of Tubby’s beloved adages hanging in the main hall. It reads: ‘If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, please spit here.’ And that’s just what he provided: a much-needed home away from home, filled with good humour and small comforts amid the unthinkable violence of war that raged just 12 miles to the east.

Info

Find more information about this visitor centre and museum located in the centre of Flanders fields, in Poperinge, here.

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