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Sombre serenity

25 January 2013

Talbot House, in Poperinge, Flanders, extends a warm welcome, and space for reflection, to those experiencing the battlefields at Ypres, discovers Stephen Cooper


Welcome: Talbot House is still open to guests, and serves as a poignant reminder of the past

Welcome: Talbot House is still open to guests, and serves as a poignant reminder of the past

TO VISIT the battlefields of Ypres today is a shock. Place names that once resonated with horror, such as Passchendaele, are now destination-boards on village buses. The wounded landscape of mud and shattered trees has been reclaimed by nature, and massive shell-craters are now tranquil willow-hung pools.

I visited to research a book, to find men from one rugby club who never came home. I find them; but, by resting my head at Talbot House, I also find an altogether different place of healing and reflection.

Today, those, like me, in search of traces of the first great cataclysm of the past century, need to look hard - and need a guide. There are reminders of the sacrifice and slaughter in those quiet cemeteries, at every turn of the road. But, even here, the sadness is matched by the serenity and beauty of the manicured lawns, vibrant flowers, and rows of white headstones.

They are places of pilgrimage, of reflection, but also of optimism: nature and the human spirit have risen again from the worst hell on earth.

THE name of Ypres, in Belgium, is indelibly stamped by war. Over four years, from 1914 to 1918, the city stood at the heart of a defiant salient on the Western Front that stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland. In the Flanders levels, it was overlooked by artillery, and pulverised by constant fire; the slaughter on both sides was unimaginable. Ypres offered no hiding place from the shells.

To preserve the morale of the men who endured the fighting, they were marched eight miles further west, away from the guns, for rest and recuperation.

The small town that became the main British refuge and place of sanity was Poperinge. Wartime "Pop" was swelled by a quarter of a million British soldiers on precious relief from the frontline trenches, looking for sleep, eggs and fried potatoes, beer, and women. Although less dangerous than the front line, life was hardly less raucous.

Today, this pretty town is still famous for hops and beer, but is quiet to the point of sleepiness. Not far from its main square, which bustles only on market Fridays, is the same haven that men sought almost 100 years ago: Talbot House. Today's traveller can also be grateful for its welcoming embrace.

Known then to soldiers as "Toc H", in signallers' Morse code, Talbot House was founded by Chaplain Philip "Tubby" Clayton (Feature, 12 November 2010), and named after Gilbert Talbot, who was killed in July 1915. It is the spiritual home of the worldwide Toc H movement.

Then, it was a civilising refuge where grateful men waiting for leaving trains left their rank at the door along with their cap, obedient to a sign that ordered: "Abandon rank all ye who enter here." This was - as a surviving sign proclaims - "Every Man's Club". Here, with a bed and a dry blanket (but no sheets), a bath, and a hot meal, they could become human again.

AFTER the war, Talbot House closed, but it reopened as a guesthouse for pilgrims and tourists in 1931. Most poignantly, you can sleep in the original rooms. It is rare to spend a night in such history. The rooms are clean and comfortable - but don't expect luxury. There are no slick receptionists, but charming volunteer wardens offer an endless flow of tea, home-baked cakes, and conversation.

It is less a hotel than a community coming together in a sanctuary of calm. We sit and tell our stories: why we have come, what we have found, and how it has affected us. The barriers of difference between us vanish. From one wall, the life-size faces in a huge photograph, of the same room in 1917, watch us in silent approval.

Clayton's framed wit adorns the walls: "Don't judge a man by his umbrella - it may not be his"; and, more poignantly to those who returned to the trenches, perhaps never to return: "Smile! Later today you won't feel like it."

The black humour is very British, but there is an underlying reminder of homely normality: "If you are in the habit of spitting at home, please spit here." Signed "P.B.C.", these messages are also on the souvenir postcards given as a parting gift to every guest.

There is an intimate museum attached to the house, which even has a restored concert hall, where the troops would have laughed at Charlie Chaplin and enjoyed the "Fancies" concert parties. But Talbot House is a living museum, with rooms as they once were, with period newspapers, and photos of the era to prove it.

WARTIME letters tell of the joy that men found in the garden. But the best experience is reserved for overnight guests: once daytime visitors have departed, I climb the steep Jacob's-ladder staircase, alone, to the upper room. It was converted into a chapel, in 1915, by soldiers of the Queen's Westminster Rifles, and 800 wartime confirmations took place there.

In this hushed shrine are the most touching personal relics: "Around our altar gradually were gathered many memorial gifts, and many still more sacred associations," Clayton wrote. The objects left here by soldiers were taken to London for safekeeping in 1918, and returned later to create this unique collection.

We all have some family connection with the First World War: Talbot House can bring it alive. If your stay is anything like mine, it will be a visit to remember.

Stephen Cooper is the author of The Final Whistle: The Great War in fifteen players (History Press, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-7524-7935-4).



DFDS Seaways offers crossings from Dover to Dunkerque, an hour's drive from Ypres, from £39 per car and four passengers. Contact: 0871 574 7235; dfdsseaways.co.uk. Eurostar to Brussels from £69; the ticket is then valid on trains to Ypres and Poperinge. Contact: 08432 186 186; eurostar.com. Talbot House, €36/£32pp for a double with breakfast. Contact: 0032 5733 3228; www.talbothouse.be.



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