Monday, June 29, 2015

A Respite From The Battlefield: Tea At The Talbot House

Children receive their own
tablet to guide them through
the grounds
War is ugly. Regardless of the era, fighting day in and day out is a grueling proposition that quickly takes its toll on the soldiers in the field. Any respite from the fighting is welcome and during the bloody days of World War I, the Talbot House served as just such a refuge for British soldiers on the front line. The Belgian front, and the area called Flanders Field, saw some of the worst fighting during the War but the tiny town of Poperinge, located hear the French border in the far western reaches of Belgium, escaped relatively unscathed. Although it is adjacent to Ypres, Poperinge was part of the unoccupied region of Belgium and thus served as the hub for British forces. And within this pocket of calm sat, and still sits, the Talbot House, a refuge that is referred to as "Every man's house".

Militaries are perhaps one of the last bastions where rank clearly matters; the division between the enlisted and the officers is set in stone with fraternization between the ranks discouraged if not outright prohibited. Traditionally each group has their own pay scales, housing and social clubs.The Talbot House, however, broke with this tradition and served as a respite for all soldiers, regardless of rank, thus getting its moniker.

The Talbot House was built in the 18th Century and was the home of a wealthy banking family before it was hit by a German shell, forcing the family to flee to a safer location. The British army rented the house as an alternative to more controversial respite sites in the town. Talbot House as it is known today was founded in 1915 by two Army chaplains, who for the next three years welcomed soldiers into their little piece of calm between the storms. They set about creating a homey atmosphere, complete with a tranquil garden, lounging spaces, a spacious dining hall and clean sleeping quarters in which soldiers could relax.

Sampling the tea. The verdict?
Today visitors are welcome to explore the exhibits, grounds and partake in the English tradition of tea in what is the original mess hall. The museum is not large but it is filled with interesting and moving displays that provide visitors with a glimpse of what life was like for soldiers enjoying a brief R&R. And this museum welcomes the youngest guests with their own electronic tablet that guides them through the grounds on a type of scavenger hunt. You can look through numerous photographs, documents and relics from the war and visit the former bath house which now hosts temporary exhibits. During our visit we saw an exhibit paying tribute to military chaplains, both allies and foes, from the Great War to today's ongoing fighting in the Middle East. And every guest is invited to sit in the dining hall and partake in a cup of tea served by the jolly hosts. In true British form, the tea is steeped from loose leaves and served in china cups around communal tables. After tea you can take in the ornate details of the sitting rooms then climb the very steep stairs to see the sleeping quarters and the top floor chapel. (A small number of rooms are available for overnight accommodations although a peek into them revealed rather narrow and uncomfortable looking beds). But my favorite part of the museum is without doubt, the garden. Small but well laid out, the garden has  water features, benches and lots of shaded grassy spaces that invite relaxation and meditation. It is easy to imagine soldiers sitting and laying in the walled garden and momentarily trying to forget about the outside world. And had it not been for the rain, we too would have sat in the garden to contemplate.

So when you are in this corner of Belgium take time to visit the Talbot House. It is a tribute to war unlike any war museum I have visited. Stroll the gardens, explore the house and enjoy a cup of tea. If you are of British heritage, or know someone who is, search through the database to see if your relatives were one of the thousands who sought refuge there during the War.

If you go:
The Talbot House
Gasthuisstraat 431-B 8970
Poperinge, BELGIUM
+32 57 333 228

Open Tuesday-Sunday 10.00-17.30
Adults 8 Euro, under 7 FREE

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