This weekend I made my first visit of the year to Flanders for some quiet time on the Old Front Line and an overnight stay at Talbot House.
After a bitterly cold day out visiting the silent cities, we were welcomed at Toc H by the warden Joe, and what a warm welcome it was. What struck me was how our whole stay truly encompassed the spirit of Talbot House; that of friendliness and open arms. Although Toc H was originally a dry house, it is no longer, and Saturday night after returning from our meal, we were ushered into the kitchen for beers and chatter. Stories shared, connected by the passion each of us has for the rich history of the Salient.
It is however, the Upper Room which is arguably the most important part of Talbot House. A sacred place for those of us so connected to The Great War. I am not a religious person, nor do I believe in good or bad people – I believe there is light and dark in the world and that all people are capable of doing both good and bad things. I believe a little in fate and destiny, a lot in spirituality and I try my best to believe in people. Whatever it is you believe, the impact that faith can have on a person cannot be underestimated. It was here, in this room, that many thousands of men gathered over the years in search of and because of, faith.
The humble loft space, which was originally used for drying hops, was converted into a chapel during the war. From the outset, the space became a haven for men on their way back and forth from the front line. A place to find a word of comfort and hope, in what seemed like hopeless times. With the idea that God and faith comes from the heart, and need no great church or alter, the men set about furnishing their chapel in this home from home. The alter was made from a carpenter’s bench found in the garden shed, seating was scavenged from damaged churches in the area, candlesticks for the alter fashioned from bedposts. The chapel was crafted with a collective love, and it was love that men would find here.
Early Sunday morning, I took a moment to sit and reflect here. It is such a powerful place, the echoes of its past are undeniable. One can feel the imprint of men crowded into the room and down the stairs, eagerly waiting to hear the Chaplain’s words. So too the silent prayer of a soldier kneeling in solitude at first light can be felt quite plainly. I walked along the room, a hand gently trailing along the beam of the roof, and like much of The Great War, I was reminded of how it binds us. A place for every man, ‘all rank abandon, ye who enter here’, is the underpinning of Toc H and it is a universal truth that all men are equal in fear, in grief and in despair. Out of these terrors, humanity can shine at its brightest. Here in this place, it did just that.
I felt compelled to say a prayer before I left. I spoke not to God, but to the shadows of the men who still kneel here. Those words shall remain known only to me and the Upper Room alone, just as those of the men who came before me to this place, and left with perhaps just a little more hope in their hearts.