Recently, while driving back from a French holiday, we stayed at Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium (or “Toc H” as it was nicknamed by the soldiers during WW1, when it was used as a special kind of social club).
Four years had passed since I was last there, researching material for “The Long White Cloud”. Toc H hadn’t changed, except for one thing – my own perception of it. Now, with the book written, I was going around pointing at things excitedly, saying: “Here’s Rennie’s office”, and “This is where they meet Patton”, and “Out there on the lawn is where they do the haka.” To me, the fiction had merged with fact to produce a strange hybrid of a place, half a stage-set from my mind and half a real brick building.
With the centenary of the armistice approaching, I would recommend to anyone interested in that era to get across the channel and visit Toc H (https://www.talbothouse.be/en/bb/home). Stay if you can get a room – it is relatively cheap. English volunteer caretakers will give you a cup of tea and make you feel welcome. Just down the road, in the main square, are some great restaurants.
The most special room in Toc H is the chapel built into the attic, accessed by some very steep stairs. In my book, two of the characters sit in this room, talking about God and worrying about what is going to happen. This time, it occurred to me just how many soldiers had trodden those same steep stairs to say their prayers, or have a quiet moment before going off to battle. Thousands must have done it. It was hard to imagine quite how scared they must have felt. No-one but a soldier would know that feeling. What you can feel though, is their collective spirit. It’s still there.