'A Home from Home': Staying at Talbot House

For me, one of the most special places on the battlefields is Talbot House in Poperinge. I've stayed there three times now and at this stage I don't think I'd consider any other accommodation around Ypres.

The House was opened in 1915 by the chaplain Philip Clayton (who was always known as 'Tubby') and operated throughout the war as a 'haven' for soldiers, providing them with a place for rest and entertainment while on service. A Christian entity, with a special chapel in the attic, it is much like the YMCA in its non-proselytising approach to religion that welcomed everyone to enjoy their facilities, whether or not they were Christian themselves. 

Thousands of soldiers passed through the house while they were stationed in the area, using its facilities as what Tubby described as an 'Emmaus Inn, a home from home where friendships could be consecrated, and sad hearts renewed and cheered, a place of light and joy and brotherhood and peace'. The house - one of the largest in Poperinge - had rooms devoted to reading and to billiards, as well as refreshment and relaxation. Officers could pay to stay the night when they were going to and coming back from leave. It wasn't unusual for the house to take 450 Francs in penny cups of tea in a single day during the Third Battle of Ypres.

The house retains elements of the atmosphere that made it so special to soldiers during the war, with friendly volunteer wardens making it such a welcoming place to stay. The kitchen and living rooms are lovely spaces to spend time and meet other visitors and there's a real community feel to it, fostered through the shared breakfast and the availability of the kitchen facilities for own cooking. This makes it a particularly great place to stay as a solo traveller, as there's always someone to chat to when you return "home" from a day out on the battlefields.

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'Tubby' Clayton, (NPG)
In the few months before my most recent visit I read Tubby Clayton's memoir 'Tales of Talbot House' and his collected 'Letters from Flanders' which give a wonderful insight into the care and love he poured into Talbot House. With this in my mind, I could almost see his presence in the halls of his beloved house, pipe in hand, offering a warm welcome to all who entered.

The house is decorated in a traditional style, albeit with a lot more finesse than it would have had during the First World War. The B&B rooms are cosy and comfortable while retaining an old character without any sort of fussiness. I've now stayed in three of the rooms and while they are all lovely, I think Pettifer's may be my current favourite. 

On my most recent stay there were a few days when there were very few guests in and there were a couple of evenings when I had the downstairs of the house to myself. This felt like an immense privilege, to be able to take in the peace of such a special place and to enjoy the space that was such a comfort to so many soldiers.

But by far the most special part of the house is the 'Upper Room', the chapel which stands in the attic space. This is an exact recreation of how it looked during the war, filled with original artifacts including the bed-post candlesticks and the Toc-H lamp. It is impossible to describe the atmosphere of this room, in which more than 10,000 soldiers received communion and found a spiritual connection. 

I think, for me, the sense I get in that room is one that not only speaks to religion but also to history, connecting them in a way I can't quite express. It is a wonderful spot for reflection and contemplation. In all that I read for my research about religion and the First World War there is nowhere that I feel it connects stronger than in that Upper Room and I often think of it when trying to understand how soldiers must have felt in faith during war.

Many of those involved in Talbot House tell endless stories about the ghosts and spirits which occupy the house; of the footsteps hears in the chapel, and the voices of soldiers in the night. I don't quite believe any of them, yet there is a very real presence throughout the house of the closeness of its war history and the work of the wardens in particular does well to perpetuate the essence of Tubby more than a century later.

I first stayed at Talbot House in August 2014 while on my first solo battlefields tour. I had just finished my first year of undergraduate history and politics, and was not yet set on studying the First World War. I do frequently wonder whether there was something in the magic of the house that I experienced on that trip which led me down the line to today, working on ideas of social religion in the First World War for a PhD.

Such is the special nature of the house, I believe, that is so much more than just a house, or a bed & breakfast, or museum to its own history. The message of Tubby lives on within it, his 'spirit of hospitality' now providing a home for the battlefield tourist as much as it did for soldiers a century ago.

So far I have stayed at Talbot House on three wonderful trips, and I'm sure there'll be many more visits in the future.


You can find more information about accommodation at Talbot House here. I'm not in any way associated with them, but do highly recommend a visit.

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