Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
Zonnebeke, Belgium, 23rd to 26th April 2010



We had been invited to this event by Kristof when we met him at Newhaven last year. This was a great honour for us and we have been looking forward to this new Grymm Tooms Abroad Adventure for some time, and so in the early hours of St George’s Day we set off for the start of Season Five -

Friday 23rd April: : - This is also Shakespeare’s Birth & Death Days – surely a good reason for a National Holiday if ever there was one. Just as we arrived at the terminal, two herring gulls seemed to home in on us, landing on either side of the car. This avian salute may have been nothing more than an ambush to get at our bacon sandwiches…

There is a sign at the gate for rabies and the export of mammals that carry it. There are rather cute silhouettes of a cat, a dog and a ferret, although the dog looks as though it was copied from a butchers shop showing the various cuts of Fido available at your local deli…

As you would expect, our journey from Calais was not very exciting but things got a bit more interesting when we stopped at Oost-Cappell to visit Antiquities Brocante'. This place was recommended by Paul & Debby and as soon as we parked we could see that we had arrived at the Bermuda Triangle of Things Odd; bath tubs, an artillery shell, paving slabs, one of those bollard things that you tie ships to (yes, ship, not rowing boat!), there were shapeless bits of metal from Area 51 and several stone troughs… to mention just a few tons of the items outside. In contrast to this a field nearby held a donkey, a couple of goats and several geese.

Inside, the Brocante is…well, full of lots of more things; barrels of wine corks, Madonna statues in various materials, some wonderful furniture, a stuffed shelduck, a dried pike’s head that I could get my clenched fist into (not recommended with a live pike), the seating from a cinema (we vaguely considered them for a magic lantern show…) and enough crucifixes to equip the Van Helsing Volunteers for years of undead fun. There were quite a few things that we fancied, like the pricy glass domes, ready for specimens, but we settled for three Kilner jars.

Back in the sunlight we settled down for lunch. A couple of yellow wagtails were feeding amongst the goats and when Janet later wandered over there one of the goats came begging, looking very sorry for itself when it didn’t get some ready salted crisps.

Then we were on our way to Zonnebeke, although I could not help notice that there are two exit signs from Oost-Cappell – ‘Oost-Cappell, so good you leave it twice!’ We were soon passing place names that I was familiar with; Poperinge, Diksmuide…well, perhaps not that one, and Ypres or Ieper, although at a glance we kept reading it as leper…sorry. As you travel through the flat land that looks a bit like Cambridgeshire it is hard to imagine that virtually everything around you had once been blown up and churned beyond recognition. As we went along the bumpy concrete road, Janet noticed that there were some weird looking marks in the road– they came out of the verge, went to the middle of the road and then back to the verge at a sharp angle in a never ending cycle of skid marks that could only have been caused by either a very narrow car, a couple of bikers racing neck and neck for the border or, as it turned out, shadows from the roadside power lines.

At last we arrived at the Passchendaele Memorial Museum, to get to it you pass a zebra crossing which, because it is next to a school, has a pillar that is banded in vivid saffron and fuchsia sort of colours and topped with a cuddly octopus. The museum was almost a hive of activity, with tents and marquees going up and other re-enactors busy sorting themselves out. We were greeted by Paul & Debby, Krisof & Inge, for some reason they kept a weather eye open…more on that later. We were given a huge army tent into which we could have put our display three times over. This is great; we were going to be under cover and protected from the elements, especially the rain that was not going to happen…

It was good to see Raphael again; we have agreed that when we meet again at Schoenenbourg next year we would pose as colonial gents together. I suggested that we also pose as big game hunters and then Richard could Photoshop in an elephant or something equally menacing from a vintage photo. He then handed out little metal rosenkranz medallions that had been made by some nuns that he knows.

Once we had chilled out, chatted and set up our tent with its nice new wooden pegs and finial we set off foraging in the local Spar. Now this is what I like about travel – see new yummy things to try…although Dr Tooms needs a field guide to spot the difference between sauerkraut and other pickle species! We loaded ourselves down with nice bread, pates, cheeses, good beer, a few slices of interesting meats and a few jars of Speculoos.

It was soon time to head into Ypres for our evening meal, it is hard to imagine that this medieval city is a modern reconstruction, having been completely destroyed during WWI. Paul & Debby gave us a lift down so that Richard could have a beer; we passed through The Menin Gate and on to The Cloth Hall, where historically cats were hurled to their deaths from the upper stories… these days they chuck cute fluffy toys to their doom.

We were booked into "De Ruyffelaer", a lovely little place with an interesting menu full of rather quaint descriptions – the wedding of cod and pangasius in a vegetable pond deserves first prize. I had the rillettes for starters, I admit I had to look this up; the yummy fatty pate came on a slate, with a small salad and was delicious. I’d had my eye on the lamb shank but these are off the menu until November so I opted for the braised bacon with pepper sauce, which was accompanied by nutmeg mash spuds, the general consensus of opinion was that this was excellent. Debby had barely wounded her ham hock so I put it out of it’s misery before it could be taken away. However replete I was with pig bits I still had room for the rich chocolate mousse.

Patrick joined our little group and while he hails from Derbyshire, Richard has his roots in Staffordshire and it was rather amusing watching these two going on about the right, and best, way to serve oat cakes, which if you have never had them are more like a pancake than the Scottish oatcake.

From the ‘Ruyffelaer’ we headed back to Zonnebeke, the culinary mysteries of the ‘Indish Restaurant’ a few doors down were to remain a mystery since it has closed down. We parked the cars and headed for ‘de Volksbond’, which to me sounds a bit like a communal group hug! Actually things were not quite that simple, having got into Ypres easily enough we had a bit of a job getting out since we could not leave by the Menin Gate. Lucky for us Paul knew his way around.

As we sat supping Leffe blonde, I noticed a curious poster with a chaffinch on it, in fact there were several, I asked Debby about this and when she went up to have a look a local told her all about chaffinches. Apparently in Belgium they have chaffinch singing contests in which the birds and their mentors line up on the roadside and then sing, well, the birds sing, the guys listen to them and make notes on song variation…a sort of Eurovision Chaffinch Contest. I was once told that the song of the chaffinch can be compared with the actions of a cricketer running up to bowl…you’ll just have to listen to chaffinches and form your own opinion on that one…and on that note we headed back to our tents.

Saturday 24th April: I woke up some time in the early hours, it was cold and dewy and somewhere out there a blackbird was singing. I love the sound of blackbirds at this time of the year. Once out of the tent it was a rather chilly, sunny morning so I got hot water going and we were soon tucking into some of that nice bread we had bought along with cheeses, ham and smoked meats – “Blucher!”

Breakfast over we got ourselves sorted and the museum set up. As I returned from my water run, well, amble really, Ian was on his megaphone, all smart in his Bolshevik uniform haranguing the crowds not to drink tea as it was a symbol of oppression! As I recall from last night he had forgotten what the writing on his armband actually said and since Cyrillic is beyond me I imagined that it said ‘Blini Salesman’.

We had a look in the marquee next door; it was set up as a cinema and was playing Charlie Chaplin movies on a continuous loop. I managed to watch Charlie inna trench for about two minutes after that my attention withered, it was not the best Chaplin film I had ever seen. I had a look at the lake instead, the only bit of this area that had survived the bombardments, I dread to think what might be down there lurking amongst the carp.

I have expanded some of my exhibits, adding a little display about Martha, the last passenger pigeon. This was once the most abundant bird species that had ever existed, it had numbered in the millions, and through systemic hunting the species had been reduced to a few thousand by the late 19th C and in 1900 the last confirmed wild bird was shot in Ohio. On September 1st 1914 Martha, the last of her kind, passed away in Cincinnati Zoo. Martha was 29 when she died; her life spanned the tragedies that include Wounded Knee, the 2nd Boer War, The Boxer Rebellion and the start of a conflict that would cost the lives of millions of humans.

My other new exhibit covers Piltdown Man, that wonderful hominid hoax that I suspect may have started as a joke! I have added a few ‘extras’ to the story just to show how ridiculous the whole thing was. These include a few tools, a fossil reindeer antler fragment, a piece of another ‘cricket bat’ (fossil mammoth tusk) and a new jaw specimen (I wanted to see how easy it is to make ancient bone and used a pig’s jaw, broken and stained with tea & coffee, it took about a day!).

What a great day we had, our visitors were polite and eager for what we had to show them. We got photographed constantly, Janet was in the process of taking a bite of bread when she realised that her photo had just been taken, “Got you!” said the nice man we chatted with a few minutes later. I also took a photo of Patrick, now resplendent in his Austrian cavalry uniform, hard to imagine that at the start of the war there were uniforms that had hardly changed in a hundred years. We got Janet to stand beside Patrick; she looked very elegant in her new Edwardian clothes and flowery hat. While Janet is petite, Patrick is somewhat on the tall side and his height was enhanced by the Ulhan helmet with horse hair plume so that he towered over her.

We were told that the show would soon be over so we put the flap down of the tent and got ready for the group photo. This gathering was held on the steps of the museum over looking the lake. Janet, being diminutive, stood at the front and I went up the stairs, since that is where they went, and stood at the back along with Patrick. Someone remarked that he had cheated in coming dressed in a Napoleonic uniform. As I looked down I spotted something odd going on, as we were being directed Janet kept moving her head, this in turn shifted her hat causing the long ostrich feather to move constantly under the nose of the man behind her! I had to put him out of his misery so passed the word down to get Janet’s attention and told her what her hat was doing.

When the photos were done there was a general move to go into the museum, as we passed through we were handed a little white box holding three bottles of Passendale Beer as a way of thanking us for our work. Now that was a very kind and appreciated gesture by all of us.

Well, time to explore more of the local edibles…as we went by the museums main entrance I noticed the little pill box outside the gate, this is a one man bunker and when I went inside it was horrid and cramped to say the least, and I was not bogged down with weapons, gas mask, helmet, stinking, wet uniform and being shelled and shot at.

We headed for a place called ‘‘t Forum’, where all things are fried. I went for the Stoofvlees, a rich, dark beef stew served with fries; I also ordered a ‘Mexican’-something. I was so unsure about what I had ordered that I missed it when it was served and handed it to someone else! As it turned out it was the length of reconstituted rib-shaped meat. Having said that I enjoyed all this fried stuff!

Sunday 25th April: I woke up some time in the early hours, it was cold and dewy and somewhere out there a blackbird was singing. I love the sound of blackbirds at this…hang on…the melodious notes of Mr Blackbird were being drowned out by the raucousity of two men shouting as though they were in a crowded pub!

As we prepared breakfast Debby produced a package that she had been given by a friend, it contained various American food stuffs that she had never had, amongst these was a pack of grits and a box of Moon Pies. At a glance a Moon Pie seems to be a variant on a Wagon Wheel, and while this is something I would have eaten tons of as a child, my chilli hardened taste buds just could not cope after the 3rd bite.

There was a little Militaria sale set up near us so I popped over and had a look. Picklehaubs, helmets, body armour and various weapons and pointy things were displayed. Paul ended up buying a sniper’s shield, a stick grenade which still had a belt clip and at least one shell for collection. He showed me a cross sectioned shell that contained lots of ball bearings about twice the size of swan shot.

We managed to get a look in the museum, looking at some of the uniforms on display you can see the heavy influence that European military fashion had on America at the time of the Civil War; kepis and elaborate zouave uniforms all of which quickly went out of usage. There is even a dragoon uniform that should have been at Waterloo instead of the 20th C. Part of the museum is a dug out that you reach via a trench and then descend into the depths of the building. Some of these subterranean structures were huge and the thought of living in one of these timber lined tunnels gave me the creeps.

The Anzac Day service was held at the museum at 10:30. The sermon, delivered in Flemish, was interspersed with readings and songs by some of the re-enactors. There was a very good turn out from the locals and the several crews recording the service.

After the service we returned to the museum and, after a quick photo shoot for us, we opened up to wait for our visitors. One thing was noticeable, the sound tracks from the looping Chaplin films and WWI songs were ravaging my nerves, and thankfully I managed to block them for most of the day.

While I was chatting with a group of English visitors I was asked by a Belgian lady if I could slow down a bit so that her daughter could translate for her grandson. I told her not to worry as I would set aside some time for them, as it turned out they were with me for a while. The boy was keen to know about all sorts of things and was into dinosaurs and fossils in a big way, according to his mother he collected rocks in the hope of finding fossils…I bump started his hobby by donating a nice Micrastor sea urchin.

Amongst my other visitors was a man and his sons who also did some translating for me, I couldn’t quite place his accent though until I started talking about the Fur Bearing Trout of Great Lakes. As Québécois Canadians, they had never caught such a critter! Possibly the most unlikely compliment came from a huge French biker who looked at the exhibits and simply said, “magnifique”. Three lads wearing the French horizon blue uniform were great to talk to and I spent quite a bit of time with them going over my various specimens. They were followed by a young Australian lady who asked me if Charlie the Shrunken Head was alive!!!

Kristof, between guiding the public, stood outside and bellowed into the bull horn at the public about visiting Grymm Tooms, extolling our virtues to all and sundry…but only up to the point where it rained! It has been said that more than one member of Grymm Tooms in the open summons the Thunder Beings but, we had been under cover for hours so someone else did it! “It’s never rained in 6 years and then you come along!” shouted Kristof, (actually I heard that it had rained in the past!). Bert also came along to mention the heavens opening up and went so far as to translate his comments into Flemish!! I got my own back by pointing out to Kristof that he could be court marshalled for allowing his puttees to unravel like a couple of slapped snakes! He laughingly told me to bugger off!

Actually that rain did us a favour, there were only two places nearby to shelter – our tent and the cinema, I suspect that those who opted for the latter suffered terribly listening to that horrid soundtrack…now I know why there is almost an enema in cinema! When the short shower stopped we kept our visitors and gained some of the survivors of the Chaplin experience!

Once the public started to leave we could relax a bit before packing up. Richard and I went over to one of the games that had been set up. The one that got our attention was the one where you bayoneted a balloon tied to a wooded German bottom using a wooden rifle with a nail on the end, in order to do this you had to put a bag over your head – we just could not resist! While I took pictures Richard put the bag over his head and attempted to puncture the Kaiser’s butt!

bag head

Inge, who was dressed in an elegant black brocaded dress with a trail, had been scurrying around all weekend as well as looking after games. Exhausted she now sat and watched us, possibly with some pity, as we did ‘Elephant Man Attacks the Kaiser’.

In the evening we headed into Ypres with Patrick to watch the Menen Gate Ceremony. Despite the early overcast weather and the afternoon shower it had become a beautiful sunny evening.

While we waited reading the names of the Commonwealth missing, Patrick pointed out the thousands of names would be bad enough if they were just the dead, but this is just a portion of the casualties. There were a lot of new wreaths in place for Anzac Day and the band played the theme from ‘The Mission’ and the National Anthems of Australia and New Zealand. After the ceremony was over we headed into town, parking near the Cloth Hall, I went down the road to the cathedral to take a picture of the Golden Madonna statue as I looked up and a peregrine falcon called and circled over me.

Our quest was a return to "De Ruyffelaer" for our evening meal. We couldn’t resist another visit to this lovely little restaurant, I had the pickled herring salad which was excellent and followed it with an equally delicious Flemish stew…must have a go at making that some time.

Monday 26th April: I woke up some time in the early hours, it was cold and dewy and somewhere out there the two men were again making far more noise than they should have…Paul did mention this to those responsible and although they were somewhat indifferent at first the gents in question did acknowledge that they had been out of order we all departed on good terms.

It was time for us to make tracks as well so after hugs and goodbyes we set off for Calais. It seemed a bit of a close run thing, especially when we ended up in Grand-Synthe with it’s rather surreal, possibly class A roundabout that had multicoloured clowns and things on sticks that may have been lollypops…I hope!

Finally we got to the terminal, thinking that we had enough time for a cuppa we had barely used the toilets when we were called. Despite the rush we seemed to have been held at customs for ages while the chap in the booth chatted amicably to everyone who went through!

Well, that went well, what an excellent weekend. We would just like to extend our thanks once again to Kristof & Inge, Paul & Debby…who have been mentioned a few times now…all our old friends from last year and a few new ones from this year. May you all have a jolly good season.

This is Prof Grymm confirming that while I saw several species of birds, including cuckoo, not a single chaffinch popped it’s head out of a bush or gasped a single note in my direction!