Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
Zonnebeke, Belgium, 12th to 15th July 2013
 

 

 

Friday 12th: We had a mostly uneventful journey to Calais but when we reached the other side I realised that I had forgotten my bat detector and I was sure this would not go unnoticed by the bat watching fan base I had started amongst some re-enactors. We did discover a new species of Norbert however, a new mutation with advertising on the side, pretty sneaky that because the diagnostic ND markings are not as obvious as in other forms.

We made our regular stop at Auchan for supplies and then headed for Zonnebeke via Oost Cappel and The Brocante. There was something odd about the place when we entered, something not quite right – they had had a tidy up! The giant fire place dedicated to Monsieur Eiffel had somehow been moved to the front of the warehouse, probably using some arcane magic. We found a hideous African tusk sculpture created for the 1950s tourist, it was very heavy for its size and when I checked I could see the grain of ivory. What a sad end for an elephant. By comparison to this I recently went to the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum; the work of our Palaeolithic ancestors was far superior to this bit of pointless tat.

And so on…on to Zonnebeke and the Paschendale Museum which was having its grand re-opening. We were greeted by Kristof and shown our lodgings for the weekend; a large tent that we were to share with three German infantry and Paul and Debby. This tent was also going to be our base of operations. Once we sorted our bed spaces out and got most of the gear out of the car we settled down for our evening meal. We were about to open a couple of cans of beer and tuck into some ‘flesh pot’ (Potjevleesch) when I got a text from Paul that they had been held up and would meet us in Ypres…hang on, that meant that the meal was tonight and it was already 18.10 local time. Somehow we had got our days into a tangle; lucky we had not eaten too much and, more to the point had drunk no alcohol. I tried texting Paul back but got no reply because, as we later found out, the server had closed down, so with the last message of the Nostromo in our heads we headed for town.

We got to Ypres with enough time to find a parking space and get to "De Ruyffelaer" in time for the meal. Almost everyone had arrived; Paul and Debby introduced us to Missy who would be sharing the big tent with us. A few minutes later Bethan and Milo arrived. They had reached the museum about the time that we were leaving and they had had something of an arduous journey getting to Belgium. Milo was heading for the toilet when he told us a rather bizarre story: he had used one of the portaloos on site and tried washing his hands in the little sink, as he pressed on the foot pump for water he got a horrid surprise, instead of water coming out of the tap he got piss! He told this in such a stoic way that for a few seconds I wondered if I had heard it right, and then I caught Paul’s eye and we just creased up like a couple of school boys at the thought of this surreal golden handshake.

As I suspected the legend of my bat detector had gone around and there was some disappointment at the fact that I had forgotten my ‘Chiropteran Detection Contraption’. Since I have bat calls on my Ipod (OK, I am a geek!) I could play Missy (not to be confused with the stalker in that Client Eastwood movie) one I heard earlier!

Debby made a discovery that distracted us all; having returned from a cigarette break, she announced that a sign across the road proclaimed the church had been destroyed during the Iconoclastic Fury of 1556 which led to a series of band names…supplement to follow. Ambrose Bierce wrote ‘Iconoclastic Memories of the Civil War’, which had nothing to do with Ypres.

Food at “De Ruyffelaer" was the usual high quality and quantity although, it seems, that I don’t know the difference between a crème brûlée and a crème caramel and ended up choosing both from the list; thankfully Debby noticed and put me right on the taxonomy of dairy based deserts.

Saturday 13th: As I headed for the portaloo this morning Cassandra said something that I thought was “those ones haven’t been cleaned” when I opened the door I stopped in my tracks at the site before me: what Cassandra must have said was: “There is a turd the size of a wombat clinging to the ramp like a shoggoth waiting to drag the unsuspecting into the Cloaca Maxima. My bladder was too desperate for me to escape and as I stood there I could not help noticing that the donor of this prize winning floppsie had not used any toilet paper…Yuk!

After breakfast the tent was cleared out and turned into ‘The Soldier’s Rest’ and temporary home of Grymm Tooms. Missy set up a hair cutting spot for the troops and had quite a few customers during the morning. It was going to be a very hot day and lemonade, made from powder, was laid on as well as various snacks which included Anzac biscuits which are delicious!

Although there were lots of people in the park, we were not particularly busy for much of the morning but we had enough interested visitors to keep us going. I got asked by one visitor what mermaids have to do with the war…that’s a tough one…I think that the Germans were using them to sabotage allied shipping. If you want really bizarre then read, or listen to, House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson who was killed at Ypres in 1918.

One of our visitors bought along something that he had dug up in his garden; a pair of boots, presumably a soldier’s spare pair, they were falling apart having been in his garden for almost 100 years. Makes me wonder what else turns up in people’s gardens out here. We were told a story of a farmer who broke a plough blade on something; the following season the same thing happened again in the same place. When the spot was excavated it was found that the plough blades had been striking the cap on a large unexploded shell…

We wanted to visit the museum before closing so Cassandra and Prof set off in the late afternoon. The extensive bunker under the museum is incredible and the thought of being stuck down one of these things during a major bombardment gives me the creeps. Eventually you come out into day light and the new trench exhibit. Most trenches in museums are wide for health and safety reasons but these have been built as they should be; narrow with boards over a drainage ditch which all became completely redundant during the Battles of Ypres due to the flooding. It is hard to imagine these pristine trenches disappearing from shelling into a mass of mud, filth and bodies. I stood on the fire step next to a German who promptly dropped a stick grenade, seems he had heard about my discovery of Operation Feejee Mermaid!

We continued along the trench, following the history of trench warfare from the days of plenty to the days of material shortage. The logistics in raw material (wood, sacking, metal, animals and men) is mind staggering to work out in these days of environmental awareness. The trench system is designed so that several fire steps face each other allowing re-enactors to chuck harsh words at each other.

After dinner we had a grand game of petanque with seven sets of balls being chucked around and 10 plus players, one set changed hands so many times that score was kept by ball colour instead of player, it all got a little confusing but in the end Kenneth was declared winner, although I did pretty well considering the poor lighting.

Sunday 14th: There seemed to be a portaloo theme to the weekend; this morning, as I stepped into one of these dimensional gateways, I felt as though the inside of my nose had been bleached by the high ammonia content. Portaloos are something that you become a keen observer of when you re-enact and these specimens had much to be desired.

After breakfast we headed for the service which included poems, readings and a stirring performance of ‘La Marseillaise’, which for some reason reminded me ofCasablanca. It was very hot throughout and I was glad I was not in one of those woolen uniforms; the wool that they are made of is thicker and coarser than anything I wore during my War Between the States days.

After service we opened up the museum, again we were thankful to be under cover, we watched troops drill and meander to and fro between the trenches and Paul and Debby’s little group sitting not far from us developed some interesting red faces.

This afternoon a visitor who talked to me yesterday about an alleged alien body found in South Africa brought me a print out of the article. As it happens the body was that of a baby baboon, although having seen the photos I could see why anyone would leap to the alien conclusion before consulting a field guide.

I must say the afternoon seemed to drag; this was mostly due to the heat rather than lack of interest by the visitors, I was gasping for the cleansing taste of a cold beer. Finally it was time to pack up and we could get out of our hot clothes. I helped dismantle the field kitchen with Phillip and lugged the heavy gear to Kristof’s van. As we went back and forth Phillip asked me if I spoke any Dutch, I told him that my Dutch was mostly limited to animal names aardvark, valgvogel and aardwolf being my examples; of course I could have thrown in aardappellen and vogelbekdier to really impress him!

When all was done we sat with several others and relaxed, we had been given a loaf of bread and I bought out the various cheeses and meats that we had not had time to eat, to share with everyone. And then a wonderful thing happened; we were donated cold Pachendaele beer from the big tent where the event had taken place, this was followed by several bottles of white wine –Ninkasi, the Sumerian Goddess of Beer had heard our prayers and so as not to be undone Dionysus had joined in.

Slowly the group dwindled away until there were Manuel, Anna and a friend of theirs who was mostly asleep. This group also re-enacts the Merovingians, I remember mentioning this dynasty to someone years ago and he thought it was a made up word for theMatrix, some folk just never pick up a history book! We chatted, mostly about food it seems, for ages and then finally we said good bye, the last we saw of this trio was them heading for the big tent singing a familer English tune that I don’t know the title of. *

Monday 15th: The dawn chorus was rudely interrupted by the sound of a lorry beeping its way on to the site to start clearing away the marquee tent where our new friends had slept. It was about 05:00 and I hoped that they had escaped. There was something about all this noise that, for some odd reason, reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers…I couldn’t help noticing two things throughout the mayhem; a male chaffinch tried to out sing the crashing of folding, moving benches and Missy slept on, dormouse-like, until she was evicted from her bunk by Paul and Debby as we packed up around her. And so we headed for home.

This is Prof Grymm…reminding you to beware of portaloos!

* It was "Oh Sir Jasper, do not touch me." (Laz)