Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
Zonnebeke, Belgium, 15th to 18th August 2014



Friday: Only one interesting thing happened on our drive down to Folkestone was the discovery of a new Norbert species with a white cabin and a red body to which we allotted 3 points. We also thought that it might be a good idea to note not only Norbert species but also numbers; it was about time that the Norbertidae had a census.

Once across the channel we headed for Auchan and stocked up on our usual supplies before heading off for The Brocante at Oost-Cappel. We never did get to that Area 51 extension, a series of detours, no doubt devised by Oost-Cappell Chapter of Atlantean Mystic Shrew Handlers, took us further and further away from our target until we gave up and headed for Ypres and Zonnebeke.

The seemed to be a lot going on at the Passchendaele Museum, mostly in the form of a traffic jam made up of four cars and a caravan. It was all very military in that very little was happening. Paul, Debby and Missy were already there along with Elizabeth and her caravan. Once the caravan was in place I headed back to the marquee that will double as soldiers rest, museum and sleeping quarters…OK, triple etc. etc… We were right next to the museum which would give us easy access to lots of people passin’ through.

We then headed for Ypres early in order to find a convenient parking space close to the restaurant. As it turned out we were lucky enough to park within feet of "De Ruyffelaer" and since we were also rather early looked for a café. We found one at the back of a big shop selling lots of retro-type stuff. The hot chocolate in this place comes as a big cup of hot milk into which you drop the chocolate buttons that are served separately. I have never seen chocolate served like this and it was excellent.

And so on to "De Ruyffelaer", which was, rather conveniently as close to the café as it was to the car. Everyone was already there and we soon settled down into the usual multi-topic conversations ranging from weird food, dinosaurs and Bethan’s retelling of a section of The Mabinogion. I used to read a lot of ancient epics and tried The Mabinogion many years ago; it was a bit like reading The Nibelungenlied… only harder.

Back at camp we sat and chatted, I also remembered to bring my bat detector with me and hoped to find a few over the lake, but not a single bat turned out for the show…very strange.

Saturday: So, this morning we set up at the back of the big tent. Esme the Peruvian Mummy lay in a corner, her grave goods display now complete. I made a Chancay doll to go with her; these are very interesting items since they are mostly contemporary made but using materials that have come from unearthed mummies. I have access to a real Chancay doll and the different types of woven cloth are amazing to feel; delicate cotton gauze and llama or alpaca wool fabrics mostly in earth tones. The one on show is one of my reproductions and just like an original with home dyed cloth – no way would I allow anyone to get their grubby mitts on the real thing!

A couple of other new additions include the St Helena Giant Earwig, now sadly extinct, and a claw from ‘Kesagake the Man Eater’. This last is in homage to a bear attack that took place in Japan in 1915 when an Ussuri brown bear, weighing in at 340 kg (749 lbs) and standing 2.7 m (8.85 ft) tall was awoken from hibernation and killed seven people, injured at least six others and trashed several houses, an event that became known as The Senkebetsu Brown Bear Incident. Human impact on the natural world and its consequences has become a recurring theme in my display. Speaking of which, this September marks the centenary death of Martha the last passenger pigeon.

One of my first visitors was a nice lady who barely understood what I was saying but was interested enough to return with her husband so that he could translate for her. Later in the day I got into an interesting debate when a man asked me if I believe in evolution. I am always wary of this sort of question but I had a very interesting debate on the matter of evolution and creation, but that’s another story.

It was interesting to see that Cassandra got more people interacting with her by sitting and knitting something than she did running the optical gadgets. We spent ages trying to work out why an interactive display did not grab people and we have now given up lugging all those exhibits around just to watch them getting weatherworn.

During my furry fish story I occasionally ask people to make some ridiculous and farfetched donation for me to go on an Arctic expedition via the Caribbean to look for said non-existent species, the point of this is to stop what followed next; a young man who had been chatting with me for some time reached into his pocket and asked me how much I needed to look for my fish!

After dinner of ‘farm in a jar’ and a game of International petanque we settled down for a chat and a few beers. Yesterday I tried a beer that had absinthe in it, or so it said on the tin. I don’t usually like beers at 8% and this proved no exception, it was horrid. At some point the conversation turned to deprived childhoods – we had problems convincing Missy that some of us endured things like outside toilets, black and white telly with only three channels, intensely cold winter mornings without central heating when frozen condensation formed inside the windows and other such discomforts. While this was all very nostalgic for the majority of us, for Missy it was verging on ancient history, she was practically hysterical at the concept of licking stamps. After that we talked about a true classic of childhood experience; Izal toilet paper, shiny on one side and rough on the other, this awful arse scraping ‘medicated’ paper was only good for writing on and is now a vintage collectable.

Sunday: We gathered in front of the museum for a service to commemorate the start of World War One, it is hard to believe that it has been a hundred years. There were the usual poems and dedications and while Bethan sang ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. Halfway through the song there was a burst of high wind and rain and a small tortoiseshell fluttered under the awning as though it had been suddenly transported from another dimension. Songs finished we stood up and out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Elizabeth hanging on to the long seat and heard Missy giggle. As it turned out I had been rescued from being catapulted into the trees – Dr Tooms was sitting at the extreme end of the bench and as we all stood up he was still seated resulting in an unequal distribution of matter.

After the service we gathered round for coffee, waffles and rum. Dr Tooms found a novel way to carry his rum; he popped the end of the plastic shot glass into his mouth, using his tongue as a stopper while he man-handled his Zimmer frame. After breakfast we all gathered on the steps of the museum to have our photo taken and as we waited for the cameras what sound like a choir started but what they were singing was “Why are We Waiting?”

At some point during the morning Paul bought a shell, I only mention this because it would have been odd indeed had Paul not indulged himself in buying another piece of ordinance. Anyway, it was a large and very impressive shell with fins.

After the service I was interviewed, along with the good doctor by Thomas, a theatre director who is putting together a play about how we portray and sell war in the modern age. Having already interviewed people about WWI he was particularly interested in my exploits when I used to do American Civil War. I used to portray Color-Sargent Edward M Francis of 4th Texas, Hood’s Brigade, and even managed to get copies of some of his papers from the National Archive. I visited most of the battlefields that he had fought on as well as Chicamauga where he had fallen. It was great to recall some of the moments of carrying the colours: marching in front of the lines at an emotionally hyped Picket’s Charge with ground bursts going off a few feet in front of us; almost shooting the guy playing Stonewall Jackson by accident during Chancellersville battle (Thomas Jackson was mortally wounded by ‘friendly fire’ at Chancellersville); running the colours at 2nd Manassas because it was such a damned boring scenario. Historically this is an interesting event in which the Confederates, having run out of ammo, chucked rocks and harsh words at the Union forces, as a re-enactment it is static and we looked as though we were lobbing spuds at the attackers. Then there was the ‘interesting’ time when my flag pole broke in half just as a volley had been fired and for one horrid moment I thought that someone had fired a pebble, or even a live round, at us…it made my blood run cold.

After the interview we set up the museum just in time for the afternoon rush of visitors. I could not help noticing over the weekend that every time the wind blew in the sides of the tent it was accompanied by an exceptionally fetid smell. During a brief lull I went outside to check where this miasma was coming from and discovered that the tent had been set up over a drain cover and each gust of wind sucked the pong up and into the tent and straight over my display, I only hoped that my visitors did not think that I was the originator of the stench…although I do take some pride in the fact that in my 20’s I gassed out a Northern Line carriage at Bank! Those passengers not stupefied changed carriages as soon as the doors opened.

I met a couple of ladies who were new to re-enactments and wondered why we do it. They told me that they had talked to a Scot who turned out to be Belgian, I guess that is part of the charm of what we do; not only do we play dead people but many of us take on new nationalities into the bargain.

Debby bought along a young guy who wanted to show me a leaf that he had with him. I identified it as a species of Tilia and was told that it was, in fact Tilia henryana and Debby, who says I know everything, wanted to know where it was from. Contrary to popular belief I don’t know everything but know a lot of stuff! I took the leaf and pondered over where it might come from, as far as I am aware Tilias are northern hemisphere plants so in the end I opted for China.

Once all the visitors had left we settled down for our evening meal, I was hoping to eat outside but as soon as we settled down high wind and a torrential downpour drove us into the tent where we would have to share our evening meal with the smell of sewage. We lit several scented candles to distract us from the other smell while we tucked into bread, an assortment of cheese, cold meats and duck pate with a rich yellow fat on it.

When the others returned from town there was a revival of more 1980’s nostalgia which was finished off by a contribution from Ian who has a compilation of pan pipe music on his iPod. Now I rather like traditional pan pipe music but when it is genetically spliced to an already nauseating theme about lagomorphs or imagine giving peas a chance then it becomes something less than art. That anyone should find this sort of thing worthy twenty odd years after its sell by date is something to be admired! I still shudder at the memories of classical music mangled by the monotony of a drum machine.

Monday: We were all up bright and early as everyone wanted to be on the road before 09:00. Missy was very proud of herself this morning. Having spoken to Bruce about the ritual of licking stamps he had given her a reproduction that was also gummed and now she walked about with it stuck to her cheek.

We were going to visit a couple of the cemeteries this morning but ended bypassing all of them apart from the one at Popperinge, and then it was off to the Brocante. Well, as it happened the Brocante was still closed so we could either hang around their car park for about an hour or find something else to do. Not wanting to appear as though we were staking the place out we decided that finding something else to do was the better option. A random search on Sybil revealed that there is a curio museum in nearby Izenberge so off we went. In the main street there was a sign for the curio museum but try as we might we could not find the place; it was undoubtedly one of the buildings that was firmly closed and boarded up against an invasion of curio enthusiasts like ourselves. The only curiosity about was ours – what were they really hiding in Isengard? So, thwarted again, we headed for the coast.

At Calais we did our shopping and then had lunch; I opted for the moules au Roquefort. There seemed to be rather more cheese than I bargained for in the pot of steamed mussels but it was rather delicious and by the time that we reached the train I was rather sleepy so that when I woke up and found myself in Kent I felt rather temporally displaced and felt as though I had been through The Time Tunnel instead of the Eurotunnel!

This is Prof Grymm confirming that Tilia henryana is from China…yep, I really know some stuff!