Beer Drinkers and Hell-Raisers

I explained recently how I got my start at Cuffley Youth Centre and how voluntary work proceeded to get under my skin. I mentioned Toc H, an organisation with whom first the Youth Club then I would build an intensely deep relationship. Let me tell you a bit more about how this developed.

To be fair, Toc H had already been working with Cuffley Youth Centre before Richard came along. The previous manager, Pat Cheetham had worked with local Toc H stalwart Ron Barnard to allow a number of playschemes to take place in the summer holidays. After Pat retired though this went quiet for a while. Then on 2nd November 1988, a little over a year after Richard had taken over the running of CYC, he met up with John Burgess the Regional Development Officer for Toc H in the South East.

Before too long all manner of cooperation was taking place between the two organisations but I want to focus on one aspect only today. To do this I need to quickly explain what Toc H is.

During WWI, a padre named Tubby Clayton was charged with setting up a soldier’s club in Poperinge, Belgium. There was no shortage of soldier’s clubs already but they were churchy or segregated in some fashion (By regiment or by officers and other ranks). This new club was to be more open. And so Tubby duly set up the club in a merchant’s house in the centre of town and named in Talbot House in memory of his friend Gilbert Talbot, killed at Hooge in 1915. It was, to all intents and purposes, open to officers and other ranks alike.

 It was a great success and after the war Tubby and others wanted to continue the ‘experiment’ and it was formed as a charity. Since soldiers had mostly referred to Talbot House in signallers’ shorthand and to avoid confusion with the Talbot House Settlement in London, the charity was known as Toc H. For the next century it would do a great many things which included playschemes and assorted misdemeanours at Cuffley Youth Centre. The greatest idea of all though would be when Richard and John decided it would be a spiffingly good idea to take a group of our young people out to where it all began; to Talbot House. On the 26th July 1990 we went. And I was one of the grown-ups!

I didn’t really know where Belgium was. Hell, I didn’t really know what Belgium was. I was also deep in the depths of my drinking (I know I bang on a lot about my drinking but you have to understand, it was pretty much my life in those days) and I didn’t like to venture far from known off-licences. Richard though is a very persuasive man and on that Thursday shortly after I had turned 27, I climbed into the Toc H minibus with assorted others. Such is the importance of that first trip I feel a roll call is necessary. Heaven forfend I have missed anyone off but I think it I complete.

Steve Smith, Richard Gentle, John Burgess, Gary Noctor, Jayne, Trevor, Nina Raymont, Amanda Coster, Dominic Cain, Kelly Brady and I believe Marolyn and Damien Burgess.

Talbot House 1

We drove to Dover and got on the ferry. I reached the conclusion that Belgium was abroad! And spent a pleasant 2 or 3 hours rocking our way across the English Channel. Thankfully beer was freely available so I stayed calm and in control. On arrival at Calais we drove to Poperinge. It’s really strange now that the so familiar journey which takes about an hour in a car seems to happen in a flash. That first time, albeit in a minibus, it seemed to take forever and we even stopped at the services less than 15 minutes from Poperinge for a last wee break.

We arrived at Talbot House for the first time and checked-in. Forgive me for not then spending 2 hours exploring this most magnificent place, instead Gary and I felt it better use of our time to explore the bars of the city. Indeed, we hit the very first bar you come to when turning left out of Talbot House. It’s not one we used very often over the years. I don’t even remember its name (The Greyhound?) It was a locals’ sports bar. I remember the football leagues were plastered all over the walls for some sort of gambling game. I also remember – and my heart sank – that they sold beer in tiny glasses! I wondered if I could get a return ferry that night.

We soon got in the swing of things and after a couple of introductory beers re-joined the gang for the evening’s reveries. The first part of which was eating. On this first holiday it was thought a good idea to eat out and our meal that night was booked in at (Was it then De Ranke next to La Poupee?) The soup was served with a good dollop of cream in it! This did not escape lewd comments which meant no-one eat the bloody stuff. It was no wonder we ended up going self-catering in future years.

We soon got in the Poperinge swing though. It was really pleasant sitting outside the bars into the early hours enjoying beers of all flavours including Cherry and Raspberry! We even found the local gay club – well apparently it was the Kei Club but for many years we thought it was the gay club.

Talbot House 2For the next ten years with the Youth Club and a further 20 since, I have many, many Poperinge stories to tell and I will release them slowly. You will learn how we discovered Japan on the Flemish coast; how we decided to take theatre to the Belgians; how men sit in lines cutting a stick every time their neighbour’s bird sings; how Mad Cows, Teletubbies, Harry Potter and Book Worms probably led to Brexit; and how some of my best friends in all the world come from sweet little Belgium and like Eddie Wally. How lucky I am.

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