Having thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the Bodleian, I booked a taxi to take me to Headington, the Oxford suburb where Lewis lived and died, where I’d booked a tour of his home, The Kilns. I asked to be collected from ‘The Bodleian’, then after hanging up, realised my folly. The Bodleian consists of 30 different buildings situated across the city. The staff and I wondered where it might appear. (Answer: opposite Blackwell’s.) I was duly driven to the C. S. Lewis nature reserve. When I gave him the address, the taxi driver upbraided me for having said that I was going to Headington. Apparently the reserve is considered to be in Risinghurst, not Headington. Shame on me for not knowing the difference between two adjoining areas in a city nearly 300 miles south of my home!
The journey took around 15 minutes, then the unsmiling driver deposited me at the entrance to Lewis Close. Yes, it’s in Risinghurst. Sorry. Excited about being so close to Lewis’ home, I walked along the street to the end, where the Kilns is situated. Having seen it in photos online, I recognised the house instantly. The sun was shining and the floral border outside the Kilns’ hedge looked glorious. I had about half an hour before I was due for my guided tour, so I continued past the house and along a narrow path, into the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve.The reserve in modest in size at 2.5 hectares, so it was easy to negotiate the pathways which run through it. The reserve used to belong to Lewis, as part of the grounds of The Kilns. He and Warnie planted some of the trees there, and used to swim in the pond. It’s a little oasis of calm and green surrounded by housing, with the many colours of the trees reflected beautifully in the large pond (the old kiln’s clay pit). I followed the path through the trees, passing one or two other visitors on my way. After a short walk, I stopped at one of the benches provided and pulled out my packed lunch. Sitting in the quiet of this little woodland, I thought about how this was one of the hundreds of ideas, places, memories and stories which fed Lewis’ imagination when he set about writing the Chronicles. I wondered how Paxton, Lewis’ gardener and the inspiration for Puddleglum, managed such a large area. Finishing my lunch, I made my way back to Lewis Close.
I arrived at the Kilns in good time and frantically snapped away, taking pictures of the plue plaque, the garden and the well kept, inviting house, much to the amusement of a German couple sitting in the garden. The garden inside the hedge was much simpler than the borders outside, with a small lawn reached through a flower-covered arch. I took a seat, staring at the house. It was so strange to be somewhere I’d pictured and imagined for so long.
Gradually, the garden filled up, mostly with Americans. A smartly dressed man of indeterminate age and background appeared. He gave us a potted history of Lewis’ life. I listened attentively, and even braved answering a question about Lewis’ nickname. I was interested to note, but not at all surprised, that the uncertainty surrounding the nature Lewis’ relationship with Mrs Moore was not referred to. Entering the house, I was struck simultaneously by its homeliness (normally when you tour a house it is partly because it is grand) and its significance to anyone who loves Lewis’ books. So many ideas have poured out of this place, into so many people’s lives. We were shown into the living room, where a desk looks out into the garden. There was a feeling of familiarity, mixed with excitement. The house has been restored to look as it did in Lewis’ time, a style familiar to anyone growing up in Britain in the latter part of the 20th Century.
Next was the dining room, then the kitchen. In the hallway stood a large mirrored wardrobe. (I see what they did there!) Climbing the narrow stairs, we looked into Lewis’ old bedroom, with single bed, desk and fireplace. The tour was very interesting, and I enjoyed hearing anecdotes which were new to me, such as a story about Joy (Lewis’ wife) and her proficiency with a rifle.
Returning downstairs, we visited Warnie’s room (where I think the photographer Jonathan Kirkpatrick was in residence), Joy’s room and the room in which Lewis died. I felt a little odd at this point, as if I were invading someone’s privacy. What on earth Jack would have made of people touring his old bedroom I have no idea. The tour was much more personal than, say, the Bodleian tour. As the tour finished, I made an idiot of myself. Thinking it cost £8, I handed over a £10 note, and told the guide to put the change in the upkeep fund. The tour costs £10. Exit, stage left.
I know that The Kilns was of huge importance to Lewis, and I was really excited to be where so many of my favourite books were written. However, I think that the colleges and gardens I’d visited previously possibly gave me more clues about his inspiration and ideas than this peek into his domestic life did. Maybe the best way of all to find out more about Lewis is to read his books.