In order to tour the C.S. Lewis home, The Kilns, one must email in advance and arrange a tour. The home is not open to the public otherwise. I didn’t know that, of course, until just a couple of weeks ago. I don’t even know how I happened upon that tidbit, but I knew that by the time Tim arrived, I needed to have it somewhat figured out. So I emailed and asked if it would be possible to take a tour on the one day we had available – Saturday, June 25th.
Yes, came the reply. Just so happens that there is a tour already scheduled and you can join them.
So we said our goodbyes to Ellen and Bland and others on the Celtic Tour out of Shepherd University. In reality, the tour folks said goodbye first. They were flying out on the 25th. I won’t bother you will all the chaos that ensued for them, but when Dr. Shurbutt says we must be intrepid travelers she’s not kidding. The bunch of folks we were touring with these past few weeks are as intrepid as they come. They are the kind of people you want in your bunker should you ever find yourself on the front lines. They just put down their heads and push on. If you read the headlines at all, you know that the front lines today are those working at airports.
We had our own set of travel challenges to deal with. UK rail workers were on strike on Saturday. Figuring out how to get from London to Oxford, a matter of about 60 miles, was far more convoluted than either of us ever imagined. Take the bus, the tour guide said without offering us the information on how to catch the right bus.
“Ask at the hotel desk clerk,” she said.
So we did.
He didn’t know. “There’s a strike today,” he said. “You’ll have to take the National Rail.” He then proceeded to look up the schedule. “I don’t think you will be able to get a seat today,” he said.
Tim and I grabbed our bags and headed up to High Street Kensington, where we had a coffee and croissants at my new favorite coffee shop – Oree. If you ever get to London, you must find an Oree and have something, anything. Finally a place in the UK who knows how to make real croissants. I am under the conviction that if men ate more croissants and drank more lattes, there would be no wars. Certainly, if Congress would start their days at Oree, we would have universal healthcare, better gun legislation, and reproductive rights for both men and women.
Afterwards, we walked over the nearby High Street station which was eerily quiet and void of intrepid travelers. We asked for directions to Oxford the town and not Oxford the street and were sent off on a wild goose chase that included about 5 train transfers that lead us on a route that circled back to where we first started, but eventually, got us to the National Rail and on a train into Reading, where we transferred again and eventually arrived in Oxford.
We’d left the hotel at 8:30 am and now it was half-past eleven. We had to get to the hotel, drop our bags and head out for our one o’clock tour. We had no idea how to get there either, but our hotel was located near a bus line, so we figured with an hour to spare getting to The Kilns by bus would be relatively easy.
We were wrong.
The responses from the various bus drivers ranged from “Who?” to “Where?” to “I don’t know this Kilns” to the “Who is this C.S. Lewis?”
Finally, I just said, “How do I get to Headdington?” which I figured ought to put us in the general vicinity of The Kilns.
So there we were, on a bus, headed out to an area we knew nothing about and both of us map illiterates. Tim is that guy who walks around with an actual map, not the iPhone version, spread out like a bird in flight, only grounded along an asphalt pavement, head down, completely unaware of the street names, which he can’t read on the map anyway.
I leaned forward and asked the kindly lady with the N95 face mask: “Are you from here?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Do you know if this is the right bus to be on to get to the Kilns, to the home of C.S. Lewis?” I inquired.
She laughed. “Oh, I think you want Risinghurst. It would be a very long walk for you to get there from the stop.”
Figures, I thought. Nothing had been easy on this day of travel.
“Thank you,” I said, looking at my phone. It was 12:30. We hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since leaving London. The tour started in half-an-hour. I had no way of contacting the tour guide to say we might not make it.
“My friends lived in his home before the Americans bought it,” Alison said.
“You had friends who lived in C.S. Lewis’s home?” I asked, gobsmacked that of all the people I would run into over the course of a day, I happened upon the lone woman whose friends had once owned the home of C.S. Lewis.
“Oh, it was very long ago,” Alison replied. “Back in 1985, I think that’s when they sold it to the Americans. It was just a nice country home for them. They had children. It was a lovely place for children.”
“Oh, wow! That’s incredible.”
“It will be quite a long walk for you to get there,” she added. “Don’t you think they should be on the Risinghurst bus?” Alison turned and asked a friend sitting next to her. A striking gal with dark hair and a generous smile.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I know where it is because I have friends who live up there. Why don’t you pop off with me when we stop and I’ll carry you there.”
And just like that, Karen who has a brother named Kevin (you can’t make this stuff up), offered to carry us to The Kilns in her Mini-Cooper, which in case you didn’t know it, are made in a town just up the way from Oxford.
“I will follow you if you like,” Alison said. Her offer was to keep her friend safe, in case we were reincarnations of Bonnie and Clyde. Wisdom. I loved her concern for her friend.
“No. Don’t worry,” Karen replied.
“Are you sure?” I asked. Still overcome by her hospitality and generosity. She told us later that she had been to Spain recently and fallen after only one drink but sprained her ankles and all these people rushed to help her, so this was just her way of paying it forward.
So we popped off the bus when Alison and Karen instructed us to, and followed them through the streets of Headdington, to Alison’s home and Karen’s car. Alison’s husband rode by on a bike and we all laughed knowing he’d be wondering who these two strangers were that she was walking home with. Along the way, they gave us tidbits of information about their lives. Alison was a nurse and Karen was married to an architect. They were both from the area. Karen had lived for awhile in London. She enjoyed her years working there but decided she had been there and done that so she didn’t need to do that any more, and she returned to the quiet burbs of her youth.
It took a few turns but Karen found The Kilns tucked away near the nature preserve where Lewis often walked. We thanked her many kindnesses and were grateful to be only a few minutes late for the tour, which had just gotten underway.
If we had to find the place on our own while walking, we likely would have never arrived.
We joined a family from Memphis with their parents and three young children. It was a treat to watch the 11-year old boy with the mop of curls imagine the beginnings of Narnia behind the walls and in the nooks of The Kilns. When the guide, Tyler, mentioned Joy, Lewis’s wife, one of the women pointed to Becoming Mrs. Lewis on the table next to the sofa and said, “I loved that book so much.” Later she would tell me that both she and her daughter had read the book and loved it. She had not heard yet about Beyond the Wardrobe, my friend Patti Callahan Henry’s book about Lewis and Narnia.
After the tour, Tim and I attempted to find Holy Trinity the church Lewis attended but we were hopelessly lost in the unfamiliar neighborhoods, so we gave up and joined Francesca, a former teacher of Humanities, to wait on the bus. Francesca recently moved to the area after spending 3 years living with her daughter and helping prepare her grandson who has Aspergers for Uni. He is a YouTube star, she said. I’d tell you his name if I could remember it. Francesca had the most lovely accent and the sweetest soul. She told me her sons live in Brighton Beach.
“Oh, I’ve heard such wonderful things about Brighton,” I said. “A woman in Scotland told me I must go there.”
“It’s wacky,” Francesca said. “Everyone there thinks he’s an artist, so they all paint the most ridiculous things and display them. One even painted a series of pigeon spit. Can you imagine? Pigeon spit.” She held up two fingers and pinched them together to show us the imaginary glob. “And they write the most awful poetry but they act like everyone is a poet.” Francesca made these declarations more out of amusement than being bothered.
“It sounds like a very creative place,” I said.
“Yes, I suppose so,” she replied. “Everyone is always creating something.”
Francesca wore a gold chain with the letter “F” around her neck. She’s lived in Italy, had an Italian mother, you see. Her daughter is taking her to Barcelona for 5 days at Christmas for her birthday. “The whole trip is dusted and done,” she said. “My lovely daughter did it all and called to tell me not to plan anything else.””She sounds like a very loving daughter,” I replied.
“Oh, she is,” Francesca said. Tucking her blond bob behind her ears, Francesca said she didn’t know what was taking the bus so long. “It was supposed to be here 20 minutes ago.”
We chatted for another 20 minutes and still no sign of the bus, so Tim and I parted ways and headed off to either walk to town, or to find another bus. We got a couple of blocks down the road when I saw a young man sitting on a bench waiting on the bus.
“How much longer?” I asked.
“Eight minutes,” the dark-haired man replied. He had an accent but it wasn’t British. Tim had wondered off, per usual. I sat next to the man on the bench. He wore a hooded sweatshirt and navy tee. He held a phone in his hand and was studying a map which showed the locale of the bus. Who knew such things existed?
“I apologize for my English,” he said.
“Your English is very good,” I replied.
“I understand it better in books.”
His name is Cristhian.
“Just like my son-in-law,” I said.
He’s from Chile.
“Not like my son-in-law,” I said. “He from Peru.”
Peru and Chile have long standing football rivalries. They all need to eat more croissants. Cristhian from Chile and I talked for awhile about what a mess the US is in and how Bolsonaro is ruining everything the way Trump did.
Ever since SCOTUS made their horrifically appalling and terrifying partisan decision to take away a woman’s right to her own body, every person we have met in the UK has looked upon us with pity, especially me. They go out of their way to be kind, treating me like I am refugee from a country that has fallen into the hands of evildoers, which is pretty much what happened.
I’d like a fucking apology from every person who told me I was overreacting in 2016 when I made it clear I would have nothing to do with Trump or anyone who supported a man who dodged the draft and then defiled women and bragged about it. All y’all who thought or said I was losing it, that I needed therapy, that Trump needed time to prove himself, that I ought to cut him a break, let me put it in the words of Connie Francis: Who’s sorry now?
People who have never left the country have no idea how the rest of the world is viewing us. Mostly it’s with a shake of the head, and a look of deep sympathy, the way a parent does when a child goes off the rails. An Australian I spoke with on the train this week, who works on climate change, said it best: “You don’t need prayers. You need fight. You need to stand up to these people.”
Even the cab driver who carried us to the hotel said that the abortion decision was appalling. He’s Muslim. “I don’t know what is happening to your country,” he said. “But you need to fix it.” He then went on to say that we have a Bible that allows for both fundamentalists and progressives. “If you can do that with your Christian Bible, why can you not do that with your Constitution?”
Good question, I said.
I wonder what kind of arguments C.S. Lewis and Tolkien would be having about abortion this week. Maybe Lewis would be like Francesca, who shook her head in disbelief over the ruling and said, “I don’t believe in abortion myself but I don’t think anyone has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. It should be her choice.”
Choice, of course, is the real issue.
There is a religious fundamentalist element in every society that seeks to control others. They want to force children to pray to whatever supreme being they imagine. They want to force everyone to rule their households the way they think households should be run. They tell women their highest calling is servicing men, in bed and in the church. They want to force their values, whatever those values are, upon everyone else. They have the answer to everything, from vaccines, to books that should be read, to acceptable places of worship (what a ridiculous notion), to acceptable ways of dress, especially for women, to acceptable behaviors, on and on and on it goes.
Their lists of dos and don’ts are the fences they construct to protectively guard their fifedoms of religiosity. Every single culture and country in the world has such religious communities.
And they are the damnation of us all.
Tim and I caught the bus along with Cristhian from Chile back to Oxford. When Francesca climbed aboard, I called out, “Hey girlfriend! So great to meet people I know here!” We laughed like good friends do.
But before we left Oxford this morning, we had a cabbie drive us back out to Holy Trinity to visit Lewis’s grave. It was a moment in time that neither of us were willing to miss. Lewis brought us together and bound us in ways that storytellers have the power to do.
Karen Spears Zacharias is an author/journalist. Check out her books.