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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Features

Jack's Life at The Kilns and in Oxford

A Photo Tour of the Places C.S. Lewis Called Home

SOME SAY C.S. LEWIS FOUND inspiration for his writing in the wooded acres behind his longtime residence, The Kilns. Certainly he found creative company at Oxford University and in the Oxford public houses where he met with his friends and fellow intellectuals, the Inklings. In any case, The Kilns and Oxford became the settings for one of Christianity’s most extraordinary figures to study, write, and create.

The Kilns, C.S. Lewis’ home, located in Headington Quarry outside of Oxford, England, is owned today by the C.S. Lewis Foundation. Teams of volunteers worked to restore The Kilns so that it could serve as a study center for Christian scholars from around the world.

A native of Belfast, Ireland, Lewis — or “Jack” as friends knew him — was only 18 years old when he first traveled to the ancient city of Oxford, England, in 1916. After leaving the train station, he took a wrong turn and walked away from Oxford down the Botley Road. Realizing his mistake, he turned to see Oxford in the distance. “There … never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers,” he later wrote.

Lewis was to live in the Oxford area for the rest of his life, first as a student at University College and later as a member of the faculty of Magdalen College, two of the more than 30 colleges that made up Oxford University at the time. His education was interrupted by World War I, and when a close army friend, Paddy Moore, died in France in 1918, Lewis took on the responsibility of caring for the soldier’s mother and sister. In 1930, Jack Lewis and his brother, Warnie Lewis, pooled their money with that of Mrs. Janie King Moore to purchase The Kilns, a 9-acre property in Headington Quarry, just east of Oxford.

Warnie recorded their first impressions of The Kilns in a July 7, 1930, diary entry: “Jack and I went out and saw the place, and I instantly caught the infection. …The view from the cliff over the dim blue distance is simply glorious.”

The house was built in 1922 on a site that had been used to make bricks for the local area. Its name came from two old, funnel-shaped kilns, that were still located on the property. With the home also came a brick-drying house, tennis court, woods, and a pond. “The place was lovely and secluded …,” wrote Lewis’ former pupil George Sayer in Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times. “Jack loved to wander through the woods during every season of the year and always wrote about the estate idyllically.”

In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Jack wrote: “The Kilns has been delightful. I know the pond looks dirty, but one comes out perfectly clean. I wish you could join me as I board the punt in the before-breakfast solitude … .”

Walking was one of Lewis’ preferred modes of transportation, and the 3-mile walk from The Kilns to Oxford took him through the lamppost-lined streets of old Headington, through the Fellows Garden, and onto the grounds of Magdalen College along Addison’s Walk. Since Lewis had rooms at Magdalen, he spent several days and nights each week in Oxford.

It was while reading and studying in his Magdalen rooms that Lewis completed a gradual process of converting from atheism to theism. Later, with the help of friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, he became a Christian. As a new believer, Lewis began attending Morning Prayer in Magdalen Chapel and 8 a.m. Sunday services at Holy Trinity Church — the local parish near The Kilns that became his church “home” for 33 years.

Lewis was a founding member of the Inklings, a group of Oxford Christians — including Tolkien, Dyson, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams — who met in Lewis’ rooms, or at The Eagle and Child, a local pub on St. Giles Street. They shared a love of imaginative literature and lively conversation. “Meetings of the Inklings made him utterly happy,” Sayer wrote of Lewis.

After Mrs. Moore’s death in 1951, Jack and Warnie lived quietly at The Kilns. It was during this time that Jack received a letter from Joy Davidman Gresham, an American poet. She came to Oxford to meet him, and they became friends. Eventually, Lewis offered to marry her in a civil wedding so that she could stay in England. When it was discovered that Joy had cancer, Jack and Joy were married in an ecclesiastical ceremony in Wingfield Hospital in Headington.

During a remission of her cancer, Joy came to live with Lewis at The Kilns for three years, taking notice of its state of disrepair. She organized a complete renovation of the home — and in so doing, became the first American to “save” The Kilns. She died on July 13, 1960.

Lewis lived at The Kilns for another three years and died there November 22, 1963, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lewis is buried in Holy Trinity’s churchyard.

Today, The Kilns and Oxford are places of pilgrimage for people from around the world who want to trace the footsteps of C.S. Lewis. His lasting influence is evident when visitors — including poets, politicians, scholars, and schoolchildren — arrive unannounced, seeking a tour of The Kilns, and recounting the ways in which the Oxford professor changed their lives.

— BY Kim Gilnett
— Photos By Dick Makin

Involved with C.S. Lewis study for more than 30 years, Fine Arts Marketing Associate Kim Gilnett was an early staff member for the Seattle Pacific University C.S. Lewis Institute, and helped lead several SPU C.S. Lewis study tours to Oxford. He is a member of the C.S. Lewis Foundation Board of Trustees, and from 1993 to 2000 provided leadership for the Foundation’s restoration of The Kilns. Since 2000, Gilnett has helped to host the Foundation’s Summer Seminars at The Kilns.

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