C. S. Lewis bought a house in 1930, jointly with his brother and the mother of one his friends who was killed in the First World War, with whom he had lived ever since. The house in question was 'The Kilns', in Risinghurst, a suburb of Oxford which now stands immediately outside the ringroad, about ten minutes' drive from where I now live. The house then stood at one end of an 8-acre garden, which included a large pond or lake, which was a water filled clay-pit, with a number of brick kilns scattered around it, and a wooded headland. Five acres of this garden are now the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve, administered by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, and open to the public to wander around at will.
Local lore* has it that this woodland is the inspiration for the Narnia books, written after Lewis moved to the Kilns. This morning it was quiet and empty, despite the sun. A couple of coots were making desultory circles on the lake, although a few ducks emerged later on. The trees were ankle-deep in dead leaves, and there were more than a few muddy holes, some of which were bridged, some not. Behind the lake the hillside rises steeply and there is a slightly clearer patch of woodland, with seats. It's only here that you really escape the feeling of being in a town - albeit at the edge, because you are away from the lower edges which abut people's gardens and are overlooked by the roofs of houses.
I didn't feel that it was Narnia, for that very reason. It was too close to this world to be in another. And to be fair, I suspect I may have had too high expectations of the place. I expected to walk in and suddenly recognise the places where the Pevensies met the Beavers, or where the Marshwiggles pitched their tents. And that was never going to happen. Narnia is not a real place, or not one on this planet: it exists more in a kind ur-imagination to which we all have access, but which we perhaps see in slightly different ways, complicated further by the television and film versions, which took our minds' eyes to Scotland and New Zealand, both a far cry from Oxford.
But when I'd released that wish to see 'the real Narnia', leaving myself open to just enjoying the woodland, things began to fall into place. This woodland isn't Narnia; it's the Wood Between the Worlds. It's the place from which you can get to other worlds - the place that Lewis leapt off from. And here and there I began to see where Narnia had crept in. In the clearing at the top I saw the place where Caspian encounters the mythic inhabitants of the forest dancing and vows to restore their country to them. Around the place lie round sandstone boulders, covered with lichen and mushrooms, known as 'doggers': a board tells of the legend that they were used as marbles by the giants who used to live in the mediaeval forests of England. The Silver Chair sprang to mind, and stayed there as I saw a series of stone pillars, diminishing in size, which looked like they had once supported a crossing over a stream, or the ravine that Eustace and Jill cross with Puddleglum, in the eye of my imagination.
And the best thing about it being the Wood Between the Worlds? It's not just Narnia you can get to from there. There's a forest full of other worlds just waiting to be discovered. I'll be going back to find them.
* I have to point out that it is only local lore, no matter how bandied about on the internet. It seems more likely that the inspiration for Narnia was the Mourne Mountains, located in Northern Ireland, near where C S Lewis grew up, at least when he wasn't away at school.