In 2006, I traveled to England and Ireland in search of the places that inspired Narnia. I began in Oxford, where C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles, and went on to Northern Ireland, where he grew up. Lewis always maintained that the Counties Down and Antrim were the models for Narnia, especially the area around the Mourne Mountains near the Lough of Carlingford. Others (such as his illustrator, Pauline Baynes), seem to see it as more English. Here are some of the photographs I took during my trip. Select this link to return to the main site.
Lewis and friends frequently took this path along the river to get to a waterside pub called the Trout, famous for its strolling peacocks. It's still there, and the food is excellent.
The undeveloped land that came with Lewis' home, the Kilns, was eventually donated to the community and combined with a neighbor's property to form a tiny public nature reserve. Lewis often walked in the "little wood" behind this sign.
CSL's longtime home in the Oxford suburb of Headington included 8 acres of woodland in addition to the house. This pond was on the land, and was reputed to be a spot where the poet Shelley liked to sail paper boats. Lewis, very fond of "bathing," would swim here every day that the weather and his health permitted.
As you go past the sign and the pond, you enter the little wood where Lewis walked daily. He saw all kinds of animals here, but was most thrilled after spotting a badger.
The spot in England that reminded me most of Narnia. Here is how Lewis described it during winter in a 1935 letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves:
"We had about a week of snow with frost on top of it — and then the rime coming out of the air and making thick woolly formations on every branch. The little wood was indescribably beautiful. I used to go and crunch about on the crusted snow in it every evening — for the snow kept it light long after sunset. It was a labyrinth of white — the smallest twigs looking thick as seaweed and building up a kind of cathedral vault overhead. One thing the snow showed me was the amazingly high population of rabbits."
This stand of centuries-old oaks is now part of Shotover Park, near Lewis's house. There's no special connection between Lewis and these trees, but Tolkien also used to walk in the area, and these trees made me think of his ents.
For readers of His Dark Materials, this is the bench where the trilogy's climactic scene is set. Or, rather, I think it is, because Pullman was very coy about specifying which of three benches he meant. This is simply the most picturesque of the options, I'm afraid.
A back view of the New Building at Magdalen College. Lewis' rooms were on the third floor at the end.
A path that runs around the Water Meadow on the grounds of Magdalen College, another favorite walk of Lewis', named after the 18th-century essayist and poet who co-founded the Spectator magazine.
It's called the New Building because it was built in 1733, about 250 years after most of the main part of the college. Lewis' rooms were in this building.
This slightly uncanny-looking wood actually has nothing to do with C.S. Lewis. It's in Derbyshire, where I visited Susanna Clarke. Susanna said this scene reminded her of Narnia, or rather, of Aslan's Country, as it appears at the end of The Silver Chair
Little Lea is the name of the house in the outskirts of Belfast where C.S. Lewis grew up. When, as a child, Lewis looked out over this prospect, he saw the fields and woods where he and his brother and their friend Arthur Greeves liked to walk and a landscape that he believed had shaped his imagination. Like many of the places I sought out in researching The Magician's Book it has been completely transformed since then in a way he would have deplored. More often than not, in trying to follow in his footsteps, I found myself in suburbs or skirting the edge of golf courses.
One of the few fields left along the route to Holywood that Lewis walked most often in his youth. Here's how he described it:
"First of all, it is by Southern English standards bleak. The woods, for we have a few, are of small trees, rowan and birch and small fir. The fields are small, divided by ditches with ragged sea-nipped hedges on top of them. There is a good deal of gorse and many outcroppings of rock. Small abandoned quarries, filled with cold-looking water, are surprisingly numerous. There is nearly always a wind whistling through the grass. Where you see a man plowing there will be gulls following him and pecking at the furrow. There are no field paths or rights of way, but that does not matter for everyone knows you -- or if they do not know you, they know your kind and understand that you will shut gates and not walk over crops. Mushrooms are still felt to be common property, like the air. The soil has none of the rich chocolate or ocher you find in parts of England: it is pale -- what Dyson calls "the ancient, bitter earth." But the grass is soft, rich, and sweet, and the cottages, always whitewashed and single storied and roofed with blue slate, light up the whole landscape."
Lewis once told his brother Warren that the landscape here, in the Mourne Mountains in County Down, came closest to his idea of Narnia. This is a path through the forest at the foot of Slieve Martin.
As you walk further up the side of the mountain, the older oak forests give way to pines. these trees reminded me of the "dark and seemingly endless pine forest" that Caspian flees through on horseback in Prince Caspian.
Once you climb up past the woods, Slieve Martin offers a spectacular view of the Cooley Peninsula, setting for the old Irish epic, "The Cattle-Raid of Cooley."
The cairn and marker at the summit of the mountain. The Mournes aren't very tall, but they're steep. The tops are the treeless grassland and heather called heath. This is the kind of landscape Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum hiked across in the first part of The Silver Chair.
The pine forests covering the mid-slopes of the mountains are pretty ominous. If these are like the forests Caspian rode through, I can see why they'd remind him of legends about "unfriendly" trees.
Lewis played with his brother Warren on this beach during the holidays of his early childhood, and he named it the most beautiful place he knew in a student essay. It was the model for the beach below Cair Paravel in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian:
"before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea along miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?"
One of my favorite scenes in the Chronicles comes at the beginning of Prince Caspian, when the Pevensies finds themselves magically transported to a mysterious seashore. Most of the landscapes Lewis described in the books weren't anything like the places I grew up in, but we were near the beach. I'd never seen heather, but I had played among "shells and seaweed and anemones" and searched for "tiny crabs in rock-pools," just like Lucy and her siblings. Meager as they are, these tide pools at Castlerock gave me a thrill, since they are almost certainly what Lewis was picturing when he wrote that scene.
Some people say this castle, built on a massive basalt outcropping on the Antrim Coast, inspired Cair Paravel. Apart from a couple of barrel towers, it doesn't look much like Pauline Baynes' medieval-style castle; the rest of it was built in the 16th century and looks distinctly house-ish. The fortress was vacated not long after a big chunk of the kitchen fell into the sea on a stormy night, killing several people.
This grotto, with its romantic name, is one thing to suggest that Dunluce was a model for Cair Paravel. As some readers may recall, mer-people sang at the coronation of the Pevensie siblings at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
This beautiful, wild valley in County Wicklow has only a tenuous connection to Lewis. He and his brother bicycled through it one summer, in search of Wagnerian scenery. They found it; Glendalough reminds me more of Middle Earth than Narnia, but this misty stand of trees does have something of the feeling of the Wood Between the Worlds (despite the lack of pools).
From the heath above the valley, looking out toward the source of the stream that feeds the glacial lakes below. The terrain is stark, almost featureless, as if it were freshly made at the dawn of the world, and for that reason it made me think of the part in The Magician's Nephew where Digory, Polly and Fledge fly up into the mountains looking for the walled garden where the Apples of Life grow.
Further up, looking toward a place that looks like the beginning of the world
The tree over this well was decorated with scraps of cloth and other items. This is an archaic Celtic practice, probably meant to placate a local spirit and preserve the water. Lewis delighted in the persistence of such beliefs. He wrote this in a letter about a cottage he rented during a holiday in Antrim:
"I have been in really quiet and almost unearthly spots in my native Ireland. I stayed for a fortnight in a bungalow which none of the peasants will approach at night because the desolate coast on which it stands is haunted by "the Good People". There is also a ghost but (and this is interesting) they don't seem to mind him: the faerie are a more serious danger."