The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been
As a fan of C S Lewis, I love it when bits of Narnia or other elements from the life of Lewis weave their way into my everyday life.
Recently a friend gave me a special treat. It was a lunch out in the countryside nearby to celebrate finishing the final draft of my latest novel. It was to be at the Bottle Kiln in West Hallam, an unexpectedly beautiful place in a small Derbyshire village .
It was also unexpectedly crowded. No doubt the school holidays contributed to some extent, but in retrospect I can see that the quality of the place drew people like the proverbial magnet and we were lucky to get the last parking space at lunch time. Plus the weather couldn’t have been more gorgeous or the sky more blue.
This meant that my first view of the old kiln was doubly delightful as it rose above the surrounding brick buildings that now house a café and the sort of shops that translate me into retail heaven.
But, of course, the kiln itself was bound to remind me of C S Lewis’ home, the Kilns, in Oxfordshire, so I was hoping to find interesting resonances. At the Bottle Kiln there is an intimate garden at the back where people can eat their food and chat to friends but that is also quiet enough for contemplation.
It is called a Japanese tea garden and I was immediately struck by the effort taken to make a tranquil space that was both friendly but that encouraged people to just stop and be quiet for a while.
We certainly couldn’t ignore the fact that this kiln had once produced bricks. They were everywhere, not just in the construction of the kiln itself and the outbuildings but also beautifully laid out in systematic patterns for paths. Even the tabletops in the restaurant were made of bricks and mortar. The whole place has been rescued and renovated with very creative and artistic touches.
The various chambers around the central kiln are now four selling areas for Gifts, Home and Accessories, Handmade items, and the Card Room, with the restaurant on the other side.
The design motif throughout was one of my favourites – Orla Kiely’s iconic leaf pattern. The predominant colour of green blended well with the brickwork and reflects the green ethos of so many organic and recycled items on sale, all of which were laid out with the precision and good taste of a magazine shoot.
My friend knew I would love this, and I did!
It was also interesting to stand in the middle of the building and look up – to see right through to the sky above through the narrow outlet of the kiln’s original chimney.
It formed such a contrast to the vibrant life and colour all around me. For the brick flue was huge, dark, bleak and silent with the longest cobwebs I’ve ever seen draped from the top, like a spider’s dusty version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Looking up at the sky, I felt as though I was in a tunnel again – the feeling I’d had for the last few months while writing my novel – head down, prioritising work, not seeing people, utterly concentrated and largely isolated. That’s not to say it’s been a negative experience – I’m an introvert and I love it! But one can’t do everything in life, and when I’m concentrating on a book, other parts of my life (like going out to restaurants with friends) just tend not to happen (like my blogging too, for that matter)!
This time there’s the added factor that a massive tunnel in the centre of Nottingham – just called ‘The Tunnel’ – features at the beginning and end of my novel (which is called ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ in case you were beginning to wonder). The Nottingham Tunnel is a huge Victorian construction blasted out of sandstone. This has often been in my mind as an image for the writing process – one enters the darkness of the imagination to construct an alternative reality in prose, which can feel like blasting one’s way through rock to find what’s on the other side. Then one day it’s all over and you emerge blinking into the daylight of normal life again. And friends take you out to lunch…
The light at the end of the Bottle Kiln’s towering chimney reminded me of this – I’m at least out of the tunnel of the final draft of my novel at any rate. I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how marvellous it would have been if the Kilns that used to be next to C S Lewis’ house of the same name had survived and could have been refurbished just like the Bottle Kiln here.
The home that Lewis bought with his brother and Mrs Moore in 1930 that is now a study centre would be enhanced by such a development next door, especially if still surrounded by the fields and wild countryside that so attracted the Lewis brothers. The original kilns in Headington in Oxfordshire could have become a similar visitor centre with beautiful shops, a café (or pub!), and a garden next to the lake and part of the nature reserve that’s still there. What a ‘go to’ spot that would have been for visitors to the area, and an even greater pull for The Kilns’ and the C S Lewis Foundation’s attempt to stimulate further interest in this great author and teacher. Instead of a small house in the middle of a modern housing estate, my mind’s eye could now see a much larger enterprise, with the chimneys of the old kilns visible for miles, like a sign, like the towers of a cathedral calling out to visitors to come and find.
I can imagine Lewis would have approved of a refurbished set of Kilns in the countryside next to his house where people could come and eat and drink with friends, talk about art and literature, contemplate nature, de-stress, and generally have good fellowship together or mediate on their own in God’s good creation. That was exactly what I was able to do with my friend. I could just imagine the Inklings having a drink and a meal here together, discussing their latest work in the restaurant or garden, as we were able to do.
Even the retail side of my experience was a blessing. I was delighted to find the very things I needed to buy – some kilner storage jars for the kitchen (plus they were about half the price of shops in the centre of town)!
But to go back to the very centre of the building, not only did the opening at the top of the kiln itself remind me of a tunnel, it brought to mind the experience of Jill Pole in C S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ when she and Puddleglum and Eustace have been in the dark Underland for what seems like ages. Then at last Jill sees a glimpse of light up above and can now emerge, with the help of friends pulling her out, into the heart of Narnia again. Then, what should I see in the restaurant at the Bottle Kiln after our meal, but a little bit of Narnia in the form of a children’s book on the newspaper and magazine stand. There, along with the Tatler and the Times, were a couple of picture books on the bottom shelf within the reach of children. I must admit I hadn’t seen this version of a Narnia story before, but there on the cover were none other than Puddleglum and Jill Pole in a version of part of Lewis’ The Silver Chair! 
I love it when this sort of Lewisian synchronicity/serendipity happens. It seemed to affirm my experience of the light at the end of my own personal tunnel-cum-kiln.
And this linking of tunnels and kilns is not as fanciful as it might sound. Yesterday I looked at kilns on the web to see if there was anything else of interest. Well, there is even a ‘Tunnel Kiln’, apparently! And both the kilns next to Lewis’ house and the Bottle Kiln I visited this week were both built in the 1920s. There were two brick kilns and a brick drying barn about 100 yards away from Lewis’ house which was built in 1922. The area used to be known as the Clay Hills when the brick industry flourished there in the late 19th century.
But a glance at the Ashmolean Museum’s website revealed a much more ancient heritage for this area of Oxfordshire in its Archaeology section. Here we’re told that “large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an “industrial zone”, coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Betinsfield. The kilns cluster around the Roman road…’ . These were developed in the early 2nd century AD to provide good quality domestic ware, mostly for dining and kitchen storage, using the pure white clay of Shotover Hill.
However, these early kilns fell into disuse when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century and it was only in the Victorian era that serious pottery and brick production began in this area again. But we can still see some of that early Roman homeware from the Oxford Potteries in the Rome gallery on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum.
Did Lewis ever look at any of these old pots and reflect that they could have been made just a few yards from his home 1600 years before? And how interesting that Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry – named after the stone quarry there that provided some of the stone for the building of the Oxford colleges.
So, two of the main places most associated with C S Lewis are named, not after any high-flown literary or romantic themes, but after two of Oxfordshire’s oldest and most down to earth industries – the Kilns and a Quarry.
Perhaps my own envisionings of the imaginative process of writing as hewing through rock, or journeying through a dark tunnel, or trying to find the sky through a dusty and cobwebby chimney of clay bricks, are also sufficiently down to earth images and experience on which to build a creative literary life. The kiln can become a model for how I think of my work.
And if that’s whetted your appetite to read the novel I’ve been mentioning – yes, it’s published now and you can find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears
1] You can see more at www.bottlekiln.co.uk.
2] Hiawyn Oram, The Giant Surprise: a Narnia Story (HarperCollins, London, 2005) based on C S Lewis, The Silver Chair (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1953).
3] From www.ashmolean.org/ash/britarch/roman-oxon/oxon-pottery.html, written by Susan Walker, 15 Dec 2011.