C.S. Lewis, Castlerock, and Christchurch


            Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the foremost literary intellectuals and influential Christian writers of the twentieth century. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English at Oxford University until 1954 and then occupied the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University until he retired. That was an academic post especially created for him.

            He was world-famous for his major contributions to English literary criticism, children’s literature, fantasy literature and popular theology. He wrote over thirty books. At the present time he is admired in Japan and Russia especially for his folk tales and tales of imagination and in the United States for his intellectual christianity.

            He was born in Belfast on the 29th November to Florence Lewis who believed strongly in a good education for him and his older brother Warren who was born on the 16th June 1895. Flora had gained an Honours degree in Mathematics from Queens College Belfast which was an unusual achievement for a woman in late Victorian times. The daughter of a clergyman her father had worked on the continent and she grew up with a love of European languages and was quite fluent in French and Italian by the time she was 12 years old. Flora taught her boys French and Latin. It was from their solicitor father Albert who regaled exaggerated tales of characters he met in the law courts, that they inherited the power to fictionalise and distort the image of other people. Their childhood friend and nurse Lizzie Endicott influenced Clive with her fairy stories and folk tales. As part of a close knit loving family both boys invented and wrote down stories and characters from an early age.

            The family spent pleasant summer holidays in Castlerock while their mother was alive. They returned, accompanied by their nurse Lizzie, a year after Flora’s death in 1909. They came by train from Belfast.  Clive was fascinated by the railway and the steam locomotives that hauled the trains. It was from a friendly steam locomotive driver Lizzie knew that he took the pet name “Jack” which he used so much in his life and by which he was called by friends and family. He was equally fascinated by the beach and ocean. (Duriez 2005 p.18)

            The family took Magilligan House. It was nicknamed by Warren as “Bath” Villa because he did not know its proper name. It overlooked the bathing house at the west end of the beach. From there it was a short walk across across Main Street to Christchurch where Flora took the boys to worship on their first visit on the 9th June 1901.  A letter written by Flora the next day states “Nice little church, next to no people, and the clergyman played the organ also; there is a nice peal of bells which Mr Badge is much interested in”. (Smith 2013.p 13). The clergyman was the Rev. Canon James Armstrong M.A. T.C.D. who in a letter to business contacts in London Sir Hervey Bruce assessed as “a first rate organist”.( Caskey. 2003 p.93.). ‘Mr Badge’ was Warren who was usually called ‘Warnie’ by Clive. ( Smith 2013 p.106.) It was in that year that the schooner “George” and the brigantine “Maria” ran aground just off the beach on the approaches to the mouth of the River Bann. The following day Flora wrote again from Magilligan House “I suppose the air being so strong one has to get used to it; also I cannot get used to the noise of the sea”. Then again on Thursday 13th she wrote, “Such wind I have never heard in my life before”. (Smith. 2013 )

            On their subsequent visits they stayed in a boarding house in Clifton Terrace on Main Street. Clifton Terrace was named after a local area in Nottinghamshire where the Bruce family had ancestral connections. It overlooked the roadway, beach and rock pools on the north side with the railway tracks running past the south side at rear of the property. Their back bedroom window had a great view of the small railway station and its platforms and the signals that directed the train movements were almost outside their bedroom window. They were able to keep watch on the railway activity. Flora wrote a letter from there dated 1904, “Jacksie and Warren are in one room…and their window looks out on the railway. They pulled up the blind and were settling themselves to a morning’s fun… the boys have set their heart on walking to Downhill this afternoon.” ( Smith 2013 p.111) They could take the train back from Downhill after their walk in those days because it had a request stop station. On wet days the Flora and the boys sat on the station platform under the canopy and watched the steam engine shunting quarry waggons during the intervals between regular passenger trains. There was usually a coal fire kept up in the waiting room if they became cold.

            In 1906 on another summer holiday visit staying again in Miss Gilkey’s boarding house on September 4th Flora wrote to her husband Albert when another ship had run aground,”  “We had a great time in the afternoon watching a boat from America with a cargo of timber. She had gone ashore at the mouth of the Bann and a tug had come from Derry to get her off; it was great sport for the boys”. (Duriez.2005 p.22)

             The train had brought him and his family from a smoke-blackened, noise-filled, polluted, industrial city enclosed by nearby hills.  In Castlerock his world was opened out into a completely new vista which made a fundamental adjustment to his mental outlook and appreciation.

            After they had alighted on the station platform at Castlerock the train travelled west. It accelerated past ‘their’ boarding house, then Christchurch, then with a shrill whistle disappeared into the first tunnel leaving clouds of smoke trailing behind if the weather was calm. (see: the wall mural above the Community Association office) 2024. A porter gathered their luggage and wheeled it to their lodgings. They were in a small rural village with the sound of the ocean, a smell of salty sea air and an inescapable sense of anticipation for the rest of the holiday and the adventures they might have.

            In this strange new place he saw sail rigged fishing boats, ships aground and wrecked on an ocean beaten coast, islands on the horizon, quiet coves and rocky pools in calm weather. Rising from the shore were green fields, tree lined paths hidden behind gorse and hedge, forest and lakes in the nearby valleys, a castle shaped country house on the headland overlooking the ocean at one end of the beach and a wide river entrance at the other. There were caves in the cliffs which filled with water at high tide.  Occasionally a sea mist descended to shroud the whole world in grey. Then the loud prolonged wailing moan of the foghorn at Moville on the Donegal coast could be heard every two minutes as   carried miles over land and sea warning ships to take extra care near this dangerous coast. It is little wonder that a small boy had his imagination triggered. He had “Inklings” of future ideas for writing. Little separated the holiday rooms they took and the Church they worshipped in from the various moods of the ocean. Those ranged from complete serene calms where the colours of the sky were reflected from the sea surface with the Scottish western isles of Islay and Jura standing clear and distinct and  glorious sunsets that delighted the mind. Then there were the storms. 

            With the ocean to the front and the railway shunting waggons into the local quarry sidings behind their guest house, it is little wonder that those impressions stayed with him for the remainder of his life. He wrote from Magdalen College Oxford just over nine years later to his friend Arthur Greeves who was staying in Portrush, “I have some vague memories of the cliffs around Dunluce castle, some memories which are not at all vague of the same coast a little further on at Castlerock where we used to go in the old days. Don’t you love a windy day in a place like that? Waves make one kind of music on the rocks and another on the sand and I don’t know which of the two I would rather have”.

                                                                                                            W.S.Anderson. Copyright 20/06/24

References: Visit the C.S.lewis website at www.cslewis.com

                  The collected letters of C.S.Lewis have been published by Harper Collins. Vol.1 in 2000, Vol.2. in 2004 and Vol.3 in 2006.

                  Sandy Smith:”C.S.Lewis and the island of his Birth-The Places, The Stories, The Inspiration”. Lagan Press, Belfast 2013.

                 Colin Duriez. “The C.S.lewis Chronicles-The Indispensible Biography of the Creator of Narnia, Full of little known Facts, Events and Miscellany.”A.N.Wilson. Darton Longman Todd, London 2005.

                 A.N.Wilson: “C.S.Lewis A Biography The Classic Life of the Author who created Narnia”. Harper Perennial. London.2005.

                    A.McGrath. “C.S.Lewis A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet The Story of the Man who Created Narnia”.

                 Harry Caskey. MBE . “Castlerock and its Anglican Church”- The Story of the Parish and Village of Castlerock. Impact Printing. Coleraine and Ballycastle. 2003. Note: The Rev. Armstrong of the parish had as assistants Curate John Beckett 1896-1903, then George Ashton Chamberlain 1904-5, James Kelly 1905-6, and Arthur Haire -Foster 1906-8. over the period of C.S.Lewis’s family visits.

                Justin Phillips, “C.S.Lewis at the BBC” – “messages of hope in the darkness of war.” Harper Collins 2003. London. Paperback Edition.

            Castlerock Railway Station was much in use in those days for example in 1903 it booked through 9,783 tons of merchandise and minerals along with 10,073 passengers. See Castlerock Community Association ‘s website for details of the railway history.

              An ‘inkling’ is the beginning of an idea forming in the mind or a beginning of the forming of a new understanding of something originally unknown or only partly understood.” Chambers.

            “Undergraduate Edward Tangye Lean formed a small society in 1930 called “The Inklings” which Lewis and Tolkein joined. When Lean graduated they took the society over and it became more formal. The first weekly “Inklings” meeting took place on 25th April 1940. They met on Thursday evenings in Lewis’s rooms in College and on Saturdays in a pub in Oxford usually “The Eagle and Child”. Their work was read aloud, discussed, scrutinised and criticised.  This forum of close friends which included Owen Barfield and Charles Williams was one of mutual self respect which provided a secure environment in which new ideas could be discussed criticised and tested. For example on the 11th November 1939 they discussed passages of “The Hobbit” from Tolkein, a Nativity play from Williams and a chapter on “The Problem of Pain” by Lewis. (Phillips.2003. p.103-104).  

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