CS Lewis’ children’s classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has enthralled hundreds of millions across the world, but did you know Narnia may have been based on Durham? Kevin Edworthy investigates

HAVE you ever pondered the similarities between the riverbanks in Durham City and Narnia, the mystical land created of CS Lewis?

No? Well, until recently, neither had I. But it appears the author of one of the most popular children’s books of all time may have been inspired by a visit to the city.

Clive Staples Lewis, or ‘Jack’ as he was known, was one of the most successful writers of the 20th century. He studied and taught at Oxford and Cambridge and his work inspired generations of other writers and spawned one of the most successful film franchises of modern times.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Lewis started work on a book for children based on a recurring dream he had since childhood, of a faun wearing a red scarf.

In the early years of the war, Lewis took a group of children evacuated from London into the safety of his country home and they too were set to feature in the story that unfolded in his head during the war-torn 1940s.

He came up with the notion of a fearless lion, called Aslan, who acted as a talisman for the down-trodden and persecuted in his tale. But where could his story of the battle between good and evil be set?

Lewis created his own mystical land called Narnia, which was gripped by a permanent winter, thanks to the evil power of a white witch or snow queen. The children chanced upon Narnia when they climbed through a wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek and spied a flickering lamp-post in a snowy clearing.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was born and became the first of the Chronicles of Narnia stories when it was eventually published in 1950. It went on to sell over 100 million copies and has been translated into 47 different languages.

Although Lewis said that he didn’t really know where all of his ideas came from – pictures just popped up in his head - various places have laid claim to being the inspiration for Narnia, and the lamp-post in particular.

Lewis was born in Belfast and it’s been suggested that a gas lamp-post at Campbell College where he spent three months as a child cemented the idea in his head. Tour guides in Oxford and London also point to old gas lamps as the possible source of the image. It’s also been claimed that the gas lights in Malvern were the inspiration, with a story about a night time walk home from a pub when Lewis supposedly remarked that a lamp-post he passed would make a good feature in a story.

But what about Durham? Well, there are plenty of claims for here too. Douglas Pocock, a retired lecturer at Durham University and honorary secretary of the City of Durham Trust wrote that Lewis was supposedly inspired by a gas lamp along the riverbanks when he visited Durham University in the 1940s.

Lucy, the first of the children in Lewis’ story to discover Narnia, found herself in a frozen snowy landscape, where a lamp-post flickered in a clearing in the woods. It was there that she first met Mr Tumnus, a faun scampering through the woods carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels.

Although the image of Mr Tumnus had been with Lewis since childhood, it’s not too dissimilar to the pupils at Durham School who scurry around carrying umbrellas and piles of books to this day.

Durham-born Anthony Middleton, the ‘Man versus Clock’ international travel blogger, claims that Lewis taught at the university and points towards particular lamp-posts which supposedly inspired him. The same has been said by travel writer Nicolette Jones, writing for the Daily Telegraph.

Local photographer John Erwin, whose signature work includes a winter lamp-post, was told by the CS Lewis Foundation, that Lewis did indeed live in Durham during the 1940s. As a result, Erwin believes that Lewis must have walked along the riverbanks, which people suggest were the inspiration for Narnia.

It isn’t clear how long Lewis stayed in Durham. Some say he lived here while working at the university as a lecturer; others suggest that he was here for a much shorter spell.

Records show that in February 1942, Lewis was in the city working on and delivering a series of lectures which were published as a book the following year. During his visit he was accompanied by his brother Warnie, who wrote in his diaries how taken his brother Jack was by the cathedral city and its stupendous setting on the banks of the Wear.

Weather records for 1942 show that when Lewis was here, the region was gripped by an extremely cold winter with upwards of six inches of snow lying on the ground for several weeks. There were heavy snow showers the week Lewis delivered his lectures.

So if Lewis was here and taken by the place, at the very time he was writing the book, can the lamp-post be found, as is claimed in other places?

If you walk around the city’s World Heritage Site, you will see numerous old street lamp casings, many original, but now converted to electric rather than gas.

But there are two, possibly three strong contenders. The most popular is on the cathedral side of Prebends Bridge at the junction between the path up to South Bailey and the path along to the cathedral. The original lamp is long gone, but Anthony Middleton points towards the remarkable similarity between the setting, the scene in Lewis’ book and the 2005 Disney film adaptation. Coincidentally, a Durham University history graduate turned film maker, Tom Hand, worked on the special effects for one of the Disney Narnia films.

Middleton has also suggested that the original light would have been similar to those on Framwelgate and Elvet bridges, which can still be seen today. The lamp-post in Lewis’ story had a natural root-like base, curving up out of the ground. The posts on the two bridges have fluted columns which curve round top to bottom.

But the other main contender is a lamp-post on the opposite side of Prebends Bridge, where South Bailey joins the footpath up to Pimlico and Durham School. Again, the original has been replaced by a more modern post, but photographs from Durham Records Office show that this indeed was the site of an old gas lamp-post in the 1940s. It’s here that John Erwin took his signature photograph.

In truth, it could be any one, or none of these lamp-posts, or intriguingly all of them.

Lewis wrote that he didn’t know where the pictures which appeared in his head came from. They just appeared and that was part of the mystery of story writing for him. So the lamp-post could have come from Belfast, Oxford, London or Malvern. And the ones along Durham’s riverbanks?

Well, as Lewis was writing his book, they could have brought the image hidden away in the depths of his imagination to the fore, with the winter setting adding a cold, but beautiful twist to the beginning of his wonderful tale.