Saturday: Leading my first tours of the Kilns

Saturday was my first day of leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home. At the Kilns. After taking notes on Deb’s tour a couple days earlier, I felt pretty ready for leading the two tours that were scheduled for me for the day. I had one at 11:30, and then another at 12:30. Each tour takes around 45 to 50 minutes, with time for questions afterward.

I rode my bike to the city center Saturday morning, and then I hopped on the number 9 bus that leads through Headington and on to Risinghurst, home of the Kilns. After taking the bus there just a couple days earlier, the trip was beginning to feel pretty familiar.

I studied my notes on the short trip to the Kilns. Reminding myself of key dates. And what’s said when.

By the way, if you’re wondering why Lewis’ old house is called, “The Kilns,” it’s because there used to stand two large kilns not far from the house. Before Lewis lived in the home, the property was used to fire bricks. There’s a man-made pond just beyond the house, which is where the clay came from. The workers would dredge clay out of the pond and then fire it into bricks at the nearby Kilns.

The house on the property was never intended to be anything special, just a place for the workers to live. Lewis actually didn’t even step foot in the house before he bought it. He was just sold on the setting: eight-acres set outside of the Oxford city center, in the countryside. Within walking distance from Magdalene College (where he taught, about a 60-minute walk from the Kilns).

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at the Kilns that Saturday. Walking up to the front of the house, I passed by the kitchen windows while Deb was preparing something from inside the kitchen.

“Hi, Ryan,” she said with a smile, looking out the window at me, and  turning to leave the kitchen so she could meet me at the front door.

It was at that point that I realized how crazy it is that I can be recognized by name at Lewis’ former house on a sunny, Saturday morning.

Deb greeted me at the front door and I helped with a few final things before the first tour arrived. Getting the kitchen picked up and turning on the lights in the rooms upstairs.

A few minutes later, a couple 20-something year old girls came to the front door. Deb welcomed them to the Kilns and invited them to have a seat in the common room while we waited for the rest of the tour to arrive.

Deb told me it’d be a bit of a trial by fire for my first tours. That they’d be much larger than normal tours. About 12-15 in the first group, and between 16-18 in the second. Apparently most tours are about half that size.

While we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, one of the girls told me she had just had my wife over at her house a couple days earlier. I had never seen her before, so I was a bit confused.

She explained that she had hosted Bible study at her house this week, the one Jen had gone to for the first time, and that Jen had told the group that I’d be leading tours at the Kilns. I didn’t know it, but she told the group they should go for a tour and check it out. Apparently it worked.

This girl, Mary Katherine, told me that her and her husband had just moved over to Oxford in the fall. And that her friend, who was with her, was in-town visiting. From California. Apparently Mary Katherine’s husband is a physicist working on his PhD. So, almost the same as what I’m doing…

After talking for a bit, the rest of the first tour arrived. There were about a dozen people or so in the group, made of of a couple British families who were traveling around the country. A pair of parents and their children, with the oldest kids in their early twenties.

I introduced myself to the group. Told them what I was up to here in Oxford. And then asked a bit about what brought them here to Oxford and the Kilns. Apparently a couple of them were pretty big Lewis fans. The wives / moms in the group. I figure it’s helpful knowing what brought them here in the first place, to know what will interest them along the way.

I told them it was actually my first time leading tours at the Kilns. I was thankful no one decided to leave at that point. I told them Deb would be joining us, or at least hanging back, to act as my training wheels for the day. And then I kicked off the tour.

I shared a bit about the history of the house and Lewis’ life from the common room. I told them how, after Lewis and his brother had died, that a family bought the home and left it in pretty poor shape by the mid-80’s. How the house became the eye-sore of the neighborhood at that point. And how it likely would’ve been steamrolled to make room for new housing had it not been for a group of Americans who got involved. A group who wanted to see the house maintained as a way to remember Lewis’ life and his legacy.

I told them about all the work that went in to restoring the house into what they now saw. Into the conditions that help us picture what it looked like during Lewis’ day, minus the period before Joy (Lewis’ wife-to-be) arrived and put the house in order. When it was just the brothers living at the home, apparently it was a bit of a bachelor pad. They’d dump out their pipe tobacco right on the carpets and grind it in with their shoes. As a way to keep away the moths. Apparently the moths aren’t the only thing it kept away. It was in such bad shape at one point that J.R.R. Tolkein’s wife apparently forbid her husband from visiting the house, as she didn’t want him getting sick.

For all practical purposes, the Kilns fit Lewis and his brother just fine. Set out in the country, it provided ample opportunity for walks outdoors. To talk. And to work on their writing with little worry of being bothered by the bustle of living in the city. Apparently the house was filled with books. Stacked up in every room, several rows deep. Lining the walls in the hallways, and even up the staircase. Lewis used to joke that their house was held up by books and cobwebs.

I led the group through the home, pointing out different things along the way. Photos hanging from the wall. And mentioning stories that had been told to me about the photos. And about those in them.

We wrapped up the tour in the library, and I said my goodbyes to the group. The girl who had hosted Jen’s Bible study several days earlier thanked me for the tour. Her and her friend told me they had really enjoyed it.

Before I made my way back to the front of the house, to get ready for the next group, one of the wives from the group asked me how it went, being my first tour and all.

“Well, I’m feeling pretty good about it,” I told her. “But maybe you should tell me.”

She laughed. “You did a great job,” she said with a wide smile.

The group left out the back door and I returned to the front of the house. To see if anyone from the second group had arrived. They had. Two older ladies were seated on a bench in the garden just outside the front door.

“Hi there,” I said to them. “Are you both here for the tour?”

“Yes we are,” one of them spoke up. “We were just enjoying our lunch from here in the garden.”

As sunny as it was, it was a perfect day for a lunch outdoors.

I introduced myself to them both. And asked where they were from. They were from the States. The south. One of the women had just moved over to England. To act as a “live-in Mom” for some of the American students at one of the houses just outside the city center. Her name was Kitty. The other woman was Kitty’s friend who was visiting from back home. Previously, she had been a math professor at Columbia.

Not long after meeting the two of them, a girl in her early twenties with a backpack came walking up to the house. She introduced herself and said she was looking for the tour. I told her she had found it. She, too, was from the States. She’s a student at Stanford, and she’s currently doing a study-abroad program here at Oxford. For a year. She told me she had been wanting to come up for a tour since arriving in the fall, but that she was only just finding time.

We made our way into the house and took our seats in the common room. Not long after, Deb greeted a good-sized group. Also from the States. A class, apparently, that was touring the UK. They stopped by Oxford and the Kilns as part of their trip. Rounding out the tour was a group of early twenty-somethings from Ireland. A handful of guys, and one girl. One of them was studying here. And the rest were his friends from back home.

Being made up of more Americans than the first group, the second group seemed much more excited about the tour. More smiles and laughs at the Lewis stories. More “Wow!”‘s at the different photos around the house.

And I loved it. Every bit of it. The opportunity not just to be at Lewis’ house, but to get to talk about Lewis for hours on end. And being paid for it. I kept waiting for the catch.

At the end of the tour, I shook several hands. And said lots of “your welcomes” before catching up with Deb. We each found a seat in the common room. To recap my first tours.

She told me I did a great job. Especially for being my first tours. She told me I seemed really comfortable speaking to the groups. And natural. And that it seemed like I was much more comfortable the second time around.

I told her I thought that was probably largely due to the fact that the second group was more heavily American. And that I could read them much better than the first group.

She corrected me on one thing I had wrong (referencing a wrong book), but that, overall, it seemed like it went really well. And she said she was really thankful to have my help leading the tours.

I told her it really was my pleasure. And that I still found it hard to believe I was actually doing this.

Sunday: More fire than stone at Fire & Stone Pizza

Our fellow Washingtonian friends, Rob & Vanessa, have been arranging Sunday evening dinners for a while now. For several American couples here in Oxford. Sometimes this is hosted at someone’s home (when Vanessa made Mexican food at her house, for example), but, for the most part, we tend to meet at a restaurant in the city center. We’ve really enjoyed getting together with the group, and sharing laughs with the other couples.

This particular week Vanessa sent out an e-mail inviting everyone to pizza at Fire & Stone. She had a two-for-one coupon she was excited to share with the group. Being students again, everyone in the group is pretty big on finding good deals when we can. We told Vanessa to count us in.

We had attended St. Aldate’s that night, knowing we’d be in town for dinner anyway, so we walked up to Fire & Stone with some of those who had attended the evening service as well: Penn & Grace, and Lauren. Lauren’s husband, Tyler, was working on a class assignment, so he was going to meet us at the restaurant. We were talking abut our week as we walked along the sidewalk in front of the dark storefronts after church.

The two girls asked how my tours had went. I was taken off-guard at first, but then I remembered Jen had shared the news with them during their Bible study.

“Ryan has the coolest job,” Grace said, turning to her husband Penn. “He’s leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home.”

Grace is studying here in Oxford to work in publishing. So I think naturally she’s a fan of Lewis.

The five of us arrived at Fire & Stone Pizza before anyone else. So we grabbed a table by the window and waited for others to arrive. Vanessa showed up about five minutes later. Wearing a large, puffy jacket and breathing heavily. Apparently she had an issue printing off the coupons for dinner, and so she ended up jogging to the restaurant.

“I’m so hot,” she told us, unzipping the large, puffy jacket and hanging it on the back of her chair. Unknowingly, she was sitting beneath the heating vent, and so she found herself not cooling down at all. After several minutes, she realized the hot air blowing on her was not helping matters, and so she took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

“But I do have the coupons,” she told us, reassuringly. Apparently the coupons were good for parties up to six people, and so she printed off two, hoping the restaurant would be cool with it.

“Worst-case scenario, we just won’t sit with you guys,” Lauren joked.

When the waiter came by to take our drink order, Vanessa showed him the coupons to make sure we could all use the two-for-one deal. But no, he was not going for it.

“It’s only good for parties up to six,” he explained.

“And if we just slide our table over a couple feet?” Lauren asked, half-jokingly.

“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head.

A look of defeat spread across Vanessa’s face.

“It’s a good thing I took the extra time to fight with my printer and print off that second coupon,” she said.

Tyler, Lauren’s husband joined us a few minutes after our drinks came, and we all put in our orders. I love the eccentric menu at Fire & Stone. The last couple of times I’ve ordered one of the pizzas from Australia. The one with chicken, mashed potatoes and sour cream. I never would have thought sour cream would be good on pizza, but it’s amazing. I decided to try something different this time, though. The egg and ham pizza. I forget which country it was from, as well as the witty name they gave it, but I’d call it the breakfast pizza if I were in charge.

It wasn’t long after placing our orders that the fire alarm went off. It didn’t seem to faze anyone at first. I think we all just figured it’d go off after a couple seconds and no one would worry about it. But it didn’t. And the head hostess soon began asking people to exit the restaurant and head across the street to get away from the building.

Anytime you’re  in a building with open ovens when the fire alarm starts going off and someone asks you to evacuate the building, it’s usually a good idea to evacuate the building.

A few minutes later the entire restaurant was evacuated and everyone was standing across the street in a large group. Waiters and waitresses. Cooks. Guests. Everyone. Waiting, wondering what was going on.

“It smells like burnt toast,” someone from the sidewalk said.

Almost immediately after those words were spoken, a woman in one of the the apartments that sit over the restaurant threw open two of the windows. Laughter filled the sidewalk. It didn’t take a detective to locate the source of this fire.

Unfortunately, we had to wait for the fire department to come and check everything out, and to declare everything safe before we could return to the restaurant, and to our pizza.

“I wonder if our pizza made it to the ovens,” someone asked.

We debated finding another restaurant to grab dinner at. Rather than waiting for this woman’s burnt toast to get straightened out. But then we figured surely if we decided to stick it out and wait around the restaurant would do something to compensate us.

“Maybe now they’ll honor our coupons,” I said, half-jokingly.

Rob, on his way to join us at the restaurant, found us gathered on the sidewalk and took up his place near Vanessa. We told him how we had just placed our order when the apartment overhead set off the building’s fire alarm. And how the woman upstairs threw open the windows shortly after we took our spot on the sidewalk outside.

Shortly after Rob arrived, a fire truck pulled up to the curb. Sirens blazing. At this point, people walking by were staring. At the large group gathered on the sidewalk at 9:00 at night. And the empty restaurant.

Just as the fire truck pulled up, the apartment with the woman who burnt her toast pulled her windows shut and flipped off the lights. We all laughed. As if somehow everyone there would’ve missed what had happened, and she’d never be found out.

After another 15 minutes or so, the restaurant management told us it was okay to come back inside. And that they’d have our dinner to us as quickly as possible. The fire truck was still parked outside when we returned to our table. We never did find out anything about the woman upstairs.

We shared some great laughs over some amazing pizza. My breakfast pizza was the best choice I’ve made in a long time. The egg and the ham went great together. I’m beginning to think egg is good on just about anything. Burgers… Pizza…

When our waiter came around to bring our bill, Lauren, wearing a wide grin, asked if they were going to do anything to compensate us for the long wait outside.

“Like letting us use our coupons,” she said.

The waiter half-smiled and just shook his head. “Sorry.”

“It was worth a shot,” she said with a large smile as she finished her glass of water.”

Monday: Jen’s first day working at the Kilns

Jen’s first day working at the Kilns was the the next morning. On that Monday. I wasn’t there with her, so I figured I’d ask Jen to tell you how it went herself. Here’s Jen…

I had told myself that come Monday (Feb. 21, the Monday after I arrived back in Oxford) that I would start looking for a job. I wasn’t looking forward to going through that process, though. The looking, applying and interviewing.

Well, lots of people must have been praying for me to get a job because that Monday afternoon, Ryan told me he got a call from Debbie, who is the warden at the Kilns, and she asked if we both were available to work. She was praying for someone to help with tours and for someone to relieve some of the stress on her. She was also looking for someone to help with the administrative work that needs to take place for the CS Lewis Foundation. Of course we both jumped at that opportunity. I’ll be working 12 to 15 hours a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, helping set up tours for the house, and Ryan will be giving a lot of the tours, so you know who to talk to if you want to come tour the Kilns!

It was crazy going to work on Monday (Feb 28), since I’ve been unemployed since the beginning of September. This job seems to be a great fit, though, and I will learn how to do a lot of new things. Like how to host a high-tea. I’ve already organized a lot of Deb’s files, which were piling up, I’ve learned how to deposit checks for the Foundation, and I’ve started to learn how to setup tours.

It’s nice that Ryan and I share this, too, both working for the Foundation, and it’s just a huge blessing overall, as it provides enough to cover our rent for the month, as well as some of our grocery expenses. I would have never thought I would be working for the CS Lewis Foundation, or working in CS Lewis’s house, where people come from all over the world to get a tour.

Wednesday: Oxford Open Forum

Okay, Ryan here. I’m back…

The previous Wednesday night was our first night hosting the “Oxford Open Forum,” a group Rich, Max and I have been excited to kick off. After meeting early on this term over breakfast in Summertown, we had the idea of starting up a group where people from all different religious views could come for an open, informal dialogue. Our thinking was, “what better opportunity than here at Oxford University to have an open conversation with brilliant people from all over the world about their religion?”

So that’s what we set out to do. Hoping that maybe we’d create something that would meet such a great need that it’d outlast our time here at Oxford.

We began by sending out e-mails to the heads of as many different religious societies at the University we could think of. Everything from Buddhism and Hinduism to the Catholic Society and Atheism, and everyone in-between. We got a really great response from the idea, too. Pretty much everyone seemed to be interested, and Rich and I even grabbed coffee with the head of the Atheist society to talk about the idea after church one day, ironically enough. We met with the head of the Graduate Christian Union and pitched the idea to him. He loved it, and he said he’d be sure to include it in the group’s weekly e-mails.

We found a cafe in the city center that stayed open until 8:30 that would allow us to meet once a week, as we figured a pub might be off-putting for some who held particularly conservative religious views, and we really did want to make things as open and inviting as possible. Puccino’s, the cafe we settled on is a really great, funky place, with colorful hand-writing scribbled all over the walls. The menu is written on the wall, as well as lots of random, witty comments. There’s an arrow pointing to an electrical box in one corner of the room where we meet that reads, “we have no idea what this does,” and, on one of the blank walls, someone wrote, “We had a really nice picture here, but then it was nicked.” One of the other walls has a picture hanging near a scribbled comment that reads, “What, was this photo too ugly to take?”

It was exciting when our first evening of the Forum rolled around and every chair in the large front room of the cafe was filled. We estimated about 20 people showed up that first night, representing an incredibly diverse number of backgrounds and belief systems.

Several of those from the Atheist society showed up, even during the middle of their big event, “Think Week.” We also had the head of the Hindu Society there. Two gals who identified themselves as pagan showed up. There were a number of Christians present, including several from the Catholic Chaplaincy. There was, I believe, one Buddhist there. And there was a guy who was adamant that really, when we get right down to it, all the different world religions are saying the same thing, and he was dead set on proving to us this was the case.

The group definitely shrunk a bit when the second week rolled around. But we figured it likely had something to do with the fact that the end of the term was approaching, and many of the students had exams to prepare for.

Our question the first week was, “Can faith be rational?” After addressing what it is we meant by “faith,” the conversation largely centered around Hinduism. Mostly because most of those in the room really weren’t familiar with the beliefs of the Hindu tradition. Ramesh, the head of the Hindu society and a guy who’s apparently pretty familiar with inter-faith dialogue, did a great job telling us about what practicing Hindus believe. He spoke in a slow, calm voice. Pausing to make sure he spoke with care, and that he was using the right words to say what he meant.

Ramesh explained that the English language lacks a lot of words that he would like to use, which made his explanation a bit difficult. I thought he did a great job, though. And I left thinking, “that really seems less like a religion and more like a philosophy than I ever imagined.”

And, as much as the guy seated near me attempted to persuade us that we really were all talking about the same thing, I walked away from our first Oxford Open Forum realizing there are some insurmountable differences between what Christianity teaches and what so many of those other faith systems in the room that night believe.

For the second week, our question was, “Can there be a single, objective truth?” With a slightly smaller group, our conversation came to focus largely on Paganism. There were two women there, who didn’t know each other, both of whom were practicing pagans. They shared their particular beliefs (apparently Paganism is a pretty broad view), and we had the chance to ask questions. It was great to be able to ask those questions to someone first-hand, rather than reading from a book written by someone outside of that particular tradition. And, while the questions were asked in a courteous way, they were pretty pointed. And, particularly on the topic of a single, objective truth, it became quite clear that Paganism and Christianity stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. Just in case any doubt lingered from the previous week.

It really was great, though, having the opportunity to talk so openly about so many different world views. I talked a bit with one of the Pagan women after the meeting that night. Asking what she was working on here in Oxford. She told me she’s in the medical field, and that she was thankful for the opportunity to return to academics (on top of working full-time) and have of a bit of a mental challenge after being in the workforce for a while. She told me had spent some time in the military for a while before starting her career, which I found interesting. I thanked her again for joining us, and for sharing a bit about her beliefs.

Never before have I been able to enjoy such open conversation about views so very different from my own. And it’s great. It helps me firm up my own faith, and how I communicate my own beliefs, as well as better understand the many, many different faith traditions out there.

Riding home that night, on my bike through the city center and along Banbury Road, I found myself incredibly thankful for all of this. For the conversations. And for those I was meeting. My education is stretching far beyond just the classroom.


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