Did C.S. Lewis Base Narnia on a Small City in The UK (Durham?)

Durham in the winter
Narnia-esque Durham in the winter?

Was the cult classic ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ inspired by a little town in the northeast of England?

I read a lot as a child, but my firm favourite was ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.’ I would frequently climb to the top shelf of our airing cupboard to warm up and get lost in the story. Winters were harsher back then in my hometown of birth and place of topic for this post; Durham City.

I got a little excited a few years ago when reading about C.S. Lewis paying homage to Durham City. It led me deep into the never-ending abyss that is a cocktail of online research, conjecture and anticipation of wanting the connection to be true.

What is Narnia Based On?

I think the “what” suggests that the book was based upon the bible, but the “where” still remains unconfirmed and even contested between a few. Much like The Tree of Life in The Garden of Eden being argued about in terms of ownership, Narnia has been suggested its roots go back to the following destinations:

  • Narnia (Italy)
  • London (UK)
  • Oxford (UK)
  • Durham (UK)

With me being from Durham and loving the book I fell into a drowning sea of confirmation bias. Just because you want something to be true, it doesn’t necessarily make it true. So with that being said, I’ll just throw out what I found, your honours.

And you can all be the jury.

In terms of the name of Narnia; Durham clearly loses to Narni here. Literary scholars said that the Italian city in the middle of the country (around 50kms from Rome) jumped out to Lewis on an atlas, resulting in his obsession for the name.

If that is true, then it’s almost a clear-cut case for the name inspiration behind Narnia.

C.S Lewis Lived in Durham City

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ author taught as a university lecturer in Durham as a 45-year-old man. His stay in Durham coincided with a particularly harsh winter, with heavy snowstorms being the norm as he made his way to work.

The riverbanks of Durham are undoubtedly similar to those in Narnia, with the snow covering the ground and trees, so spookily similar that it would be almost madness not to suggest that this played a significant part in the creation of the mystical Narnia.

And that’s before we get onto the lampposts…

Is The The Narnia Lamp Post “Real?”

Well by the very definition, it’s not real; it’s fictional. However, we know that many creative people from musicians to authors are influenced by something or someone around them in their lives. Often it’s exaggerated, but they still take inspiration from these things and looking at the lamposts in Durham, it’s hard not to get too carried away by the uncanny likeliness of them, and also the fact the C.S. Lewis will have been exposed to them either consciously or unconsciously; especially in the winter, so Narnia-esque.

There have been whispers of the lampposts being similar in Oxford and London, where Lewis has also lived and spent a lot of time in. Apparently, local tour guides claim the Narnia-inspired lampposts as their own, and I’m not being saucy here when I say that I don’t blame them for being open to embellishments for a couple of extra quid.

I’ve heard at least 5 different tour guides tell me that the synagogue that I was visiting is the first synagogue ever in Europe, for 5 different cities. Only one (or maybe none) of them can be right. But they’ve gotta eat, and like Lewis, they play around with their own version of reality and fiction.

So the lampposts are up for debate, here’s a few extra thoughts and passages from the book:

Here is an extract from the illustrious classic:

Lucy encounters an illuminated lamppost shortly after entering Narnia.

“She began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and through the wood toward the other light. In about 10 minutes she reached it and found it was a lamp-post. As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard a pitter patter of feet coming towards her.”

– The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

We know that C.S. Lewis was an Oxford graduate and worked as a professor in Durham City for a couple of years. This isn’t up for debate.

It has been said that one snowy winter’s night, he looked up and was inspired by an old gas-lit lamp post and the snow that covered it. Do you remember that the story highlighted two paths, too?

And here is the modern-day view; the old lamp has been replaced with a modern type (unfortunately).

However, Durham still has the old fashioned lamps elsewhere in the city. So the C.S. Lewis’s inspiration will have resembled something more like this:

Old-fashioned Durham lampposts, similar to those in The Chronicles of Narnia.

Conclusion: Which City inspired C.S. Lewis To Write The Chronicles of Narnia?

We will never know this 100% because the man is 6 feet under. In a world where we get information (and even misinformation) at our fingertips and quickly have some sort of an answer, there’s something quite beautiful and nostalgic for me not knowing for sure.

It’s like reconnecting with our inner child and keeping our imagination alive.

I think there’s a high probability that Narni, Oxford and Durham all played a part in the creative process of The Chronicles of Narnia, both on purpose and by accident. There is no clear-cut winner.

Why would I go off-brand on an adventure travel blog that discusses off the beaten path destinations and extreme sports to discuss the potential muse of an old children’s book? Well, I wrote this 10 years ago, at the inception of my blog when I was back in Durham before committing to living in Thailand.

I decided to keep it up as it got a couple of local historians looking into it and it’s a nice reminder to the first chapter of my own story, which undoubtedly began in Durham. Which city is Narnia based on? I guess we’ll never truly know and I’m fine with that.

Anthony Middleton

Former loser who took a risk. Visited over 100 countries. Trying my best to not get skinny-fat during Covid.

5 Comments

  1. Michael Wills on February 21, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Hi Anthony,

    I enjoyed reading about the riverbanks! As a child in the 1960s I was at the Chorister School in durham and used to walk through those riverbanks regularly – Guess what?

    In those days the old green painted iron lamposts were still there, square lantern boxes as in your film pictures and I’m not sure they weren’t still gas then (My father still had gas light in his office in the 1960s in Saddler street) – The bottom of the columns were broader at the bottom and fluted I think. There are still one or two around if you look closely (1 in the Bailey I think) but I think that all of the black painted ones, even the ones you picture on the bridge might be from the 1980s when all was “gentrified”.

    I’m delighted by this story as I discovered the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for myself at school on a rarely visited bookshelf and never discussed it with anyone at school as the stories seemed little known then. I always thought to myself how like the Lantern in the story the ones on the riverbanks looked!

    Thanks again!

    Michael

    • Anthony on February 26, 2012 at 10:57 pm

      Hi Michael.

      Thanks for stopping by! Did you already know about the Chronicles of Narnia Fact? 🙂 I was always the fan as a child as well so I was over the moon when I found this out!

      • MichB on December 18, 2012 at 5:06 pm

        I was visiting a friend in Durham and she took me to see the site of the lamp post but didn’t tell me what it was until we got there. I felt like a five year ofl again – completely in awe and overexcited!

  2. Macca on May 16, 2016 at 9:23 am

    “Durham is a damn good day out for lovers”

    Walton park like mate?

    … kiki x

  3. Sam on October 11, 2016 at 11:19 am

    I am an Indian..this is the first time that i heard about Durham city..nice article ..thanks…

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In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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