Pappy and I drove south from Oxford to the Isle of Wight, but not before heading to the Kilns to see C. S. Lewis’s house and then the short drive to Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry to see his grave. Graves are funny. Let me qualify that. Death is most certainly not funny, and neither are graves, really, though some of the epitaphs at Disney’s Haunted Mansion are. What I mean is that, unless you were close to the person buried, there isn’t much to do other than stand there awkwardly for a few minutes and then move on. That happened years ago when Ben Shive, Laura Story, and a few others of us visited Rich Mullins’ grave in Indiana. It was meaningful, truly, but only for about 90 seconds. As I recall, we reenacted the Spinal Tap scene at Elvis’s grave (watch here), only we sang “Awesome God” with bad harmony instead of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Call me disrespectful, but I think Rich would have liked it.
The first time I visited Lewis’s grave it was in the company of a tour guide who said that until he started cleaning the stone and the area around it, the spot was overrun with neglect. Mildew on the stone, weeds everywhere. Nobody in Oxford, he lamented, really cared much about Lewis, and wasn’t that a shame? If it’s true, then yes. Still, someone went to the trouble of commissioning a stained-glass window in Holy Trinity Church, near the pew where Lewis and his brother Warnie always sat. The window, which Eric and I were able to admire from the inside since the church building was unlocked, depicted Aslan and the Dawn Treader and several other scenes from the Narnia books.
The Lewis brothers were creatures of habit, because there’s even a plaque that denotes where they sat to worship. The story goes that the brothers always left church about five minutes early, and no one really knew why. He suspected it was to beat the lunch crowd at the little pub just a block away. Whether it’s true or not, I like the story.
Our respects paid, we hit the road and headed south, at which point we immediately came to a roundabout (or, in Pappy’s parlance, a “roundie”). Then we got up to speed, glad to finally covering some ground, and promptly encountered another roundie. Another short stretch of the English version of an interstate, then another roundie. It takes forever to drive anywhere on that island. After about fifty roundies (in about five miles) we realized we were hungry, so we took the first exit into a village and ate in the first pub we saw.
Since we’ve covered graves, a quick word about pubs: they may not be good at motorways yet, but they know how to do pubs in the UK. In the States, pubs are noisy. There’s one in Nashville called Dan McGuinness that I used to like before I was spoiled by the real thing. In the States, a pub is just a singles bar with wood paneling. The music is loud. Meaningful conversation is all but impossible. They’re overcrowded, especially at night, with young professionals looking for a sad version of companionship. But in England the pubs are typically for peace and quiet and a pint of ale with your friend. They’re cozy and historic and unpretentious. And they’re everywhere. It took us all of five minutes to pull in, order a meat pie, and breathe a sigh of relief that we weren’t driving in circles on the wrong side of the road.
Matt Redman, whose music you probably know, got wind of the fact that we were in England and invited Eric and I to Abbey Road Studios to sing on his upcoming Christmas record. We tried to make it work, but there was no way to do that and still make our ferry to the Isle of Wight. (Thanks anyway, Matt!) Instead, we took our time as we drove south and visited a little town called Whitchurch, because there was once an epic battle between rabbits there.
If you’ve never read Watership Down—well, what are you waiting for? Seriously, it’s one of the best adventure stories out there, and I only read it because Eric commended it to me (and in fact his song “Rundown” from Chrome is a Watership Down tribute). The quote on the back of the book from the London Times sums it up: “I announce, with trembling pleasure, the arrival of a great story.” Incidentally, it’s the book I was reading when we moved to our property eight years ago, and when I saw the big sloping hill (a.k.a. “down”) above our little house and the rabbits munching away at clover in the field I thought of Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig and their epic journey to their new home, and promptly named the Peterson abode the Warren. One of the charming things about Watership Down is that author Richard Adams based the locations in the book on real places around his hometown of Whitchurch. There’s a real Nuthanger Farm, for example. If you’ve read the book you’ll remember the escape at the end, when the rabbits cross the perilous river. Eric and I drove to Whitchurch and, while we never found the actual hill of Watership Down, we did drive along that little river and had no trouble imagining General Woundwort and his cronies in hot pursuit of our rabbity heroes. It was really cool, but because there were no used bookshops I could sense Pappy’s impatience. We moved on.
A few hours later we arrived in Portsmouth in time to watch the sun set over the channel. We boarded the ferry like the seasoned travelers we were, debarked on the famous Isle of Wight, and drove to the home of our hosts, James and Becky Pontin, without buying a single book that day. Aren’t you proud? Little did I realize that when we ferried back to Portsmouth in two days, Eric would once again find a treasure trove, while I, once again, would burn with envy.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.