A walk around Runnymede before the world arrives to celebrate
PUBLISHED: 17:03 07 June 2015 | UPDATED: 12:36 08 June 2015
As Surrey prepares to welcome the world to Runnymede for the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta, historian Stephen Roberts takes us on a stroll around this fascinating site before the crowds arrive...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2015
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It wasn’t perhaps the most glamorous of spots, granted, but it was on the rolling meadows of Runnymede that, 800 years ago, Magna Carta was sealed by King John, and in the centuries that followed, a beacon of hope fanned out around the globe. Indeed, this landmark document would become a benchmark for liberty not just here, but throughout the world.
I’m here today to do a recce of this historic site, ahead of my special feature in next month’s Surrey Life, and to try and get a real feel for the place where the principle of freedom under law was established.
A quest begins
I arrive at Runnymede early. The clink of crockery in the National Trust tearoom in the South Lodge has not yet commenced, there is room in the car park and a peaceful air pervades the place. I have come attired like any self-respecting, slightly eccentric English gentleman, in pale trousers and smart brown shoes. A cursory examination of squelchy fields confirms that the green wellies kept in the boot of my car will be rather more useful.
I must confess at this point that I had not been to this famed spot in over 30 years, and that was back in my bachelor days, before I drove. How I got here remains a mystery, as it’s not the easiest place to navigate by public transport. Now married and wiser, I have sauntered in by car to a place where, more than three-quarters of a millennium ago, a king arrived to parley with rebellious barons.
As I splodge across fields, splattering my trousers with mud, the thought occurs to me that perhaps this was why they sealed Magna Carta in June and not February; the ground must have been a good deal firmer then.
Fortunately, it’s just a short walk from the car park by the Lutyens Lodges (built in memory of Urban Broughton MP, whose widow donated these lands to the National Trust) to the various memorials, which are signposted. It’s not just Magna Carta that is commemorated here now – for the struggle for liberties, first formulated here, has echoed down the centuries.
Arriving first at the John F Kennedy Memorial, I ascend the steps to the imposing monument, a lament for a young, popular president, gunned down in his prime. The shadows of the trees play on the stone and I reflect on an event I cannot remember in an ancient spot that resonates with Americans. We should not be surprised modern memorials spring up here, particularly to a president who spoke of ‘liberty’ at his inauguration – for here, at Runnymede, the aforementioned principle of ‘freedom under law’ was established, something that Kennedy knew was still worth fighting for. At the top of 50 steps, one for each US state, I am actually on American soil – with a lump in my throat. And the day is yet young.
The shade dappling on the Kennedy memorial reminds me of just how many trees there are here. You notice trees at Runnymede. They are everywhere, bearing witness. I pass one planted with soil from Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The ‘special relationship’ looms large. Close by is a tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987. No doubt she paid homage to JFK as countless others have done.
The main event
Soon, I arrive at the gate to the ‘main event’, the American Bar Association memorial to Magna Carta. It is a beautiful spot. The view opens to a portico containing a stone lauding principles established here all those years ago. The eye is drawn to the monument, as hundreds of eyes once focused on a one-time king. I challenge anyone who knows a bit of history to stand here and not be moved. Tingles infect spines, hairs stand and the sound of Surrey birdsong provides an accompanying fanfare.
Next, I carry on to Long Mede where there is a makeshift wooden bridge over water. Signage informs me that this is a rich area for wildlife; butterflies, moths, skylarks and grasshoppers abound. Democracy may have a presence here, but so does flora and fauna.
Never one to make life easy for myself, I head up through Coopers Hill Woods in the direction of the Air Forces Memorial, which bears the names of those lost in World War Two, armed only with a vague idea that it is ‘somewhere up there’. I emerge resembling a battered backwoodsman, immediately mingling with life’s beautiful people who appear to have reached the same spot via an untroubled roadside saunter. They cast a few glances. I smile.
The Air Forces Memorial is another modern monument in an immemorial setting. It is vast, and it has to be, as it commemorates over 20,000 Commonwealth Air Force personnel who have no known grave. Yes, these are just those with no known grave.
Liberties were granted at Runnymede in distant times. In more recent epochs, men had to fight to preserve those liberties. Take a moment, pause and reflect. Sometimes freedom comes at a price.
Taking a gentle walk back down the hill, I use road and footpath to emerge above the JFK Memorial, leaving me with an easy stroll to the Lodges, designed of course by the Lutyens who gave us the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
A British tribute
Here I bump, providentially, into Paul Garrard, one of the National Trust’s ‘Visitor Engagement Officers’. Seeing my mud-splattered clothing, Paul jokes that he is writing a book entitled 50 Shades of Brown. I see where he is coming from. Paul asks if I know of Britain’s contribution to remembering Magna Carta. I admit that I don’t. Not far from the car park, however, he shows me a battered, fenced off memorial, which declares, ‘very near to this spot was sealed Magna Carta, confirming rights which were in peril …’ I am pleased, as I had always believed there was no British memorial, but it seems that we do have one after all. I am in good company as there are several eminent historians who seem to be unaware of this piece of stone. Its story remains to be told as my fairly thorough investigation yields no clues – perhaps readers may know something of its story?
Before leaving, I take time out for coffee and a scone in the tea room (and very good they are too) as I reflect on my visit. Runnymede – even the name is evocative. As Surrey prepares to welcome the world to this hallowed spot, do get along and visit if you can before the crowds arrive. It will soon be centre stage as the world gives thanks for freedoms, hard won, which we continue to fight for 800 years later.
• See June’s edition of Surrey Life magazine for a special focus on the history of Magna Carta as well as your essential guide to the many events that will be taking place across the county to mark the 800th anniversary
Start: National Trust Car Park, Runnymede SL4 2JL
Map: Explorer 160
Length of walk: At around one-and-a-half miles, the walk should take about one hour; however, it will take considerably longer if you wish to have a good look at all the memorials. The route includes some uphill walking through woods and flat walking across meadows, which can be very muddy at times. Wellington boots or walking boots are recommended just in case. Dogs are free to join in as long as they’re on the side of the barons.
Food/drink: The National Trust Tea Room in the South Lodge is adjacent to the NT car park and is open between 9am and 5pm daily for home-made food, cakes, lunches, teas and freshly ground coffee. Parking is free here for NT members, pay and display for non-members.
While you’re there: Make sure you see all of the memorials. Across the river at Ankerwycke are the ruins of a Benedictine Priory and a venerable yew tree under which Henry VIII is said to have courted Anne Boleyn in the 1530s.
Extra information: Find out more online by visiting nationaltrust.org.uk/Runnymede