“ Address: North Lodge / Windsor Road / Old Windsor / Berkshire SL4 2JL „
Runnymede, a water-meadow based in Old Windsor near Egham, Surrey is part of the Thames flood-plain and is now synonymous with an area owned by the National Trust. But more importantly, it is the site where the Magna Carta was sealed and the area has great historical significance in forming the basis for the constitutions of many English-speaking countries and other Human Rights laws.
A boring bit about the history
The name Runnymede is thought to originate back to Anglo-Saxon times and may well stem from the words "runieg" (regular meeting) and mede (meadow) which fits in with the fact The Witan (which was the Council of Anglo Saxon Kings from the 7th - 11th Century) held their meetings there during the reign of King Alfred the Great. It has been widely accepted that Runnymede was the most likely location for the signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215 - it was even mentioned by name in the charter.
So what was so special about the Magna Carta?
Well, King John was a very naughty king back in the early 13th Century. Due to there being no rules of succession, upon King Richard's death John, as his younger brother, was crowned over his cousin Arthur of Brittany who already had claim over the Anjou empire (a province in western France). However, King John still needed approval from the French King Philip Augustus and in order to get it he gave away huge tracts of land (cue Monty Python) from the Anjou province.
But one of John's vassals appealed to Philip who decreed Arthur to be the true ruler of the Anjou Empire and invaded John's French holdings to give back to Arthur. John retaliated in an attempt to regain control and Arthur mysteriously disappeared (he was totally murdered) and this led to France turning against John and him eventually losing all his French holdings through a series of military losses.
England had to then say bye bye to a huge source of income from France - not a good way to make yourself particularly popular.
Not content with costing England vast sums of money he tried to recoup these losses by upping the taxes the barons paid. Then, to make himself even more unpopular he upset the entire Church by meddling with the selection process for a new Archbishop of Canterbury. By not accepting Pope Innocent III's choice of Stephen Langton as the next Archbishop and exiling all the monks from the realm he got himself excommunicated by the Pope who then encouraged the French King Philip to invade England. To try to calm things down he then gave England and Ireland away as papal territories and rented them back at huge cost. Impressive work.
To pay for the reclamation of England and Ireland, King John introduced the first Income Tax (now we know who to hate) which pushed all the already irate barons to breaking point. The barons, with support from Prince Louis the French Dauphin and the Scots king Alexander II, overtook London and forced King John to sign the Magna Carta which effectively stripped him of his autocratic power.
But after the renouncement of this original document and after civil war broke out, the Magna Carta was reissued later with a few tweaks and it is actually some of the rights from the document written in 1225 (and the final version in 1297) that still remains in force even today.
So the Magna Carta was an exceptionally important document that shaped society to prevent monarchies having autocratic rights and to try to instil as much freedom of rights and democracy as possible which hopefully covers just how significant it was.
So with the history that surrounds Runnymede shrouding it with concepts of liberty, democracy and equality it has made it a favoured place for commemoration and as a result there are a few special monuments dotted around for people to visit and reflect upon.
I hope I didn't bore you too much!
The Runnymede Experience
Getting there and Parking
Runnymede is probably easiest to get to by car or by train. It is about ½ from Egham Station and is about a 5 minute drive from both the M25 exit 13 or the M4 exit 6 on the A308. There is ample parking, with a main pay and display car park (free for National Trust members) plus a second overflow car park that opens in peak times.
There are two memorial lodges for Urban Hanlon Broughton (a civil engineer and Conservative MP) who died in 1929 on either side of the A305 which mark the start of the Runnymede experience. They were designed by Edward Lutyens (1869-1944) who was a leading British architect and have his distinctive style of angled roofs and large false chimneys.
One of the lodges hosts the Runnymede tea-room where you can, unsurprisingly get tea and other refreshments. The one on the other side contains a 1215 art gallery space which you can enjoy for free. The company rent out the space for exhibitions and training course and you can check out their website to see what is on at the time if you are interested:
The Walks and Monuments
There is so much open space around Runnymede in such a great unspoiled area that it is perfect for walks and a picnic. You could plan your walks around the monuments and other sites to see or just wander about taking in the natural beauty of the area. You can download lots of suggested walks from the internet or pick up a leaflet of three walks of differing lengths suggested by the National Trust from the car park, or alternatively on weekends, Bank Holidays and selected weekdays you can purchase audio tours for £3.
My walking companion and I opted for the medium length walk of about an hour which would allow us to take in three of the monuments. You start at the lodges and the first monument you arrive at is the John F. Kennedy Memorial. This was jointly dedicated by Queen Elizabeth and Jacqueline Kennedy in 1965 and the memorial is in the form of a Portland stone tablet with the famous speech from his inaugural Address. I believe that the ground where this tablet sits was actually imported from America and donated to Britain as a gift - imagine unwrapping that - oh...some dirt....just what I've always wanted....thanks ever so much.
You have to go up (and then down) 50 steps to get there and you will probably end up a bit puffed by the time you get there and if you want you can disguise your recovery time as you undergoing intense contemplation. But the steps are actually pretty cool as they are all irregular and no one is the same and apparently they are made from 60,000 hand-cut granite setts.
The next monument you come across is the Magna Carta Memorial situated on Cooper's Hill. This is a groovy domed shaped monument supported by pillars which is architecturally quite appealing despite its small size. It was designed by Sir Edward Maufe for the American Bar Association and unveiled in 1957 with American and English lawyers in attendance.
There are also several grand oak trees that were planted by the Duke of Gloucester, P.V.Narismha Rao Prime Minister of the Republic of India, Queen Elizabeth II and John O. Marsh, Secretary of the Army, USA all in 1987.
Also in this location you can see (but cannot enter) Cooper's Hill House which has had many uses in the past from a Royal Indian Engineering College, a safe haven for the statue of Eros in World War II, a wartime Post Office headquarters and various design schools.
Next there is quite a stroll to find the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial. As a couple of girls with an innate inability to read maps we found ourselves slightly off-course and ended up in a private field / wasteland. Trudging over the marshy ground we fortuitously spotted a sign that pointed us in the right direction only to be thwarted by a locked fence. Determined not to have to waste anymore time I opted to attempt a scaling of the fence which I proudly succeeded in and as I triumphantly landed on the other side I was met by a fairly deep mud puddle. My friend thus opted for the long way round and I was forced to wait anyway...lesson learnt.
You then go on a nice ramble through the woods (sadly in an uphill fashion) until you emerge at the back of Royal Holloway where all the bins are kept. Ignoring this, you enter the beautiful surroundings of the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial. There is a pretty walkway up to an impressive looking white building which houses the names of 20,456 airmen from World War II who sadly have no known grave.
This is a thought provoking place to come to, even though I can't really understand the enormity of the emotion a place like this must evoke as I was never affected by the war, the sheer size of it must be momentous for people that it has real meaning for. You are treated to a fantastic view over Egham and if you are able to get to the top of the tower you can see to Windsor. There are plenty of places to sit and reflect and the location of the memorial is quite isolated which gives it a pleasantly peaceful atmosphere perfect for the silent contemplation that a place like this inspires.
Then you walk back through the woods and are led to the edge of the Thames that flows through Runnymede so you can have a nice river-side walk before you are led back to the lodges where you started from.
If you opt for a longer walk you can also visit the Langham Pond which is actually an oxbow lake - for those of us that can remember our geography lessons it was formed from where the River Thames got bored of going in its normal direction and decided to switch course. This area is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest as the pond and surrounding habitats contain rare flora and fauna, and even some insects not found anywhere else in the UK.
You may also stumble upon the Ankerwycke Yew which is believed to be about 2,500 years old and is thought to mark the actual site where the Magna Carta was sealed. The National Trust had to buy this land in 1998 as due to land development this Yew was put in danger of being destroyed.
You can also purchase fishing and mooring licenses if you want to make use of the River Thames for these purposes, and likewise you can take seasonal boat trips to places like Hampton Court and Windsor.
Dogs are also permitted, but must be cleaned up after and kept on a leash.
Runnymede is a very attractive and peaceful place to come if you want to surround yourself with history and spend some time reflecting on things, or if you just fancy a nice walk in pleasant surroundings from wild meadows to a lovely riverside walk.
It's also a great place to bring your kids to join in with the walks as they can explore the woods and have a nice little picnic, plus there is also the Runnymede Pleasure Grounds which are just opposite the meadows which has a playground and paddling pool for kids if they want a little more excitement.
There is so much open space that even in busy times you don't feel like there are too many people milling around, so I find Runnymede perfect for a relaxing afternoon, weather permitting!
Plus it's all free (minus parking)!