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Travels in my neighbourhood: Runnymede

Poor old King John! He’s always the bad guy, that phony King of England. Meanwhile, his elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, is remembered as a hero by us Brits, despite the fact that he spent most of his time in France or on crusade in the Holy Land. He probably didn’t even speak English, which is a bit poor when you’re in charge of the country.

Richard wasn’t particularly great at crusading either, managing to get himself imprisoned on his way back from Jerusalem, which cost the English 100,000 pounds of silver in ransom, quite a lot of dosh in those days. Meanwhile, brother John was holding the fort back home.

So why are we so nasty about him? I can’t think of him without humming the Disney tune about him from Robin Hood. Snivelling, grovelling, measly, weasely and much more besides. What on earth did he do to deserve his dreadful reputation?

I’m musing on this because today I’m visiting Runnymede, site of the signing of the Magna Carta ot Great Charter. Suggested by my friends Heather and Andrew. If they’ve been, when they live in Edinburgh, why the heck haven’t I when it’s 10 miles down the road? The pressure! Feel free to tell me, dear reader, if you think I’ve missed somewhere…

Runnymede sits on the banks on the Thames between Old Windsor and Egham. Although it’s best known as the location for the sealing of Magna Carta, the historic and far-reaching agreement between King John and his barons, it’s also a memorial landscape that’s been added to over time.

When you arrive, you may well think, as I did, who’s left a load of chairs out in the middle of the field? Oops, that’s actually an artwork! The Jurors by Hew Locke was commissioned to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015.

Closer up, you can see that all of the chairs are individually designed. According to the National Trust, they represent the changing and ongoing significance and influences of Magna Carta. After 800 years, we’re still talking about the actions of King John.

So why all the fuss about Magna Carta then? Basically it was a charter of rights agreed in 1215 by the King and his barons which neither side stuck to at the time. But it laid the foundations for individual freedom from the hitherto arbitrary rule of the monarch. The document sealed by John refused to disappear, much as he and his successors might want it to. It’s been described as the most important constitutional document ever written and is seen as a symbol of liberty.

Admittedly, King John was pretty much forced into signing away his right to be a despot, but that doesn’t take away from his enormous significance with regard to the rights we take for granted today. Hurrah for the King who renounced his absolute power! Although it might be suggested that Elizabeth II would do a better job of running the country than some parliaments we’ve had recently…just a thought.

You may be surprised to find out that the original Magna Carta memorial was erected by the American Bar Association in 1957, but in fact the document is seen as a major influence on the early American settlers and the foundation of the US constitution. The Americans seem to be more impressed by King John’s historic charter than we are.

A more recent memorial to Magna Carta, and a much more impressive one in my humble opinion, is the art installation Writ in Water. It’s based on Clause 39 of the charter, and it’s a cool (literally on a hot day) and relaxed place to sit and think, looking at the words reflected in the pool of water and feeling grateful for the freedoms that we have, although they have been suspended quite a bit during lockdown. Let’s move on before I lose my composure.

Ironically enough, given that one of the reasons for King John’s notoriety was his lechery (in particular with regard to the wives and daughters of his barons), Runnymede is the site of a British memorial to US President John F Kennedy. JFK was rumoured to have a string of affairs with famous actresses, strippers, socialites and wives of colleagues but unlike King John, he was envied rather than pilloried for his prowess with women. It seems a bit unfair!

The JFK memorial is situated on an acre of land given as a gift from the UK to the USA. I wonder if this is a veiled reference to King John giving back all of his French possessions to France? Personally I’m quite glad he did – who wants to go to all the trouble of crossing the Channel only to find more England at the other side? Not me. Again, it’s well done Johnny Boy as far as I’m concerned.

A 7-tonne block of stone commemorates the President’s dedication to the ongoing fight for liberty. It was damaged by a bomb during anti-Vietnam-war protests in 1968. Someone obviously didn’t buy into the Camelot myth.

There are several guided walks, around the site at Runnymede, and I’ve chosen the circular route that takes in part of the Thames Path. No surprises there! Quite apart from the monuments and historic significance to ponder upon, it’s just a lovely place to stroll, taking in meadows, woods and ponds as well as my favourite river.

I spy what looks like ruins across the Thames and decide to explore the other National Trust property here – Ankerwycke. There’s no bridge but it’s only 7 minutes away by car so I may as well see everything while I’m here.

Arriving at Ankerwycke car park, I find myself faced with something no walker wants to see…

I love cows. I definitely don’t eat them. But I am a teeny bit scared of them, especially when they come rushing towards you en masse in the middle of a field with no obvious escape route. And if there’s a notice about this bull, presumably there’s a reason why…

Luckily he appears to be napping right now, but I sneak along the side of the field anyway, holding my breath. It’s a tense few minutes.

Ankerwycke is famous due to a very, very old tree. The Ankerwycke Yew is around 2500 years old, and it’s believed to be where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. Hmmm, maybe not a very auspicious place to bring your loved one. This tree was here when Magna Carta was signed in 1215 and it was pretty old even then!

It’s not the most attractive tree I’ve seen, I have to say. It looks a bit like an Ent from Lord of the Rings but I’m sad to say it didn’t speak to me on this particular occasion. Maybe you’ll have more luck…

Close up, the ruins of St Mary’s Priory aren’t as impressive as I hoped. Established in the 12th century, the priory was dissolved along with many monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Ostensibly on religious grounds, but the King made a lot of money from the dissolution – hmmm. There’s another one who seems to have overcome some vile deeds (including the treatment of his six wives) to be fondly remembered by the public.

Well, I’ve had a lovely walk today but on reflection I still feel time has been harsh to King John. In the words of Churchill, the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns. In other words, he was rubbish, but his legacy isn’t. Maybe we need to give the guy a break?


Published by stephpeech

So much world, so little time...

One thought on “Travels in my neighbourhood: Runnymede

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