First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The most famous meadow in the world lies modestly beside the River Thames, just downstream from Windsor. When a sulky King John met his angry and defiant barons at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, the king was broke and facing a full-scale rebellion. The barons demanded his agreement to a ‘Great Charter’, guaranteeing no taxation without representation, freedom of worship, justice for all and a limit on the king’s absolute right to command. John squirmed and writhed; he sealed the document, then reneged. Magna Carta was a sickly seed when first planted in the soil of Runnymede. But from it grew the worldwide principles of democratic government.
To get a sense of Runnymede’s place in history, I wanted to see its setting from Cooper’s Hill, the wooded height that bounds the meadow on the south. I followed Cooper’s Hill Lane up to the brow of the hill, where a splendid WWII Air Forces Memorial looks out over Runnymede.
Behan, Belasco, Chander and Cherala; Bardichev, Smik and Gnanamuthu – they came from Canada, Jamaica, Poland, India and New Zealand, and, in the words of the memorial’s inscription, ‘they died for freedom in raid and sortie over the British Isles and the land and seas of northern and western Europe.’
I climbed to the roof of the memorial and stood looking north across Runnymede. West beyond the trees lay Windsor, seat of the monarch. To the east sprawled London, capital of the realm. It’s plain to see how the big, flat meadow by the river offered a good place for a parley on neutral ground.
I descended through the sun-dappled trees of Cooper’s Hill Wood and crossed the fields towards Runnymede. Above the meadow stands the domed colonnade of the Magna Carta Monument (erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association), and the great blunt monolith of the John F Kennedy Memorial. It’s not so strange that both have transatlantic resonances – the American Constitution is founded on the principles of Magna Carta.
Wandering back east through the buttercups and tall grasses of Runnymede, it was easy to picture the pavilions and pennants of 1215, the stern-faced barons sweating in their mail coats, and wretched King John wriggling like an eel as history caught him inescapably in its net.
Start & finish: Egham station, TW20 9LB (OS ref TQ 011710)
Getting there: Train to Egham. Bus 566, 567 (Knowle Hill-Staines). Road – M25 Jct 13, A30, B3407 to Egham.
Walk (5 miles, easy, OS Explorer 160. NB Online maps, more walks: christophersomerville.co.uk): Right along Station Road; follow ‘A30’ to roundabout. Right past car showroom; in 150m, left (007715) along Cooper’s Hill Lane for ¾ mile to Air Forces Memorial (998718). Retrace steps for 200m; on right bend, left through kissing gate (000719); descend steps through Cooper’s Hill Wood (yellow arrows, purple striped posts). At bottom, left across meadow slope to Magna Carta Monument (998727). Half right downhill to cross stile into Runnymede meadow; left for 50m; left up steps to John F Kennedy Memorial. Back in meadow, bear left to pavilion with Magna Carta tearoom (996731). Return to Egham by footpaths through Runnymede meadow.
Lunch: Magna Carta tearoom in pavilion on A308, beside Runnymede NT car park – open 9-5).
Accommodation: Runnymede-on-Thames Hotel, Windsor Road, Egham TW20 0AG (01784-220960; runnymedehotel.com) – large, comfortable, cheerful hotel beside Runnymede.
Big Camp Weekend: Camp out in Runnymede. 4 pm, 18 July to 10 am, 19 July. Ranger-led activities, camp fire, BBQs. Adult £30, child £15. Booking essential: 01784-432891
Magna Carta Celebrations, Runnymede – 15 June 2015