From the riverside lawns at the back of The Runnymede on Thames it’s possible to walk directly onto the River Thames towpath. Turn left and walk past Bell Weir Lock and all the hustle and bustle of lock-side life. The river’s boat life is entertaining for adults and children alike, whether you spot narrowboats and all the trappings of houseboat living, or the weekend party yachts with boaters trawling up and down having a great time.
Further along the towpath, you’ll spot The Island, one of the many islands on the River Thames. This one is attached to the mainland from the other riverbank by a road bridge and is home to around 20 families.
After passing a small river boating community and the Wraysbury Skiff and Punting Club, you’ll find yourself at Runnymede Pleasure Ground. This gorgeous, wide open green space enjoys a location on a huge bend in the river, meaning there’s a beautiful view of the River Thames from all angles. This is also the ideal place to break up your walk and let the kids run around, make the most of the playground and indulge in an ice cream from the cafe if they’re lucky. The cafe also serves a decent cup of tea for weary parents!
When you’re ready, continue to follow the riverside path around the bend past the Queen Elizabeth II statue. This stretch of the river gets a little quieter and is surrounded by stunning woodland and greenery. Although it’s difficult to tell from this side of the Thames, if you look across the river, you’re actually looking at Magna Carta Island. There are different accounts of where the Magna Carta was actually sealed, but it’s widely believed to be on the island. You should also be able to spot the ruins of St Mary’s Priory, the old Benedictine Nunnery. Just beyond this is the Ankerwycke yew – the National Trust’s oldest tree at 2,500 years old. Some believe the Magna Carta was sealed underneath that very tree.
To get to the Magna Carta Monument, it’s safest to cross the road opposite the National Trust Tea room – which may also make another handy pit stop. Then make your way back across the fields of Runnymede to the Magna Carta Monument.
Just over 800 years ago in 1215, King John sealed the Magna Carta in Runnymede. This was a charter to make peace between the King – who was a little unpopular – and a group of barons. Among other things, it promised to protect church rights, it protected the barons from illegal imprisonment and it promised access to quick justice. It is still seen by many as a symbolic first step towards what we know as democracy today.
The Magna Carta Monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe and was erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association. It’s a rotunda in neo-classical style, which is impressively flood-lit at night. The monument is filled with American stars and has a dedication to the ‘Magna Carta symbol of freedom under law.’ The American Bar Association erected it to celebrate the impact the Magna Carta has had on the rule of law across the world to this day. In the USA in particular, elements of the Magna Carta found their way into the American Bill of Rights and the Constitution. The monument is a short walk from the JFK Memorial too – Britain’s tribute to President John F. Kennedy – with its Portland stone centrepiece reached via a gorgeous woodland walk.
The newest addition to the area is Mark Wallinger’s newly installed architectural artwork Writ in Water, a short walk away from the memorials. Set in the heart of this ancient landscape, Writ in Water reflects upon the founding principles of democracy, and through a meeting of water, sky and light, provides visitors with a space for reflection and contemplation. Mark Wallinger drew inspiration from Clause 39 of Magna Carta and the fundamental principles of justice it embodies.
Visiting the Magna Carta Monument and the surrounding area makes it clear just how globally important this location is. It blows the mind a little that it’s found in such an unassuming – albeit sublime – piece of the Surrey countryside. The monument is surrounded by fields and meadows, with plenty of space for children to run around safely while learning a little bit about history too.