Writ in the water
Runnymede and Ankerwycke are set to be transformed with improved visitor access and interpretation. Claire Saul learns about the National Trust’s 21st century plans to reunite these ancient sites
And what else is to come for Runnymede
In the summer of 1215 in a Thameside meadow at Runnymede, a midway location between King John’s residence at Windsor Castle and the Staines assembly point of the powerful English barons, King John reluctantly sealed his agreement on Magna Carta, a charter that made the king accountable to the rule of law, just like his subjects. Its 63 clauses covered law, liberty and religion and first stated the rights of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial.
The charter actually failed in its immediate aims of achieving lasting peace with the embittered and rebellious barons; civil war ensued and John himself died in the October of the following year. Yet Magna Carta remains one of the most important documents in global history. A milestone in the history of our human liberty, its subsequent re-issues and modifications provided the fundamental principles of justice incorporated in many important constitutional documents home and abroad. Globally, 117 nations consider Magna Carta core to their constitution.
POSITION OF TRUST
Ninety years ago, the National Trust began the process of acquiring Runnymede, spurred by a local outcry that the land was being sold for development. Today, along with the impressive Fairhaven lodges by Lutyens, this peaceful stretch of landscape also features memorials for Magna Carta, John F. Kennedy and Commonwealth Air Forces. The site became a global focus on its 800th anniversary in 2015, an occasion commemorated by Hew Locke’s artwork The Jurors, 12 bronze chairs whose designs relate to historic and ongoing struggles for freedom, rule of law and equal rights. Mark Wallinger’s recent installation Writ in Water now also provides an immersive space for visitors to contemplate and reflect on the founding principles of democracy.
The National Trust is now taking the first steps in a five-year project to help visitors discover more about this place of international significance and enjoy it for recreation, learning and volunteering. Backed by £1.6 million of National Lottery funding, Runnymede and adjacent Ankerwycke will benefit
from improved pathways and interpretation and be united with a new ferry crossing across the Thames, facilitating visitor movement between the two sites and enabling a better understanding of their combined importance.
“The site has a long and complex history for us to interpret, it is not just Magna Carta and one day,” explains Daniel Duthie, National Trust general manager for the Surrey Landscapes. “This site was important long before Magna Carta was sealed, it has a 6,000-year history and there are physical attributes there from 4,000 years ago. Runnymede was once an islet in the Ankerwycke estate and the estate spread across the Thames. The Thames broke into multiple channels at that point and created all these little islets which made it an easy place to cross the river. It was a very convenient spot and a known meeting place.”
The 2015 celebrations of Magna Carta placed Runnymede on a world stage. By 2023 the improved infrastructure and interpretation will be in place, allowing Ankerwycke its share of the spotlight.
“Ankerwycke has the two witnesses to Magna Carta – the yew tree which is 2,500 years old and the ruins of the Benedictine priory, around 900 years old,” explains Daniel. “These are both very precious objects, one of which is living. The yew is a wonderful tree and it has lots of myths and history behind it – one story is that Henry VIII wooed Anne Boleyn under its boughs. Over the years it has been conserved and preserved by all the different owners of the land.”
New trails and an upgraded tow path along the River Thames will encourage access to The Jurors and Writ in Water and to new interpretation, which aims to engage visitors with the themes of liberty, people and commemoration.
Along with wider plans to work collaboratively with stakeholders including Surrey County Council, Runnymede Borough Council, and the Colne Valley Regional Park Authority, the project will establish new opportunities for volunteering and for local school and community involvement. An ambitious archaeology project will see participants trained to NVQ standard in a variety of techniques. It is hoped they can then participate in some significant work around the priory at Ankerwycke. The National Trust has also committed funds towards the project but still needs to raise a further £300,000 to deliver it in full. It is hoped that members and visitors will assist in reaching this last step of the full £2.1 million project cost.
The site will remain open to visitors throughout the five-year process. Says Daniel: “We want our visitors to be more engaged with this special place and to know why Runnymede and Ankerwycke matter – as a rich local resource for recreation and pleasure, for learning, for volunteering, and for engaging others in its history and future.”
Web: nationaltrust.org.uk/ runnymede