Make the Most of a Visit to Runnymede Birthplace of the Magna Carta

Runnymede monument
Monument commemorating the sealing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, erected by the American Bar Association. Ferne Arfin

Runnymede, as patches of meadow and woodlands go, could be one of the most important stretches of real estate in the history of modern democracy. It was here, on June 15, 1215, that a group of barons, in revolt against wicked King John (who, by all accounts, was pretty revolting himself), forced him to stamp his royal seal on the Magna Carta.

The Great Charter, as it is also known, is a list of rights and liberties that, for the first time, established the rule of law, set limits to a ruler's power and declared that everyone, even a king, was subject to the law of the land.

It established the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers, among other things and is considered the foundation of civil liberties that are echoed in the US Constitution, the constitutions of most western democracies, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and even the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So important is this document that UNESCO, which regularly grants World Heritage status to important historic and natural sites around the world has actually granted the Magna Carta "Memory of the World" status.

The Meadow Where it All Began

Runnymede, a water meadow beside the Thames where it was sealed, is halfway between Windsor Castle, where the King's forces were based, and the village of Staines, where the barons were encamped. The location, as well as the Magna Carta itself, seems to have more resonance with North Americans and Australians than it does with the British themselves.

In fact, the site and about 182 acres of adjoining land were presented to the National Trust by an American widow in 1929.

Perhaps because of this, there is very little to see at Runnymede. Beside the riverside meadows and open woodlands, there are three monuments:

  • to John F. Kennedy,  on an acre of land given to the people of the United States by the people of Britain in 1965
  • to the Magna Carta, erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association
  • to the Commonwealth airmen and women who died in World War II.

So Why Go?

There are no museums and the only interpretation consists of several placards explaining some of the history leading up to Magna Carta.

Let's be honest, a visit to Runnymede is more of a pilgrimage to hallowed ground for history buffs than a day out at a diverting attraction. If you're visiting Britain from abroad, unless you have a special interest, a visit to Runnymede on its own may not be worth a special trip.

But it does make a fine add-on if you are already in the area. The lovely landscape, with its memorials and meandering river banks, is just three and a half miles from Windsor Castle and about five miles from Legoland Windsor Resort. If you are on a family trip, a quick side excursion to Runnymede can be a fun way to add a little easy to swallow education, especially in 2015, the year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Your kids may be surprised to learn that places, where important things have happened, don't have to be turned into theme parks to be fun.

Three Ways to Make it Family Fun

  1. Take a Windsor Castle lunch break - The Queen's generosity at opening her weekend home to the public does not extend to any catering facilities. You cannot bring food into the grounds for a picnic and you can only buy water in the shops.  But, you can break up your day by going off the castle grounds for a lunch break (make sure to have your ticket stamped). Why not pick up a picnic from one of the local shops (restaurant choices for families in Windsor are dire). Once you arrive at Runnymede, there's is plenty of open space and easy woodland trails for kids to run around and let off steam. The Pleasure Ground just across the road has playground equipment and benches beside the river. Drinks, snacks, and restrooms are available at the lodges, next to the National Trust Runnymede parking. If you aren't driving yourself, Windsor Taxi can be booked in advance on line. The journey takes less than 10 minutes.
  1. Follow a trail with an app - Runnymede Explored, available free from both the Apple and Android app stores, was put together by students from Royal Holloway College, University of London. The campus, in Egham, Surrey, practically adjoins the Runnymede site and all 19 of the university's departments were involved in creating the app. You can use it to follow trails that feature history, geography, politics, nature, ecology, and arts. There are a children's trail and a page of walking trails. There's also a very good field guide for spotting and learning about flora and fauna at the site.
  2. Take a Boat Ride - The Thames near Runnymede is a quiet, meandering stretch, a million miles from the wide tidal river that passes through London.  French Brothers operate riverboats on the Thames that pair Runnymede with other popular destinations.  You can cruise to Windsor - one way or round trip, or cruise to Hampton Court Palace. Cream tea hampers can be booked for the Windsor cruise. As a real treat for your children, you can board the Lucy Fisher, a replica of a Victorian paddle steamer, for a short, 45-minute circuit cruise from the Runnymede Boathouse. Free parking in the main National Trust Runnymede car park is included - ask the skipper for a voucher.