In final few days of August, I spent five nights staying at a three star hotel in Staines. Not exactly the height of glamour, though I certainly enjoyed the perversity of telling people. Aside from it being rather cheap to stay there during a pandemic, Staines offers easy access to a number of really important commons: Runnymede, the Eton commons, Horsell Common, which features large in the first third of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, and a couple of small commons at Cobham and Weybridge connected with The Diggers. Staines itself has several commons, one rather large, and is near to some micro commons close to Heathrow. As it turned out, the weather was very gloomy, if dry, so I didn’t luxuriate in these places as much as I might have with the result that I had a day in hand which let me visit Greenham and Crookham Commons, less than an hour away by car.
I started with Runnymede. Of course, I did. Runnymede is most likely where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 by Henry II to appease the rebel Anglo Saxon barons who’d recently seized London. Although initially ignored, it marked the end of total rule by the Normans and set important legal precedents which if perhaps not quite the birth of modern democracy as often claimed, has certainly enormously influenced its development across the Western world and beyond. A section of Magna Carta was later separated into a document known as The Charter of the Forest and this specifically referred to rights of common (the Forests referred to are the Norman hunting grounds, many of which, like Dartmoor, are notably treeless). Just as the Magna Carta set down in law for the first time the right of fair trial, The Charter of the Forest handed rights back to communities over property which they didn’t own but nevertheless needed to survive. Many of the terms connected with commons – such as estovers – are found in this document. If Magna Carta is a radical statement about the rights of the individual, The Charter of the Forest is a radical statement about the rights of the community.
Magna Carta has accumulated to itself a quasi-mystical aura. The Americans in particular, are fans and indeed much of it was transferred directly into their constitution. More recently, it was invoked – entirely incorrectly – as a reason for breaking national lockdowns intended to halt or reduce the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, key extracts being pasted, taped and blu-tacked into the windows of non-compliant gyms, coffee shops, hairdressers and pubs around the country. As a result, Runnymede is a bit of a celebrity location for the National Trust, who own it and manage it, especially having just passed an 800th anniversary of its signing.
It’s a lot to live up to for 75 hectares of meadow and pasture, a sliver of the Thames Path and a bit of boggy wood around a largely choked oxbow lake which is a SSSI. If anything, the wooded hills above, also owned by the National Trust, are more enticing.
The small patchwork of fields and hedgerows (Runnymede is actually just one field out of these but has given its name to the entire common) might be unassuming but they are very pleasant, a place for dog-walkers and cows, a spot where space can be enjoyed.
It is, of course, impossible to go anywhere without being reminded of Runnymede’s historic and ideological significance. There is signage everywhere and over time, a small village of monuments has grown up – from the handsome Lutyens lodges at each road entrance (1931), to the American Bar Association’s neat little temple just up the hill (1957), to the two art installations created for the 800th (Hew Locke’s The Jurors and Mark Wallinger’s Writ in Water).
This gives the slightly disconcerting feeling of being in two places at once – Runnymede as physical, immediately encountered location and Runnymede as myth, as icon, as idea. And however sympathetic the monuments are – Writ in Water nestles nicely into aparticularly wet and scruffy patch of meadow – it detracts from the place as place. The Magna Carta Memorial is particularly strange, as if an offcut of DC’s grandiose Mall complex had been flown over and planted to one side. The Jurors, though a beautiful and compelling work, only makes sense close up, looking somewhat ridiculous from afar as if the madhatter had abandoned its teaparty and taken the table with him. And the Lutyens lodges raise one’s expectations that a great house must surely be ahead.
Runnymede as a physical place is not allowed to speak, so it seems, even though, as a common, and one that came within a whisker of enclosure in the urban mania for enclosure in the late c.19th, it is itself an enactment of that fabled document. Beyond the cows, the occasional runner, the infrequent dogwalker, it seems entirely overwhelmed by its significance. As if passing comment on this, the American Bar Association chose to site their memorial above and apart from the common; like democracy itself, the idea is more of an abstraction, more partial and less evidential than many of its most fervent advocates perhaps want to let on, even to themselves. And even the cows aren’t grazing thanks to commoners’ rights, as Runnymede has no commoners.
Perhaps this dissonance is in part due to tourism. Being a National Trust property, there is, of course, a tea room in one of the lodges, and the car parks are jealously guarded by automatic barriers that point high into the air from 9am on the dot. Perhaps, in part, it’s because much of the area bordering Runnymede contains houses with gardens so large that public green space becomes unnecessary, perhaps even vulgar to their occupants, and I would have expected more of a feel of localism here, just a short walk from Staines and Windsor, a feel very much in evidence at Staines Moor and, very surprisingly, the Eton commons.
In fact, there were precious few signs of human activity, whether den-building, mark-making or even litter. Tellingly, Runnymede does have a covid tree, but it’s part of an art project called Forest of Memories rather than a spontaneous community outpouring. That’s not to dismiss Forest of Memories – it’s both beautiful and haunting – but it does take its place along with the other memorials at the site rather than feeling a part of the landscape.
Why does this bother me? Well, I want a common to feel part of the community around it, whether Southborough or Walton Hill or Dartmoor. Historically, a common is embedded within the economic, cultural and geographic contexts around it, and where that is intact, however altered over time, it feels as if the common is alive.
I probably would need to spend longer at Runnymede to get to the bottom of and test out these feelings, and I’m sure the link with community is there, albeit rather more subtle. I did, in fact, find a couple of bit of tampering: a faded rainbow-shaded log (presumably created during one of the national lockdowns, when Runnymede would indeed have been returned to its local community) and a can of cider placed by a roadside next to an apple (deliberately of not I’m not sure).
Most curious of all, the Magna Carta Memorial appeared to have been smeared in one place with either blood or faeces and something, I’m presuming urine, had been poured onto its marble floor. This, of course, could be just one more layer on top of Runnymede as myth, but I like to think, probably incorrectly, that the unruly, anarchic energy that often seems to accompany commons, both as idea and as actual lived experience, has somehow manifested to give a shove to the pedestal of this rather pompous temple.
I left Runnymede with mixed feelings. I’d love to go back at a different point in the year, perhaps when the meadows are full of flowers, or covered with floodwater, and certainly on a brighter day. It’s a nice spot, but I never felt I could connect with it. There simply was too much in the way.