This weekend I went on a walk near Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215. The walk was mostly attended by old people – who are actually some of my favourite people to hang out with; they don’t give a fuck and know the filthiest jokes.
Also, as I discovered on Saturday, they’re also much better at walking than I am.
When we assembled at the starting point, I was wearing a fetching scarf:
And these, my only waterproof shoes:
Everyone else was super hardcore and wearing basically this:
The plan was to walk around the three memorials in the area: the John F Kennedy memorial, the Air Force memorial, and finally the Magna Carta commemoration site.
“Alan [the organiser] does great walks,” one of the veterans confided as we set off. “Of course, we got lost last time.”
“He did a practice run on Thursday,” her husband said.
“And we left some people behind the time before that.”
“…Oh!” I said. “That sounds fun! For them!”
Her husband looked down at my shoes, hmphed and move on.
We moved onto the meadow (‘mede’ in Anglo-Saxon). The sky was grey and almost-rainy.
It didn’t end up raining but it sure wasn’t dry. The way up to the John F Kennedy memorial was prettily paved, although I had a small cheerful grumble about the unevenness of the steps. Little did I know.
The JFK memorial was a little weird. As far as I could tell, it was put up there because Kennedy was big into democracy and Runnymede/the Magna Carta is about democracy, kind of, so hey, might as well stick it here. It was pretty and elegant, thought:
YES, this acre is MY TURF, English people. EAT IT.
On our way back down towards the Magna Carta memorial, the ground got much, much worse. Again, it hadn’t rained at all, it was just muddy and terrible.
This is the part where I just started saying “NO. NO NO NO NO NO.” over and over.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” said one of the others as we picked our way down the hill, “but I really didn’t think your shoes were going to make it. I told Joe I thought you were going to fall over back there!”
“THANKS,” I said through gritted teeth.
We got into this routine where the oldies would power on ahead, Ewan and I would cling to the undergrowth and struggle on behind, and when we’d just about caught up, one of the serious walkers would look pointedly at my footwear, then up at me, and then gesture in the direction they were about to go and disappear behind a tree.
I can’t really blame them – they were all clearly hardcore (one of them had a backpack, for god’s sake, did he think we were going to get lost and need to start rationing tinned food? Oh god what if that was a real possibility and I didn’t know it) and then there was Ewan and me, soft city people crashing their ramble and whining every ten feet about the hems of our jeans getting dirty.
We finally reached the Magna Carta memorial. And I was genuinely pretty excited.
Even the Brits seemed into it. Living here, it’s easy to become jaded about all the history that’s around us. But 1215 is still pretty impressively old even for people who are used to running into Tudor buildings when we leave the office for lunch.
Also, one of the most admirable things about England to me is how well it’s kept its old flora intact. There are thousand-year-old hedgerows in the country, and even here, just a 37-minute train ride from London, there are ancient oaks, probably older than the Magna Carta itself.
You don’t get that in the city. I love cities but when I go out to the country I am always totally amazed at things like this. Big plants. Old trees. History isn’t just big castles and libraries – in many places in the UK, it’s literally living.
Anyway, I was amused to find out the Magna Carta site was put up by the American Bar Association, rather than some British heritage association as I’d expected. I got to feel a little smug around that one. Yeah, you may be wearing Serious Hiking Boots, but at least my country bothered to come over and knock up a memorial, people.
I also liked what it says about the Magna Carta:
“Symbol of freedom under law” – I think that’s about right.
I mean, when you look at the text the Magna Carta is actually kind of a mess. It’s known as one of the earliest democratic documents, but it isn’t exactly a noble-minded human rights polemic. It is ‘noble-minded’ in the sense of ‘noblemen looking out for themselves’, but it’s not really the pro-democratic icon for which it’s famous. It’s more like what would happen if the CEOs of AIG, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citibank and Wells Fargo were also powerful senators and forced through a law (HA HA HA THIS IS TOTALLY HYPOTHETICAL RIGHT) to make sure their businesses were protected and their rivals were totally taken down.
But the memorial recognises exactly why the Magna Carta important: it’s a symbol. It almost doesn’t matter what the content is – I mean, can you name anything specific that’s in the Magna Carta? But you’ve heard of it anyway, right?
No; it’s a stand-in for the slow process of democratisation, when Europe began to move away from the model of I’m The King, Fuck All Y’All, I Do What I Want. The Magna Carta is untidy, selfish and hilariously obsessed with lots of little petty feuds among noble families. But, almost without meaning to, it nailed some of the basics. People had talked about human rights before, but rarely in a legal sense. It was a shitty first draft, but you know, show me the first draft that isn’t.
When we got back to the hotel, I went to our room, took a three-minute shower, changed into clean clothes, gave my boots a perfunctory wipe-down and sat down at the hotel bar for a single malt whisky.
It tasted old and wonderful.
And yes, on balance, even with the mud and the slippy shoes and the smug old people, it was a good day.
Runnymede is operated by the National Trust and is open dawn to dusk all year. The car parks are open 8:30am-7pm, or dusk if it’s earlier, and are closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.
Free, good for kids, great for pets, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S HOLY WEAR WATERPROOF SHOES.