Try finding Runnymede on a road atlas of Britain and you may well be thwarted. The seminal place where the Magna Carta was sealed fails to appear on many maps – including mine. Which seems odd, given that this was the birthplace of civil rights and modern democracy. All the more reason, then, to pay a visit.
I had come to the area to explore some of the waterside attractions of the eastern end of the Thames, and I was basing myself at the runnymede-on-thames, a sleek and newly refurbished hotel and spa complete with croquet lawn, tennis courts and its own electric boat to hire. Fortunately, its website provides clear instructions as to how to reach this curiously unmarked area. The approach is via a tangle of roads and roundabouts between the M25 and Staines, yet turning off to the hotel I suddenly found myself in quiet and immensely pretty riverside reaches. It was like entering a secret other world.
Set beside Bell Weir lock, the runnymede-on-thames looks on to a broad ribbon of water dotted with ducks and narrowboats. Bustling on the day I was there, the hotel also offers quieter pleasures, including a spa (where I enjoyed a soothing hour or so of hot-stone massage). And there are often walkers here as well, because the property is fringed by the Thames Path National Trail.
A 30-minute stroll downstream along this footpath took me to the Magna Carta memorial sites. Meanwhile, I realised why Runnymede slips off many maps: it is essentially a series of meadows. Since the 1930s, these have been owned – and opened to the public – by the National Trust. Back in the late ninth century, Runnymede was the meeting “mede”, or meadow, of King Alfred the Great’s council – and in 1215, it was deemed a fitting spot for England’s barons to confront their monarch, King John. Here, they famously forced him to ratify the great charter whose most significant clause states that no free man can be imprisoned, outlawed or banished except by the lawful judgement of his equals and according to the law of the land.
However, the precise location of where the Magna Carta was sealed remains a mystery. Legend has it that King John ratified the document on an island in Runnymede. But the island you see here today is a manmade creation of 1834.
The memorials here were even more recently introduced – and strangely reflect a greater interest from America than from Britain. In the 1930s, Lutyens was commissioned to build two memorial lodges, which now serve as an art gallery and tearooms; in 1957, the American Bar Association erected a temple-like structure at the edge of the meadows; and in 1965, a memorial garden was created to commemorate the life and civil rights work of President John |F Kennedy.
From one regal site to another: continuing past Runnymede, you could spend a pleasant hour or so walking on along the Thames Path to Windsor. But better still, between Easter and mid-September, you can catch a morning cruise boat there. French Brothers boat service takes about an hour and a half to glide along the Thames to the royal town, with commentary provided along the way. You pass through two locks, and learn, courtesy of the commentary, about the lock-keepers’ competitive gardening activities; you saunter gently along the Windsor estate, gazing at the Queen’s cattle; and you take in stupendous views of Windsor Castle.
The boat deposits you just below the Queen’s great weekend residence, widely said to be the largest inhabited castle in the world. Quite apart from this magnificent edifice, with its galleries, glorious chapel and stunning grounds, Windsor offers a serious choice of attractions. But first off, I opted |to have lunch – at the best restaurant in town.
Set beside the Thames, Sir Christopher Wren’s House is a boutique hotel that is said to have been home to the great architect of St Paul’s Cathedral. (Although there is no documentary evidence to support this, Wren is known to have lived in Windsor in the 1680s, and this property does look similar in style to the town’s Guildhall that he designed at the time.) Here, Strok’s Restaurant, named after the hotel’s Croatian owner, Goran Strok, presents elegant, epicurean dishes in a dining room with a superb watery outlook over swans and ducks.
I could have spent the rest of the day watching these waterfowl, but there was much to explore almost on the doorstep of the hotel and restaurant. Just north, across a pedestrian bridge, are the winding lanes of Eton, lined with tempting little antique stores; while south, near the castle, is the retail heaven of the Windsor Royal Shopping complex, cleverly developed around the 1897 Windsor and Eton Central Station, and offering the likes of Hobbs, Whistles and Jo Malone. There was just time to meander through Eton and to browse some of these stores before catching the 4pm boat that took me dreamily back to Runnymede.
* The runnymede-on-thames, Windsor Road, Egham, Surrey (01784 220 600; runnymedehotel.com ). Weekend rates for two from £135 including breakfast; lunch or dinner at Leftbank restaurant from £24; two courses at The Lock restaurant from £18.25.
* Sir Christopher Wren’s House Hotel and Spa, Thames Street, Windsor, Berkshire (01753 861 354; sirchristopherwren.co.uk ). Doubles from £143 for two, including breakfast; two courses at Strok’s Restaurant around £22.50.
What to see and do
* Runnymede meadows are open year-round; free access from the National Trust ( national trust.org.uk ). A charge is made for the car park.
* French Brothers cruises between Runnymede and Windsor (01753 851 900; boat-trips.co.uk ); adults £8.20 single, £10.60 return.
* Windsor Castle is open daily 9.45am-5.15pm (01753 831 118; royalcollection.org.uk); St George’s Chapel closed to visitors on Sundays. Adults £16.