The Goblin was off work today so we decided to chase the sunshine. Last night the weather report suggested the most likely area to be sunny all day was southwest of London so I mentioned that the ancient yew tree at Runnymede (not far from Old Windsor) was down there and that I really wanted to see it. The word Runnymede should ring a bell…the name John should be coming to mind. Oh yes, him again! Apparently the signing of the original Magna Carta took place under an ancient yew tree that’s now well over two thousand years old. From a nearby flood plain next to the river Thames on a clear day you can see Windsor Castle in the distance, though in 1215 it would have been mainly a roundish looking tower surrounded by fortified walls. My Goblin informs me that Runnymede is AngloSaxon for Meadow of the Runes. This is a magical place…in more ways than one.
It wasn’t easy to find. On the “Welcome to Runnymede” pamphlet at the sight referred to as Runnymede there was no mention of the tree at all, infact the whole sight celebrated as the place where the Magna Carta was signed is on the wrong side of the river…almost opposite where the tree stands. The yew tree is on a piece of land called Ankerwycke, hence its name Ankerwycke Yew…it’s all rather confusing.
After asking several different people for directions and driving around lanes in circles we turned down Magna Carta Lane and parked next to a barn. There was a sign giving directions, but it wasn’t clear! After a false start in the wrong direction we ended up wandering through a field looking for miniscule arrows leading the way. You could tell by the size of the signs (about 3″ square) that the National Trust were secretly hoping people would give up and stop looking for the tree. We met up with an older gentleman walking his dog who used to own the property and he led us to the tree and told us stories about the tree and the remains of the nearby priory. If I’d been on my own I wouldn’t have seen the sign. It was just the right size and height to trip over! I would have walked right by it or fallen over it…probably the latter.
Up close the yew tree was fantastic. All the various offshoots from the trunk had twisted together over the centuries like rope. It was amazing to touch something alive that was over two thousand years old! That yew tree was there when Christ was born. In 1987 the tree was hit by lightening and lost its top. Since then some of its branches have been sawn away, but it has survived millenia. The reason they probably don’t mention the tree in the Runnymede literature is because there are a lot of stupid people who visit the tree and break off pieces to take away with them as souvenirs or worse…climb up it. I suppose by not including it in the literature it lowers the number of visitors and lessens the probability of it being destroyed by some idiot. Other than the tree master we only saw one other couple who’d come to see it and we were there for about an hour wandering around. On the other side of the river…there were hundreds of people.
We took our pictures and left the old thing in peace and returned the way we’d come. We stopped off to take some more photos of a little pond set in scenery out of a graphic designer’s portfolio and returned to the car sunburned, but satisfied.
Thinking about the experience, it makes sense that eight hundred years ago someone (probably the barons) chose that setting to sign a new charter meant to abolish the King’s power and transfer it to his enemies (ie themselves). It’s easy to imagine King John standing under the branches of an ancient yet smaller version of the tree I met today, and feeling cornered and probably enraged in the cool shadows of a hot June afternoon. The tree would have had many symbolisms for all concerned, but one of the most powerful would have been the reminder that Kingdoms fall and Kingdoms rise; that history is written by the winners. John’s act of signing his name to that document momentarily declared him to be the looser who’d not only lost his Kingdom, but dishonoured his father who would have been familiar with that tree.
We drove the long way home avoiding the M25 (the London orbital). I now have a headache from too much sun and after seeing myself looking incredibly fat in the photos (the one included was the least awful photo…one made me look eight months pregnant…if I was eight months pregnant that would be fine, but I’m not!) So my enjoyment was slightly deflated (please God let it be true that the camera adds 10 pounds…or more) but on arriving home I found two packages. One from Canada (a new treasure I’ll share with you tomorrow after I’ve taken pictures in natural light) and another treasure that was wholy appropriate to the day. I think it was Friday when I finally decided I wanted to buy a medieval half penny. It takes me ages to decide if I want something and usually by the time I’ve made up my mind its sold, but this time it was still for sale on line so I bought it.
I don’t know which reign it comes from…part of the lettering is rubbed away…and its tiny, but I can tell from the hair and the crown and a few visible letters that it’s probably Henry II (John’s father). It would have been really really cool if it was John, but his coins all have his hair drawn as two circles either side his head (don’t ask me why). But I’m very excited to own my first medieval hammered half penny. It’s small and light. It’s strange to think it once had incredible value. I only paid £8. I really wanted a King John penny, but all the ones I really liked (ie the whole coin with face and words visible) averaged about £130. I don’t want to spend that much yet…maybe in a few years. In the mean time I now own a medieval half penny. I can hold it and wonder who it belonged to and why they needed to cut it in half…and what they bought with it or if they lost it before they could spend it. (I believe the penny was a metal detector find so someone lost it.) Endless stories! Lovely! It was a beautiful day. The grass was so green. The sky was so blue. And the rosehips in the hedge were so red against the blue sky…
It was a day of treasures.