800 years ago today a water meadow between Windsor and Staines became thebirthplace of English democracy. Nobody realised at the time, indeed King John and his barons revoked the Magna Carta three months later. But the King's death the following year prompted a relaunch, and the "great charter of liberties" eventually embedded itself in our political system.
800 years on, that same water meadow is the site of a national commemoration. Several events took place here and hereabouts over the weekend, with a triumvirate of localcouncils getting terribly excited that something hugely important happened on their patch. And this morning some top notch visitors are turning up for a big ceremony inside a specially erected showground, including the Queen, various members of the Royal Family and certain hush-hush international guests. Having seen the phenomenal levels of security at Runnymede yesterday, I'd put money on the US President himself.
I thought I'd walk into Runnymede via American soil, along a footpath over the top of Cooper's Hill. I first decided something was up at the beginning of the lane, where a man in a turban was sitting suspiciously in an oversized car. I felt the need to double check the 'Public Footpath' sign above his bonnet, made eye contact and smiled somewhat awkwardly before proceeding. A short distance round the first bend was a lone police van, unexpectedly from far-flung Kent, with several uniformed officers standing around outside. They're going to stop me, I thought, but they seemed more interested in the campsite over the fence on Brunel University's sold-offcampus. A tented pro-democracyeco-village had broken out, because anniversaries attract, and music of a very non-ceremonial kind was playing.
Two further black-shirted policemen passed me as I entered National Trust land on the ridge of the hill. And then, as I descended, the footpath was completely blocked by a group of another half a dozen. They were standing over a prone body, my first thoughts being "what the f-" and then "how on earth am I going to get past this one?" Spotting my querulous look a policewoman beckoned me by, at which point I confirmed that the unfortunate body on the floor was trussed up ready for despatch by St John Ambulance, having presumably suffered some extreme adverse reaction to climbing the steps from the meadow below. Any thought that the police presence was solely for their benefit was however trashed by the sight of a further four officers in hi-vis lingering and talking by the J F Kennedy Memorial. Coupled with the silent old man in a white jump suit who was sleeping in a deckchair on the other side, I've rarely felt quite so unnnerved exploring a perfectly legal place.
50 steps down, the whole of one end of Runnymede meadow has been taken over by a temporary arena. A ring of tents and fencing surrounds a large area filled with rows and rows of black chairs, where this morning 4500 invited VIPs will sit to watch a politically correct ceremony on stage. They were doing rehearsals as I walked round the perimeter, so I can exclusively reveal that part of the action will include a video of 12 young talking heads from around the UK segueing into a live dance performance. My apologies if that ruins the surprise, your Majesty. Sealed off somewhere within is a brand new 800th anniversary artwork called The Jurors which will be unveiled this morning. Twelve bronze chairs have been embedded in the meadow, each with a design recalling some aspect of historical global human rights. The public won't be able to get up close until later, but the artwork's website suggests Hew Locke's commission is a dash of brilliance with long-term potential.
A second 800th anniversary commission is a rather more questionable statue overlooking the riverbank. It's a four metre-high bronze of the Queen in her Garter robes, and it was unveiled in relentless drizzle by the Speaker of the House of Commons yesterday morning. It seems insane to commemorate the curtailing of the power of the monarchy by erecting a statue of the current queen, but Foreign Secretary and local MP Philip Hammond was on hand to give a toadying speech explaining that Elizabeth II "represents the ultimate refinement of the principle of constitutional monarchy". Obsequious tosh. Meanwhile the elephant in the meadow is that the statue'sface looks nothing like the Queen's, younger or otherwise, which diminishes the supposed tribute considerably.
Nobody's quite sure precisely whereabouts at Runnymede the signing took place, because nobody thought to leave any kind of marker. But the official monument is the Magna Carta Memorial, a classical domed structure installed at the behest of the American Bar Association in 1957. Two policemen stood guard here too, looking over everyone who ventured up the path, as if they might bar entry at any moment (but thankfully didn't). On the raised platform two American tourists were posing in front of the central column, repeatedly urging each other to stand in the right place (and keep in the sunlight) (and maybe move a bit to the left) and then swapping over, oblivious to the queue of less egocentric visitors waiting for an unadulterated shot. Meanwhile a pair of technicians fussed around installing speakers on the grass, because an ABA rededication is taking place as part of today's ceremony and it's got to beam round the world properly.
Were there any more police? Hell yes. The entire car park behind the tearooms was half-filled with white vans, their occupants either very bored or off doing routine work around the site. Even the A308 which runs through the meadow has had heavy black barriers placed at both ends, of the kind more normally to be seen outside the Houses of Parliament. And yet Sunday's crowds were mostly ordinary local residents come to enjoya flotilla on the Thames, part of a two-day River Relay led by the RoyalBargeGloriana, delivering a replica charter to various points en route. That needed no over-the-top security presence, but with so many VIPs expected today the police were playing absolutely safe. An open air celebration in a meadow overlooked by wooded slopes is potentially sniper heaven, so the security services have had every inch of the site covered for days. So often what looks like freedom is really exceptionally tightly controlled by those in power - plus ça change at Runnymede, 800 years on. [10 photos]