Celebrating Magna Carta

This weekend, everyone in Britain and quite a few others around the world are celebrating Magna Carta. I’m not quite sure why, unless you happen to be a Baron, as it was really only a couple of years later in 1217 with the Charter of the Forest that ordinary people had much to celebrate, and even that applied only for Freemen, not to the serfs from which most of us are descended.

Of course, over the years, some of those rights awarded to the wealthy and powerful have kind of trickled down to the rest of us in countries like the US and the UK, though there is still very much one law for the rich and another for the poor.

One group that wanted to celebrate Magna Carta were the residents of the Runnymede Eco Village, founded three years ago this week when they set up camp on a long-disused area of woodland overlooking the area where Magna Carta was signed.


Diggers meet at the Runnymede Memorial and agree to celebrate Magna Carta in 3 years time

I sat with them on 16th June 2012 at the Runnymede Memorial erected by the US Bar Council as they discussed their land occupation and the idea of them hosting a celebration of the 2015 anniversary was put forward and agreed with enthusiasm. That’s my camera bag and coat in the foreground left there as I moved back slightly to frame the circle.


The first camp at Runnymede Eco Village in June 2012

I hadn’t really expected the Runnymede Eco Village still to be there three years later, but it is, and greatly expanded from the few tents that were there then, with many residents having built low impact off-grid homes in a variety of styles from materials mainly recycled from skips and demolition sites. Various court proceedings have meant it having to move a few yards down the hill to a wooded area on the slopes of Cooper’s Hill (incidentally the view from which inspired the first British poem about landscape, by Sir John Denham in 1642.).

The Eco Village has enjoyed good relations with its neighbours with many supporters in the neighbouring ‘village’ of Englefield Green. That one of the first things they did was to clear several skip loads of illegally fly-tipped rubbish from the area got them off to a good start.


Luke (right) a trained forester, stands in front of the home he built almost entirely from material in skips and demolition sites

Yesterday I arrived at the Runnymede site for the first day of a four day festival celebrating Magna Carta and three years of settlement by the Eco Village, and was warmly welcomed and shown round. As well as various musicians, the festival events included poetry, workshops and a number of distinguished visiting speakers who were to talk and lead discussions.  The Festival For Democracy should have been starting in earnest today, and continuing until Monday.

Unfortunately our authorities seem to have decided to do their worst and not to allow it. They started by pressuring the owners of the site to try and get the occupiers evicted, but an attempt to steamroller this through the courts was blocked by a judge who decided that the occupiers seemed to have some kind of agreement with the owners to occupy the area and adjourned the case to give the Eco Village more time to prepare their case.

It is unlikely to be a co-incidence that a few days ago the date for the court appearance was set as this Monday, 16 June, the last day of their festival and when the official celebrations at Runnymede (two miles away according to the BBC, but for those who can walk rather than drive, around half a mile distant) reach their peak.

But apparently that wasn’t enough for the political taskmasters of the police, and a little after noon small groups of officers appeared around each of the entrances to the site, and began to stop people entering. They claimed to be allowing the site residents to enter and leave freely, but were stopping others. A couple of weeks previously a rumour had been put out that there would be an illegal rave taking place on the rugby field adjoining the Eco Village, and this was being used as a pretext to issue an order under Section 63 of the The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994  which allows police power to restrict access, remove people and issue exclusion orders.

There appears to be no real evidence of any actual attempt to hold a ‘rave’, and the programme for the Eco Village’s festival clearly demonstrates that it would not be in breach of Section 63 (which applies only to ‘amplified music’ played during the night.)  The rumours are suggested by some to have been promoted by the authorities to justify the draconian police action.

As I wrote yesterday:

As I left it was unclear if the free festival, with its long and distinguished line up of speakers, poets, singers and performers will be able to continue and in what form. It would indeed seem a travesty if  at a time when we are celebrating 800 years of freedom under the law against the arbitrary power of the state achieved at Runnymede, the authorities should abuse the law by using those arbitrary powers to prevent a people’s celebration of freedom.

Perhaps rather than celebrating Magna Carta we should all now be out on the streets and demanding a new charter for the freedoms we thought had been won 800 years ago.


More pictures from inside the Runnymede Eco Village in my feature from yesterday on Demotix, Magna Carta celebration at Runnymede threatened by police. And from the initial gathering at the Magna Carta Memorial on My London Diary. That meeting was attended by just one friendly police officer.


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One Response to “Celebrating Magna Carta”

  1. […] the suppression of the Magna Carta festival planned at the Runnymede Eco-Village, which I’ve written about here earlier. A huge police operation took place to stop just several hundred people celebrating […]

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