On the way back from London at Easter I stopped by at Runnymede on the River Thames near Windsor to see the John F Kennedy Memorial, a subtle and powerful piece of landscape design by Geoffrey Jellicoe. There is nothing monumental or overtly religious about it, but it achieves immense dignity and pathos from the natural topography, planting and changing surface of a meandering path.
Best known as the place King John sealed the Magna Carta, the site is managed by the National Trust. The extent of the National Trust land is marked at both ends by gateway buildings either side of the road designed in 1929 by Edwin Lutyens as a memorial to the previous land owner’s husband, MP Urban Broughton. They are pretty dry examples of Lutyens’ late work, lumpen forms in the water meadow and seemingly arbitrary gateways on a busy road. The contrast with the Kennedy memorial is a poignant lesson in the power of harnessing the qualities that are already present on a site and that buildings might not always be the answer.
The site consists of a water meadow at the level of the river with a wooded hill rising above it to the southwest. From the carpark a path leads across the meadow and along the bottom of the woods where it passes a wooden gate to a path up into the trees. A scree of Portuguese granite setts spreads out a few metres into the grass, about as low-key a threshold as could have been made. Beyond the gate the path follows a twisting course between the trees. It is paved with square granite setts, laid loosely so the coursing is deliberately uneven and the presence of the tree roots is felt pressing up beneath. The trees lean at awkward angles in a slightly unkempt manner, a typical piece of English woodland that detaches the path from any wider context and focuses your attention on nature, the weather and the journey.
Soon a flight of shallow steps comes into view. The steps were made by simply raising the setts to a higher level along a rough line so that the materiality and scale of the surface is uninterrupted, and the edge of each step is different. In blatant disregard for anyone who might have difficulty negotiating such hazards, the steps rise to a point where the woodland opens out and we find a single block of roach bed Portland stone placed like an altar beneath the trees, carved with a quotation from Kennedy’s inaugural address as president.
I was pointed towards Runnymede by Denis Cosgrove’s book Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (1984) in which he attempts to move the discussion of landscape on from matters of design and taste to look at the way different social groups have framed themselves and their relationship with the land. Jellicoe based the design on the theme of life, death and spirit from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and there are various symbolic gestures in the memorial. I generally believe that good design stands or falls on the direct visceral impact it has on those that encounter it and I’m not a fan of allegory, but I did find some aspects off the experience were enhanced when I read the explanations. There are 50 steps on the woodland path for example, one for each state, and I found myself fruitlessly trying to see particular state borders in the shapes of the setts at the step edges. A hawthorn tree stands beside the stone, a symbol of Kennedy’s Catholic faith, and the leaves of an American scarlet oak just behind the stone turn a vivid red in November, the time of year that he died. Beyond the stone, a path of Portland stone slabs leads across the grass to two seats, the journey ending with a view out across the site where the Magna Carta was sealed, the river and the future.