In a quiet acre of woodland situated at Runnymede on Thames lies a special memorial garden donated to the people of the United States of America by those of Britain and its reign, Queen Elizabeth II.
Your gateway are 50 ascending steps (representing the American states) made from 60,000 hand-cut Portuguese granite setts, each unique from one another. This pathway symbolizes the pilgrimage you undertake as you make your way to the monolith which awaits you at the summit; a seven-tonne block of Portland stone commemorating the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Erected two years after the President’s tragic assassination (November 22, 1963), the memorial garden was designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. Drawing inspiration from The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s Christian allegory of life as a journey, Jellicoe takes you through the dark woodland from below into the light above. Here the full spectrum of The Pilgrim’s Progress comes into focus: Life, Death and Spirit represented by the woodland surroundings and their changes throughout the seasons. Sculptor Alan Collins designed and carved the actual stone block which is said to be over 100 million years old. Its inscription is taken from Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address:
“Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” President John F. Kennedy
The hawthorn tree to the side of the stone is a symbol of Catholicism, Kennedy’s own religion. An American Scarlet Oak stands behind the memorial, its leaves turning a vibrant red in November, again appropriate given the time of Kennedy’s passing.
To the right a path leads you to a terrace and the ‘Seats of Contemplation’, a symbol of walking from the past and into the future like that of Jacob’s Ladder. What greets you is a wonderful, picturesque view of Runnymede and an area to sit and reflect.
The memorial garden was opened on 14th May 1965 by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip alongside Jackie Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John Jnr. Also in attendance were the late President’s brothers, Robert and Edward Kennedy. A reception was also held for the Kennedy family at nearby Windsor Castle.
Given its history its seems strange then that this garden is little known outside of Runnymede…Equally strange is how moving a place this is for a memorial of a man who had never visited the area. You do feel something spiritual here, it’s hard to fathom what and no doubt it is subjective, but whatever it is it stayed with me on my journey back down the steps…
If you are within the vicinity it is well worth taking a pilgrimage of your own. The memorial garden is part of the National Trust having been grade listed in 1998, but its still maintained by the Kennedy Memorial Trust which sponsors educational scholarships for British students to attend university in the United States.