Our work at Runnymede and Ankerwycke
Whether it’s managing Runnymede’s wildflower meadows, tackling ash dieback, unearthing the secrets of Ankerwycke’s medieval past or protecting the ancient Ankerwycke Yew, our experts have been working hard to preserve nature and history for visitors.
Managing our wildflower meadows for nature
Once a common sight throughout the British Isles, wildflower meadows have seen rapid decline due to urban development and changes in agricultural practice.
In partnership with our tenant farmer, we manage our meadows using traditional approaches, with biodiversity as our guiding objective.
Cattle graze in the meadows between April and November, playing an important role in improving biodiversity. Their selective chewing creates a mosaic of micro-habitats that helps to attract many different species of insects, as well as birds and small mammals. The cattle’s hooves also make dents in the ground, which create the ideal environment for seeds to germinate.
We cut paths for visitors through the meadows in wavy lines, increasing the surface area of the edge habitat between the long and short grass. We control thistle and ragwort with the help of volunteers, to stop these aggressive plants overwhelming the meadows.
This important mix of varying height grass and other plants is also managed by a careful cutting programme. The meadows are usually cut in June or July, to encourage a wider variety of wildflowers and to provide a better habitat for ground-nesting birds and mammals.
Once the flowers have gone over and the grass has begun to set seed, the meadows are cut again. Some of the hillside meadows are too steep for machine cutting, so a team of volunteers takes to the fields to cut and rake the grass by hand.
Monitoring wildlife and habitats
The Habitat Monitoring volunteer team at Runnymede and Ankerwycke focuses on four key areas: butterflies, birds, bats, and priority habitats. This helps us to understand the overall state of nature here and ensure we maintain the right conditions for a wide range of species to thrive.
Butterflies and moths are great indicators of the health of our environment. Our butterfly Habitat Monitors walk one of three set routes once a week between the start of April and the end of September each year, recording the butterflies they see.
This information is then fed into the United Kingdom Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) to contribute to nationwide conservation efforts.
Bird monitors make regular visits to our established recording sites to log species, numbers and when the birds were spotted. This information is then entered into the British Trust of Ornithology’s (BTO) BirdTrack database along with data from all around Britain.
Our records allow us to evaluate the impact of our conservation efforts at Ankerwycke and Runnymede while also helping to predict how species may be affected by changes taking place nationally and worldwide.
Other wildlife monitoring
The Habitat Monitoring team also works closely with local conservation charities to monitor specific species at peak times of the year. This includes bat monitoring at Ankerwycke, moth trapping at Langham Ponds and badger watches.
If you're interested in becoming a Habitat Monitor, please email the property team at email@example.com.
Tackling ash dieback
You may have noticed our rangers felling some of the trees in Cooper's Hill Woods. These are ash trees and have been infected by ash dieback, a potentially devastating disease caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.
The fungus spreads quickly as its spores are transported by the wind. It’s thought that the UK could lose around 80% of its ash trees due to ash dieback.
To balance the tree felling, we’ve been planting new trees. We're using alder, goats willow and hazel, which are important for increasing the biodiversity of the woodlands, including the range of invertebrates that provide a food source for other wildlife.
There’s a long history of significant buildings at Ankerwycke, from a medieval nunnery, St Mary’s Priory, to a Tudor mansion and a Georgian romantic ruin. The surviving chalk ruins contain echoes of the sites Medieval and Tudor history, but are a tiny fragment of what you would have seen walking around this landscape 450 or 800 years ago.
The National Trust has been working to discover more about these phases. After carrying out geophysical analysis of the area, in 2022 and 2023 we did some targeted archaeological excavation around the ruins with the help of volunteers.
The medieval priory
A trench to the north of the ruins revealed the footprint of the priory’s cloister, or courtyard, and a church wall. This helped to identify the ruins as parts of the refectory – the nuns’ dining room – and the church aligned with the Ankerwycke Yew.
A star find during the excavations was a half-silver coin with a long cross design that had been deliberately folded in half. This was a sign of devotion at a religious site and was probably placed here by a visitor to medieval Ankerwycke some 800 years ago.
The Tudor mansion
A trench to the south of the ruins revealed that a large square platform had been a formal Tudor garden.
Further work within the ruins unearthed steps down to a Tudor cellar – a surprise on a site prone to flooding – intact medieval walls made part of the Tudor house, and a preserved medieval threshold stone. This helped us to work out the dimensions of the priory and its position in relation to the cloister.
The excavation showed that during the construction of the Tudor mansion a large amount of river gravel had been brought in to build up the site as possible flood protection, protecting the medieval material beneath it.
Find out more about the site by reading some of the excavation reports.
Conserving the Ankerwycke priory ruins
We’ve been carrying out conservation work at the medieval Benedictine nunnery St Mary’s Priory, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The chalk walls of the priory are very soft, and susceptible to weathering. They’ve been particularly prone to deterioration where repairs made during the 20th century used concrete, which is harder wearing than the chalk it is trying to save.
Working with Cliveden Conservation, we have carefully removed the concrete hard capping, repointed the wall and added a protective coat using traditional lime materials. We’ve also added a soft cap or vegetation hat, which further helps to protect the walls from water as well as from extreme temperature fluctuations that can also accelerate deterioration.
Preserving the ruins for the public
Though we will never be able to completely halt the decline in the condition of the ruins, we are slowing it down and ensuring the walls will stand for visitors to enjoy well into the future.
Along with the Ankerwycke Yew, these ruins are some of the last visible remnants of a fascinating site with a rich history.
Bringing the past to life
Using the results of the geophysics and archaeological excavation, together with the historical records for the site, we've worked closely with illustrator Phil Kenning to produce reconstructions of St Mary's Priory (below) and the Tudor mansion.
Protecting the Ankerwycke Yew
Estimated to have stood for as long as 2,500 years, the Ankerwycke Yew is the oldest tree in the care of the National Trust. It’s said to be the spot where King Henry VIII wooed Anne Boleyn, and some even believe it is the real location of King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
Making space for the tree
Older trees like this are sometimes mechanically braced to prevent them from splitting, but because decay and structural shifts are inevitable as yew trees grow and reproduce, we are letting this tree continue to spread outwards.
This decision has been made with the support of our ancient and veteran tree conservation partners and we’ll continue to review how we manage the tree.
Using ground-penetrating radar, we’ve mapped the yew’s root system, helping us care for the tree below ground. To improve the yew’s access to nutrients and water, competing vegetation has been cleared and a fence placed around the tree to prevent soil compaction and long-term damage from visitors’ feet.
Since this means you can no longer get as close to the tree, we’ve built a platform so that visitors can still appreciate the beauty and wonder of the Ankerwycke Yew.
With riverside walks and open meadows, art installations inspired by history, and a series of moving memorials, there’s lots to see and do at Runnymede and Ankerwycke.
Over 800 years ago, the famous Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, marking an important moment in the history of British law and liberty.
Thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the National Trust is embarking on a project to transform how you experience Runnymede and Ankerwycke.
Find out how you can volunteer and help all visitors to enjoy this special place and make new friends at the same time.
We believe that nature, beauty and history are for everyone. That’s why we’re supporting wildlife, protecting historic sites and more. Find out about our work.
Read about our strategy 'For everyone, for ever' here at the National Trust, which will take the organisation through to 2025.