Some call the Magna Carta the most important document in the world, the foundation of modern democracy. A solution to a medieval political crisis, signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215, it is 800 years old this year. Incredibly, four original copies still exist and you can see them all, should you choose, on enlightening 800th-anniversary trails. I have seen one – reputedly the best preserved – in the Chapter House at Salisbury Cathedral (and that is one of Europe’s finest Gothic wonders).
You’d think there would be signposts as far away as Stonehenge, but it was all rather low-key (this year there will be a bit more hoop-la as a special exhibition is promised). After my viewing, I climbed the cathedral’s tower to a balcony 225ft high, and was amply rewarded with views across red-tiled roofs towards the chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain. Then I wandered along the Avon to Fisherton Mill for linguini with crab, chilli and saffron in the industrial-chic café created within this converted 19th-century building alongside an art gallery and studios. I stayed overnight at the fresh, New England-style Quidhampton Mill (doubles from £90), where three B&B rooms have just been converted into two big self-catering suites.
Not far away as the crow flies, yet a world from ecclesiastical grandiosity, is the Arts and Crafts loveliness of the Watts Chapel, near Guildford. Writer and heritage expert Lucinda Lambton calls it ‘one of the most magical buildings in the whole of the British Isles’. I stumbled across it while visiting the Watts Gallery, which houses a permanent collection of allegorical and portrait paintings by Victorian artist George Frederic Watts. The chapel is just along the lane in the village of Compton and was designed by the artist’s wife, Mary.
On a winter’s day you might get the myriad colours and somewhat Byzantine interior all to yourself. Stay near here amid the frosted garden terraces and lawns of Pennyhill Park (doubles from £365), where two-Michelin-star restaurant The Latymer is presided over by the brilliant chef Michael Wignall. A mid-winter menu might start with poached and torched smoked eel, feuille d’brick cigar with eel mousse, compressed Japanese cucumber in sake, ponzu jelly and warm quince tea, followed by Lakeland roe deer, jerk-scented salsify, black-pudding paste and crumble, juniper powder and beetroot cooked in beeswax.
Yorkshire forced rhubarb, nitro ginger rocks and natural-yogurt sphere with Sauternes cream for pudding will round off such a vibrant day with suitable flamboyance.
I first tried Wignall’s exciting cooking when he worked at The Devonshire Arms (doubles from £160) in North Yorkshire. An 18thcentury Herbert Royle painting hangs in the lobby of this classic country-house hotel, a view towards the romantically mystical ruins of Bolton Abbey (the original 12th-century Augustian priory destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries).
Apart from a footpath or two and a gate, little seems to have altered since Royle put brush to canvas. It is an easy walk from the hotel to the abbey, along the winter-bare banks of the River Wharfe. Then back to log fires and charcoal sofa’ed elegance for afternoon tea at the last in my trinity of New Year treats.