On the borders of Windsor Great Park, less than an hour from London, Coworth Park, a luxurious Georgian country house hotel, was the ideal base for our hiking and history mini-break. And, if we'd been in the mood for a horsey weekend, there's an equestrian centre on site where we could have arranged an escorted horseback ride or lessons. Or just up the road is the famous, 300 year-old Ascot Racecourse.
Coworth Park's Spa with Carol Peace's Dancer. Photo: Paul Allen
However, we decided to explore some of Coworth's 240 acres of parkland on foot in an attempt to find the dozen or so bronze sculptures by English sculptor Carol Peace, dotted around the grounds. After a vigorous hike, we felt justified in chilling beside the spa pool while plotting the following day's activities - another hike - this time around Virginia Water, a man-made lake and a visit to Windsor Castle, the world's oldest occupied castle.
View from Coworth Park windows. Photo: Paul Allen
Post-spa, our relaxed vibe continued in Coworth's brasserie-style restaurant, The Barn, where we enjoyed sirloin steaks and chunky chips in a charming, rustic atmosphere. Housed in the frame of the original barn, the restaurant features a working stone fireplace, while the floor to ceiling windows offer great views across Coworth Park's polo field.
Virginia Water Lake. Photo: Paul Allen
Virginia Water, first dammed and flooded in 1753, was the largest man-made body of water in the UK until the creation of the great reservoirs.
One of the trails around Virginia Water took us past the impressive waterfall known as the Virginia Water cascade. Further on is the Leptis Magna Ruins, a 'Roman temple' built from columns and lintels brought from the ancient city of Leptis Magna in the early 19th century and a more recent addition to the park, a 100-foot high Totem Pole, a gift to the Queen from the government of British Columbia.
If we'd had time, we would have also explored The Savill Garden, next to Virginia Water.
Sir Eric Savill created 35 acres of ornamental gardens and woodlands in the 1930s. But we wanted to visit Windsor Castle and Runnymede which celebrated the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta this year.
The ancient roundtower, the tapestries and furnishings are all impressive aspects of Windsor Castle of course but what I enjoyed seeing the most was the royal art collection. Highlights include Brueghel's Massacre of the Innocents, Holbein the Younger's portrait of Henry VIII, along with works by Lucas Cranach, Durer, Titian and Andrea del Sarto.
Hew Locke, The Jurors, Runnymede
Our final stop was Runnymede, a vast field beside the river Thames which might not look like much but has great historic significance as the place where, in 1215, disgruntled Barons forced the hated King John to sign the Magna Carta, a legal document which still resonates today. Although many of the 63 clauses of the Magna Carta dealt with the Barons' personal grievances, the clauses stating that no man can be arrested without due cause and if arrested is entitled to a fair trial remain on the English statute books. Interestingly, 17 states in the United States have the entire Magna Carta on their statute books so it's surprising that this historic document is relatively unknown to most Americans.
In keeping with the art theme of the day, it was good to see Hew Locke's installationThe Jurors in the famous meadow. This new public art commission consists of twelve bronze chairs, each decorated with panels of images and symbols relating to past and ongoing struggles for freedom, rule of law and equal rights.
Coworth Park's spacious grounds. Photo: Paul Allen
I hope to head back to the area, specifically to Coworth Park in the new year, as I just discovered that Wolfgang Puck's London restaurant the CUT at 45 Park Lane will have a special pop-up at Coworth from 19 February - 6 March 2016. I had dinner a couple of months ago at CUT and am still having dreams about the food. A Lobster Cobb Salad and Chicken & Black Truffle pot pie have my name on them.