Friday 30 March 2007

Virgin Atlantic, Upper Class, London Gatwick to Orlando

After being chauffeured to the airport in the leather seats of a Volvo saloon and fast-tracking it through Gatwick's 300-yard long security queues, the Virgin Club lounge is a stylish and airy sanctuary in which to while away a few hours waiting for a delayed flight. A limited, but opulent range of sandwiches and snacks, such as a small mountain of rich ice-cream and forest fruits resting on a warm, sweet waffle, are offered to passengers sitting on curvaceous, space-age chairs. Food, including a wide selection of sweets and lollipops, and drinks are complementary, but Wi-Fi access costs 6 pounds an hour from T-Mobile.

The science-fiction theme and the appetizing, but quirky, catering are continued on-board the plane. A very wide central aisle is lined by two rows of spacious booths curving at a diagonal into the plane, meaning the passengers unfortunately have their backs to the windows. When upright, each seat is opposite a handy foot stool, that can then be combined with the chair to become a narrow, but fairly comfortable bed. The in-flight films are on a loop, rather than on-demand, so there is little flexibility about when you watch a movie. For the return leg, the passenger is picked up in a spacious sedan, but there is no fast track through Orlando security and Virgin Upper Class passengers have to share a crowded and chintzy lounge with customers of other airlines. All in all, it is a tough stretch to justify either the carbon emissions or the price tag of flying Upper Class. 7/10

Caribe Royale, International Drive, Orlando

Typical of the sprawling hotels that line Orlando's International Drive, the Caribe Royale is a cluster of dark pink buildings surrounding an outdoor swimming pool, popular with pasty Brits, who wallow around under the faux waterfall. The cavernous foyer, decorated in a pretentious yet economical fashion, sits on top of a couple of daylight-deprived restaurants, serving huge portions of tasty beef, cheese and other heart-stopping food. By mainstream America standards, prices are high and the selection of dishes limited. Designed to withstand marauding children, the guest rooms ($225 a night plus $16 a head for a generous breakfast) are large, utilitarian and soulless. Near to Disney World and the Orange County Convention centre, the Caribe Royale, despite its many deficiencies, pulls in plenty of families and businesspeople. 4/10

Monday 19 March 2007

Nonsuch Park, Cheam, Surrey

Almost one and a half square miles of parkland between Cheam and Ewell, Nonsuch Park is a pastoral idyll, particularly the sweeping grassland stretching south west from Nonsuch Mansion towards some scrappy woodland. The mock Tudor Gothic mansion itself is a poor replacement for the spectacular palace of Henry VIII that once stood on this site. A somewhat bland early 19th century building, the mansion now doubles as a refreshment kiosk and a wedding venue. North of the park is a recreation ground with an array of swings, slides and equipment for kids, offering very distant views of London's handful of skyscrapers. 6/10

Sunday 18 March 2007

Standen, West Hoathly Road, East Grinstead

Late-Victorian country house lavishly decorated in the Arts and Crafts style, which means lots of carpets and wallpaper with dizzying patterns of swirling fruit, flowers, birds and other flora and fauna. Not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but the house is also packed with period fixtures and fittings, giving a good insight into how the wealthy lived at the tail end of the 19th century. The upstairs windows also offer pleasant views of rolling Sussex countryside and the National Trust, which owns Standen, lays on Arts and Crafts-themed quizzes and colouring sheets for kids. Work up an appetite by climbing the steep steps and winding paths in the craggy and highly varied garden, before visiting the voluminous barn of a restaurant for tea and a slice of coffee and walnut cake. Originally, the holiday home of a "successful solicitor", who apparently had an even larger residence in London, a tour of Standen’s house and garden is worth the £7.50 entrance fee. 6/10

Saturday 17 March 2007

La Gastronomia, Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill

Reasonably-priced Italian deli doing a thriving trade despite an unpromising location in the midst of a short strip of mostly tatty shops half way between Herne Hill and Dulwich Village. Packed to the rafters with tasty morsels to takeaway or eat-in, La Gastronomia's inside tables and compact garden are popular with local parents and their lively offspring who nibble on snacks, ranging from slices of apple pie to spinach and ricotta puffs, while sipping on very creamy and chocolaty cappuccinos (£1.40). The owners of La Gastronomia are doing well enough to have opened a second branch in West Dulwich. 6/10

Friday 16 March 2007

Kennington Park, South London

An edgy oasis in an edgy neighbourhood, Kennington Park used to border one of the most famous squats in London. The Victorian houses of St. Agnes Place, the long-standing home of Rastafarians and hippies, have been ruthlessly demolished, but the bohemian spirit lingers on in the park. One of the least-gentifried green spaces in the Big Smoke and the starting point for many protest marches over the decades, Kennington Park today attracts hoodies, joggers, pit-bull terriers, footballers, drunks, netball players, tramps and the odd stray child. While still rough around the edges, a lot of money has been spent upgrading the extensive astroturf, floodlit sports pitches in the south-east corner of the park. Right next to Oval tube station, Kennington Park is one of the most central places in London to organise a regular game of football, hockey, netball, tennis or whatever. 5/10

Tuesday 13 March 2007

Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, London

In the heart of lawyers' London, this park-cum-square is framed by a striking array of architecture, ranging from the 17th century’s chapel of Lincoln Inn through fine Georgian town houses, now used as offices, to eclectic Victoran and modern buildings. The unimaginative park fails to live up to its surroundings. There is too much tarmac around the central bandstand. A mishmash of gnarled old trees and shrubs shades modest expanses of grass, several tennis courts (£6.90 to book for an hour) and an undistinguished restaurant. A rare green-space in this part of London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields needs and deserves a face lift5/10

Sunday 11 March 2007

Ightham Mote, Mote Road, Ivy Hatch, Kent

Postcard-perfect, moated manor house dating from the 14th century, Ightham Mote nestles in a rural valley only a few miles from the suburbia of Sevenoaks. Owned by the National Trust, the arched stone bridges across the moat, the cobbled courtyard and the ancient timber frames of the manor house quickly conjure up another era. The surrounding gardens are dotted with statues, fountains, ponds and medieval outbuildings. Inundated with visitors on fine weekends, the manor house's rooms, narrow lanes and paths can get crowded. Children love hurtling up and down the large green lawn, which is framed by steep, grassy banks and a deep lake. After 4pm, most of the families head home and the manor house begins to assume a tranquil beauty that just about justifies the £9.50 entrance fee. 8/10

Carnegie Library, Herne Hill Road, Herne Hill

An ornate, grand, red and gold-brick Victorian building with dozens of large lead-paned windows, the Carnegie library is a well-preserved reminder of the money that used to be lavished on public amenities. An intricate tiled floor covers the large porch, which leads to a spacious room where half-a-dozen Internet terminals are surrounded by a modest collection of books and videos available for loan. The children's section, in an adjacent room, is better stocked, particularly with reference books. Sadly, many of the tomes haven't been borrowed since 2005 and, even on a Saturday morning, the Carnegie only hosts a handful of visitors at any given time. It sorely needs a cafe so that visitors can browse the books, or the Web, over a coffee and pastry. 5/10

Friday 9 March 2007

Brockwell Park, South London

Good-sized, rolling green space, commanding distant views of the glittering towers of Canary Wharf and the Square Mile. Away from the busy Herne Hill junction, the south west corner of the park borders quiet residential streets clustered around an elegant Victorian church, giving it a calm, rural feel. In the middle of the park is a dilapidated mansion housing a scruffy cafe, serving high-cholesterol fry-ups, ice creams and passable coffee. Towards the Brixton-side of the park is a walled garden, a BMX track, a well-equipped children's playground and a long-standing lido, now being enlarged and refurbished. Unlike nearby Clapham Common, Brockwell Park doesn't attract hordes of frisbee-throwers or rugger-buggers, even in the height of summer, leaving plenty of space to kick a football, sunbathe or have a picnic. 7/10

Wednesday 7 March 2007

Dulwich Village, South London

If it weren't for the steady stream of traffic through its centre, Dulwich Village would really feel like a village. Even though it is only 6 miles from central London, the stately Georgian and Victorian core is surrounded by green space - a mixture of sports clubs, parks, a golf course and the extensive grounds of the elegant, Italianate Dulwich College public school. In the heart of the village itself is Dulwich Picture Gallery, which houses small, but high-quality, art exhibitions in the 17th-century building that used to be Dulwich College before it moved half-a-mile south in the 19th century. The aging leather sofas in the village's imposing Crown & Greyhound public house are a pleasant place to enjoy a pint, but the surrounding restaurants mostly belong to bland, chains targeting young families. Ofsted ranks the state infant and junior schools in the village highly, but commuters need to hike up to North Dulwich station, which has a fairly frequent service into London Bridge. 7/10

Tuesday 6 March 2007

Herne Hill, South London

A schizophrenic south London suburb squeezed in between hip, edgy Brixton and salubrious, family-friendly Dulwich. South of the overground station, a string of upmarket shops selling everything from diminutive ballet costumes to premium pastries leads into tree-lined, gentrified, Edwardian roads. North and west of the tracks is the rolling greenery of Brockwell Park and a gritty residential area dotted with lively and scruffy eateries and drinking holes. Often crowded and unreliable trains run into the City and Victoria from Herne Hill station. Cycling the 5 miles into town can be a better bet. Less densely-populated than sloaney South West London and with a cluster of sought-after schools in neighbouring Dulwich, Herne Hill has recently seen an influx of prosperous families, pushing up house prices at a rapid clip. 6/10

Monday 5 March 2007

Marin Kentfield, hybrid bicycle

Utilitarian, grey hybrid bicycle, sadly lacking any of the style and street cred associated with the Marin moniker (picturesque Marin County, California, touts itself as the birthplace of mountain-biking.) Instead, the upright Kentfield offers a fairly comfortable and pacey ride for its modest price tag. With 21 gears and a study frame, it can just about cope with urban and suburban hills, gutters and potholes. But the Kentfield comes unstuck off-roading in the countryside. And the fragility of many of its components, such as the wheels, reflects the £300 price tag. Expect regular and expensive servicing. Better-suited to tentative or occasional 40-year-old commuter, than devil-may-care, Lycra-clad 25-year-old. 5/10

Angelo's Gents Hairdressers, Portsmouth Street, Holborn

No bookings needed at this old-style barber shop, which rarely has a queue, even at lunchtimes. Swift and basic hair-cuts are dispensed mostly by taciturn women from eastern Europe using a mixture of clippers, scissors and cut-throat razors. High-volume Capital Radio or BBC Radio London preferred to conversation. Not the best place to go for advice on a new style, but good value for central London at £12.50 for a dry cut.

Friday 2 March 2007

Overloaded, The Singles Collection, Sugababes

Saccharin sweet album, stuffed full of high-tempo pop tracks punctuated by the occasional soaring ballad. Impressive vocals, catchy rhythms and moody melodies, but not enough variation aross the 15, sometimes repetitive, tracks. The lyrics range widely in quality from the seductively sexy 'Push the Button' to the overly sentimental 'Ugly'. Still, a good warm-up for a girls' night out or to accompany a summer's evening drive across the city. 6/10

Thursday 1 March 2007

The Lounge Bar, High Holborn, London

Buzzing bar serving bog-standard beers, wines and other drinks, alongside good value, but unimaginitive food, to office workers. Main courses include home-made fish cakes at £7.95 and sausage and mash at £7.75. Sparse, unfussy decor inside, pavement tables outside in the summer and function room upstairs. Friendly and, sometimes, eccentric service distinguishes The Lounge Bar from the All Bar One chain and the many other outlets following a similar formula. 6/10

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

An unusually thought-provoking fantasy trilogy based in an universe that could be the product of the imagination of an 11-year old with a masters degree in astrophysics and philosophy. Armoured-bears, conscious particles, witches, spirits, angels and many other sentient beings flutter in and out of a pacey narrative that tracks the adventures of Lyra, a tearaway child in the care of an Oxford college. Explores some of life's biggest questions in a compelling and highly-accessible story. Enjoyable read for adults and children alike. 8/10