Monday 30 April 2007

Paninio D’Oro, Dulwich Village

A classic Italian deli with half-a-dozen pavement tables, well-placed to catch the morning sun and for people-watching on this prosperous and busy thoroughfare in the midst of genteel Dulwich Village. If you can ignore the backdrop of slow-moving traffic and the raucous kids on the neighbouring tables, Paninio D'Oro is a good place to take some time over a newspaper, while enjoying a fine cappuccino (£1.70), a traditional and rich Italian ice cream or one of the other treats on offer. Service can be surly, but portions are generous and prices reasonable. 7/10

Holly Bush, Hampstead, London

Timeless pub tucked away in the atmospheric, narrow streets west of Hampstead High Street. Packed on a Saturday evening with bohemian and beautiful drinkers, the lively, but leisurely staff serve up a respectable range of lagers and bitters, including a smooth pint of Harveys. To soak up the beer, try the simple, filling, but tasty food, such as thick slices of cold, rare beef with a potato and tomato salad. Hard to fault, the Holly Bush is everything a modern pub should be - a comfortable, stylish and buzzing meeting place with few frills, but good culinary standards. 8/10

Monday 23 April 2007


As most Eurostar trains seem to run half-full, they are easily the most comfortable and convenient way to travel between the heart of London and central Brussels (two and a half hours) or the arrondisements of Paris (two hours forty minutes). The check-in and security processes are generally much faster than at the airports, there are acres of legroom in the carriages, no hanging around for luggage on arrival or long hikes to get out of the terminal. Moreover, the rolling Kent countryside makes a better backdrop to the journey than the inside of a cloud. However, the ambling pace in and out of London's sprawling suburbs can feel leisurely compared to rocketing across northern France. Skip business class, as the free food isn't particularly good and the standard class carriages are roomy and half-empty. But a flexible ticket, that enables you to hop on any one of the frequent return trains, is a good option for road warriors attending meetings that may overrun. And paying a premium may preserve this underused service for future generations. 8/10

Alan Boyle, builder, south London

An unusually meticulous and thorough builder specializing in bathrooms, Alan Boyle charges a fair price for high-quality work. He takes a hands-on, flexible and good-natured approach to dealing with pinickity and indecisive home-owners, while keeping up a steady stream of banter with his carpenter Mark. As one of nature's perfectionists, Alan does much of the tricky work himself, carefully poring over the instructions before installing a frameless shower or minimalist wash basin. In big demand in south London, this West Wickham-based builder is often booked up almost a year in advance. 8/10

Thursday 19 April 2007

Treasurer's House, Minster Yard, York

An atmospheric and substantial mostly 17th Century town house in the shadow of York Minster, the Treasurer's House had been split into apartments before it was restored by businessman Frank Green in the early part of the 20th Century. Today the timbered Medieval hallway leads into a dozen or so rooms containing a jumble of diverting furniture spanning 400 years. The sense of history is diluted somewhat by often amusing notices from the rather self-important Mr. Green telling his staff how to behave and photographs of the master of the house posing pompously with his friends and servants. While the rooms can get crowded at weekends, the rectangular garden is a tranquil spot from which to admire both the Minster and the Treasurer's House's intricate and age-worn facade. Run by the National Trust, visitors are charged £5, a fair price for a restrained attraction in a city that has disfigured much of its historic heart with tacky signs and marketing. 7/10

Monday 16 April 2007

City of York, England

One of England's best-preserved medieval cities, York is justifiably-famous for its majestic Gothic Minster and its largely-intact city walls. Unfortunately much of York's character has been damaged by the tat and tack catering for the mass of tourists and daytrippers wandering up and down the city's narrow central streets. Witness the twee ye-olde-shoppes that deface the 15th Century timber-framed houses overhanging the cobbled narrow alleyway that is The Shambles. To escape the commercialism, climb the steps next to Bootham Gate and head clockwise around the walls, which offer fine views of the soaring Minister across historic church buildings surrounded by peaceful gardens. Alternatively, explore the 11th Century picturesque ruins of St. Mary's Abbey in the Museum Gardens, which overlook the river and make a great place to savour a pastie from one of York's collection of excellent bakers. 7/10

Friday 13 April 2007

Beningbrough Hall, near York, North Yorkshire

An elegant, red-brick Georgian stately home now given over primarily to displaying 200-year-old portraits of men in wigs, Beningbrough Hall is one of the few National Trust properties that really caters for children. High-tech, interactive technology has infiltrated the historic baroque interior. One of the upstairs rooms, for example, has a touch-screen computer that can take photos of visitors and incorporate them into a tailor-made digital 'painting', which is displayed on the wall for 90 seconds and emailed on for posterity. The same room has cloaks, hats and other props that visitors can use to dress up as one of the characters in the paintings on display, while a nearby pre-school room contains lots of brightly coloured mats and beanbags. Although the succession of stiff portraits in the rest of the house is repetitive, there are several rewarding rooms with eye-catching four poster-beds and other striking period furniture and pleasant rural views from the huge windows. Outside, there is a walled garden and an all-wood children's playground, while the self-service restaurant offers good-value traditional English dishes, such as cottage pie. 7/10

Wednesday 11 April 2007

The Star at Scampston, near Malton, North Yorkshire

Throughout the spring and summer, well-heeled Yorkshire gardeners gather for lunch at the indoor or outdoor tables in this restaurant adjoined to a large, recently-restored walled garden belonging to neighbouring Scampston Hall. For £13-a-head, diners can help themselves to a buffet offering succulent slices of rare beef, ham and pork pie, supplemented by an unusual, but appealing range of salads, pasta dishes, fruit, bread and cheeses. Equally-fine sandwiches and soups are available a la carte and can be washed down with a glass of chilled wine, British beers, cider and soft drinks. Warm and engaging service makes everyone from doddery pensioners to dysfunctional young families feel welcome, while the luxurious lavatories are equipped with a range of upmarket Molton Brown toiletries. Strolling the Walled-Garden, which costs £5-a-head, is a treat for serious gardeners, but others should probably skip it unless it is late spring or early summer when the flowerbeds will be flush with colour. 8/10

Tuesday 10 April 2007

Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckingham, Buckinghamshire

Once a private estate encompassing 750 acres of rolling green parkland dotted with more than 40 monuments, temples, follies, columns, bridges and other eye-catching historical stone structures, Stowe is today both a lavish public school and a major draw for daytrippers. Managed by the National Trust, Stowe's Landscape Gardens were laid out by Lancelot "Capability" Brown in the eighteenth century to offer dramatic and idyllic views from many vantage points and in many directions. Most of the monuments and temples are worth exploring, but the intricate Gothic Temple and the elegant Palladian Bridge are among the highlights, as is the view from the steps of the house across the lake to the Doric Arch right in the distance. Unfortunately, the hulking neo-classical stately home lacks the beauty and subtlety of many of the smaller satellite temples and statues. Moreover, the overall effect is marred slightly by the addition of a handful of unsightly modern school buildings, a golf course and astroturf pitches. But Stowe is big, varied and picturesque enough to easily justify the £5.90 entrance fee. 8/10