Monday 28 May 2007

Greenwich Park, London

An unusually well-kept and picturesque park running down from the open skies of Blackheath to the National Maritime Museum. From the top of the short, but steep hill, next to the Royal Observatory, there is an arresting view of the elegant gold-crested towers of the Royal Naval College backed by the Thames and then the glistening skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, London's tallest buildings. Elsewhere in this Royal Park, the grass is immaculate, the landscape gardens tasteful, the benches grand and the large children's playground well-equipped. Even the cafe, near the Observatory, is a notch above the usual park fuel-stop. 9/10

Sunday 27 May 2007

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Set in a grand 18th century building, which used to house the Royal Hospital School, this well-heeled museum places a heavy emphasis on education. Many of the exhibits, such as the large wave tank on the ground floor and the nearby interactive displays, appear to be aimed at 10 to 14 year olds. Their younger siblings will enjoy the regular tours, recently run by a witty, enthralling and very green Neptune and his trident, and craft activities, such as drawing maps, making model long-boats or constructing monster masks. On the third-floor is an interactive area, where even toddlers can get to grips with a mini-crane for loading ships or a wind machine for propelling a model yacht across a steel rod.

For adults, the museum's highlights include an extravagant 18th Century barge, decorated extensively in gold-leaf, used by Prince Frederick to cruise up and down the Thames. Also on the ground floor is a long glass cabinet containing a row of intricate and detailed models of cruise liners and other large passenger ships from the 19th and 20th centuries. Nearby are life-size mannequins of passengers, strangely painted all white, which capture the sense of adventure and risk involved in Edwardian emigration. The museum, which contains many more model boats, naval uniforms, nautical paintings and paraphernalia, should fill an afternoon for the casual visitor and far longer for any enthusiastic seafarer or history buff. Better still, entry is free, but donations are encouraged. 8/10

Saturday 26 May 2007

Gray’s Inn Gardens, South Square, Gray's Inn, London

Tucked away between a couple of busy thoroughfares, these rectangular 5-acres are a lunchtime refuge for local office workers seeking daylight and greenery. At the southern end, away from Theobald’s Road, tranquillity is almost guaranteed as the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn doesn’t allow children or dogs in the gardens. Surrounded by austere Georgian terraces and dotted with mature trees, the gardens play host to a smart, alfresco restaurant in the summer run from a marquee. For those in search of more modest dining, there are plenty of park benches on which to eat a takeaway from the local sandwich shops or fish and chips from the famous Fryer’s Delight on Theobald’s Road. Note that the imposing iron gates are locked before noon and after 2.30pm. 6/10

Monday 14 May 2007

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London

The entrance to this imposing building is fittingly guarded by a huge twin-barrelled artillery gun. Entrance is free, but go at 10am on a Sunday to avoid the crowds of boys and men drawn to this exceptional museum. Inside, the main gallery contains a dizzying array of military hardware from across the 20th Century, including a brutish First World War tank, a huge V2 Rocket, an American Sherman tank and a charming Edwardian London bus used to ferry British soldiers to the trenches. Up above, soar several fighter aircraft including the legendary spitfire and a couple of fragile by-planes. To one side is a self-service cafe selling moist and scrumptious blueberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies, cheese scones and hot meals.

Downstairs, a maze of galleries display a wealth of artifacts, uniforms, maps, insignias and other paraphernalia from the many armies that served in the two World Wars and the Cold War. Nearby, is the Trenches Experience where life-size models, sandbags, flashing lights, the rattle of machine guns and audio excerpts of frantic orders being issued to frightened men combine to create almost to realistic simulation of the front line in France. Ten minutes in here will leave you wondering how those soldiers were able to stand the trenches for 24 hours, never mind months on end. Nearby, there is also an evocative and extraordinarily-detailed reconstruction of a 1940s British house complete with an air-raid shelter made of corrugated iron. There are many more high-quality, informative and moving exhibits within the Imperial War Museum, which should be a port of call for any British Prime Minister contemplating conflict. 9/10

Sunday 13 May 2007

Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh

These well-maintained and scientifically-significant gardens, just one mile north of the centre of Edinburgh, shelter a broad collection of plants from across the world, both in the open air and a series of glasshouses. While the tallest of these glasshouses, an elegant and intricate building constructed in the mid-19th century housing palm trees, is free to enter, an adult ticket for the others costs a reasonable £3.50. Those without green fingers or an avid interest in botany might prefer to stroll down the evocative Chinese Hillside, in which little streams flow under ornate bridges flanked by a bewildering display of exotic plants against a backdrop of Edinburgh Castle, church spires and Georgian rooftops. Save time for a visit to the recently-refurbished cafe, where the self-service menu includes good-value and hearty chicken pies, topped with cheese, for lunch and rich caramel slices for tea. 7/10

Thursday 10 May 2007

Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

A huge expanse of open space near the centre of Edinburgh, Hollyrood Park is dominated by the remains of a long extinct, but still dramatic, volcano criss-crossed by crags and dotted with gorse bushes. More than 800 feet above sea-level, the slippery, rocky summit of Arthur's Seat offers far-reaching 360 degree views across the city, the port of Leith and the Firth of Forth. But you will probably have to share the view with dozens of other climbers while being buffeted by a strong wind. The climb up the misshapen steps on the north face makes for an engaging ascent and is a good challenge for young children tackling their first summit. On the way down, head for the ice-cream van near Hollyrood Palace to reward your efforts. 9/10

Wednesday 9 May 2007

Dynamic Earth, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh

Resembling a vast white tent, punctured by large steel pins, the modernistic Dynamic Earth building at the foot of the Royal Mile offers an imaginative tour through the history of life on earth. Ideal for kids aged 7-13, the tour begins on a spaceship, which cruises among the stars before crashing on Earth in the planet's formative years. The metal floor shakes as wall-to-wall screens display volcanoes erupting and lava pouring across a rocky landscape. Subsequent rooms contain a block of ice as big as a car, a dramatic life-size model of a pouncing sabre-tooth tiger and a mechanical, but convincing rainforest complete with animated orangutan and komodo dragon. In an IMAX-style cinema, you are invited to sit on the floor and take a headspinning flight over mountain glaciers. For students who want to delve deeper into natural history, interactive displays and detailed wallcharts are dotted throughout the exhibition.

The 90 minute tour finishes in another IMAX-style cinema where visitors sit in revolving chairs and watch dramatic news bulletins from the future displayed overhead. This final room, which places great emphasis on the dilemmas posed by global warming and overpopulation, includes an interactive voting system enabling visitors to decide whether Scots should use clean sources of energy or build more nuclear power stations, for example. While the tour itself is quite pricey at £9 for an adult, Dynamic Earth has a good-value and child-friendly cafe offering panoramic views of Hollyrood Park through the large glass walls. 7/10

Tuesday 8 May 2007

Great North Eastern Railway, London to Edinburgh

Book very early to get a reasonably-priced seat on this often-crowded train service between London and Scotland, which typically stops at Peterborough, York, Newcastle and a few smaller English towns. On board, the seats are comfortable enough and the catering is okay. While it takes over four hours to reach Edinburgh, the last couple of hours are enriched by fine views of Durham's hilltop cathedral and Newcastle's eclectic bridges, followed by sweeping vistas across the deserted Northumberland countryside and coast line. The train arrives in Waverley station in the shadow of Edinburgh's imposing castle in the heart of the historic city. For Londoners within easy reach of Kings Cross station, GNER's southern terminus, the train isn't much slower than flying and is far less fiddly. 6/10

Kay's Bar, Jamaica Street, Edinburgh

Don't be deceived by the name, Kay's Bar is an old-style neighbourhood boozer, serving salubrious residents of Edinburgh's stately New Town. Housed in a stone cottage, the cramped main bar is usually abuzz with the hum of conversation conducted in the soft Edinburgh accent. Wooden barrels line the wall facing the bar, which is well stocked with a rotating range of real ales. Belhaven 80/- is a permanent fixture, as is Guinness. At the back, the even smaller Library bar is decorated with old black and white photos of the New Town and a wall of aging leather-bound books. Kay's Bar is all about drinking and talking, rather than TV and fruit machines. 7/10

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Isabella Plantation, near Kingston Gate, Richmond Park

A sea of pink, red and white flowers in the spring, the Isabella Plantation is a dazzling collection of azaleas and rhodendrums sheltering under mighty oak trees gathered around three picturesque ponds. Small children enjoy skipping along the bluebell-lined paths, jumping across the stepping stones, clambering up the branches of the larger shrubs and collecting the caterpillars dangling from their branches. On clement weekends in April and May, with the flowers in full bloom, visitors jostle for space in the nearby car park and the best picnic spots in the heart of the Plantation. But the botanical display is spectacular enough to justify all this attention. 7/10