Friday 31 August 2007

The Fine Line, Northcote Road, Clapham Junction

A former bank now kitted-out as yet another light and airy bar. But the decor is more ornate and imaginative than rival chains such as All Bar One or Pitcher & Piano. Most of the clientele are in their late twenties, affluent and not noticeably edgy or trendy. Even on a Friday or Saturday night, there is room to maneuver and the table service is efficient and friendly. The beers, such as Staropramen, and the snacks are pretty standard for this type of bar and a little pricey, but the food menu is more distinctive and varied. A reasonable meeting and eating place to start a big night out. 6/10

Wembley Stadium, north west London

A vast and almost magnificent edifice rising above a grim, run-down part of northern London, the new Wembley Stadium is a fitting, if grotesquely expensive, replacement to its historic and much-loved predecessor. The semi-circular arc that rises from the retractable roof and swoops across the sky makes the stadium a distinctive landmark for miles around. When you first enter one of the stands, you will catch your breath as you take in the 90,000 seats all within close proximity and with a good view of the hallowed turf. Each fan is allocated a plush and comfortable red seat, yet the atmosphere is as charged as ever. There are two huge screens, which replay goals and good chances, at each end of the ground and the stadium is flush with toilets. Unfortunately, leaving the new Wembley isn't much faster than it was with the original. The crowds and the scarcity of transport links mean it can easily take more than an hour to get down Wembley Way to the Wembley Park tube station, which is only about half a mile from the striking and serene bronze statue of Bobby Moore in front of the stadium. Even so, this is a fine home for the England team and the pressure is now on the players to demonstrate it is also a fitting one. 8/10

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Roy's Bakery and Coffee Shop, Front Street, Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear

Well-stocked with a broad range of traditional British loaves, stotties, buns, pasties, sausage rolls and cakes, Roy's is something of an institution in Tynemouth and has a loyal following among residents and children from the local public school. The middle-aged ladies in aprons serving behind the counter are both friendly and efficient. There are tables inside and outside on the wide pavement, which can be a suntrap on the few warm days Tynemouth enjoys. The food is simple and fattening, but prices are low - a coffee, a fluffy cheese and onion pasty and two ice creams cost just £3.50. 7/10

The Studio, Front Street, Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear

Behind the Georgian facade of this town house on Tynemouth's main drag is a homely tea room decorated with dozens of amateur water colour paintings, which are for sale at modest prices. Most menu items are good value and of generous proportions - a large hot chocolate topped with plenty of whipped cream is just £1.50. But there are exceptions - a slim slice of the excessively sweet home-made cakes can cost a chunky £2.50. Service is equally erratic, swinging from warm to dour depending on the waitress, one of whom has trouble adding up a bill. Still, the Studio is a pleasant place to shelter on a wet or windy day and there is a good view of the pretty garden from the tables at the back. 7/10

Sunday 26 August 2007

Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear, England

Anchored by a moated and ruined medieval castle and priory perched on a headland overlooking the river, Tynemouth is one of the most picturesque and prosperous places in the North East. Front Street, the Eighteenth Century high street, is now home to an eclectic collection of cafes, bars, restaurants and off-beat shops. To the north is a grand Victorian crescent overlooking the sea and to the west are some fine Georgian terraces. On a clear day, you should stroll down to the priory and then along the pier (if it's open) or up to Collingwood's Monument - a statue of a local naval officer, who served with Nelson, mounted on a monolithic stone dais. Climb up the steps for a good view across the river to South Shields. Tynemouth is also blessed with a couple of small beaches protected by rocky coves and a large, well-preserved Victorian station, which hosts flea markets at weekends. If you are out on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening, you will find yourself rubbing shoulders with hordes of enthusiastic middle-aged drinkers, partying like they are still 25. 8/10

X60 Bus, Newcastle to Scarborough

Running just once a day and only in the summer, this aging double-decker bus provides a bumpy, but relatively quick ride (2 hours 45 minutes) between Newcastle and the seaside resort of Scarborough. If the traffic is good, the driver seems to ignore the schedule and the bus can get in early. From the top-deck, there are good views over the purple-tinged wilderness of the heather-strewn North Yorkshire Moors and of Whitby and its haunting ruined abbey. In theory, a family could do a day trip with a North East Explorer ticket for just 14 pounds, but in practice you wouldn't want to spend five hours of a single day on this bus. 7/10

The Hatless Heron, Church Street, Whitby

An unusually restrained and upmarket cafe-bar in cobbled streets below the Abbey, The Hatless Heron stands out from the cheap and cheerful fish and chip restaurants that predominate in Whitby. Rather than plastic seats and Formica table tops, the Hatless Heron has wooden and leather furniture. But this place isn't snobby or expensive. The attractive young staff are friendly and helpful, recommending free tap water above the pricey bottled variety, for example. There is a wide range of snacks available. The baked potatoes (£3.50), which come with the usual range of cheese and ham fillings and a reasonable side salad, washed down with one of the premium lagers on draught, make for a good-value lunch. 7/10

Friday 24 August 2007

Whitby, Yorkshire

An atmospheric, but rough seaside town with cobbled streets, high harbour walls and a replica tall ship, overlooked by a ruined abbey. Despite the many tacky arcades, shops and attractions riding on Whitby's tenuous link with Dracula, the swashbuckling and smuggling of the Eighteenth Century lingers on among the steep narrow alleyways and traditional pubs. The town is awash with fish restaurants, but the pick of the shoal is the Magpie Cafe. Ignore the rain and join the queue outside to enjoy the ultra-fresh seafood at reasonable prices. Afterwards, cross over the bridge to the other side of the harbour and thread your way through the eclectic mix of shops in the cobbled streets before climbing the 195 steps up to the church in front of the Abbey. From there you get a sweeping view of Whitby's piers, the higgly-piggly rooftops, elegant Regency terraces and the moors beyond. Bewarned, the grog flows freely in Whitby at weekends and you might see the odd scuffle. 8/10

Station Tea Rooms, Cloughton, near Scarborough

Many of the old station signs and other railway paraphernalia remain intact around this long, slim, well-preserved stone building, which looks like a film set from 'The Railway Children'. You can sit in the beautiful garden, surrounded by a pristine lawn, lovingly-tended flower beds and a couple of ponds, or in the snug inside room. Although the food is simple (toasted and ordinary sandwiches, salads, soup, cakes etc.), it is made with high-quality ingredients, such as fine cuts of beef and delicately-cooked salmon. The Tea Rooms don't serve alcohol and the opening hours are limited (even in summer, it is closed Thursdays and Fridays), but it is popular with cyclists travelling the disused railway line between Whitby and Scarborough and its reputation attracts a steady stream of locals. 8/10

Cober Hill, Cloughton, near Scarborough

A rambling Victorian hotel with a modern conference centre building behind it, Cober Hill is set in large, well-tended and quirky gardens perched on a hillside overlooking the sea and the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. A battered tarmac tennis court, a half-size croquet lawn, a substantial kids playground, a table tennis and pool hut, a clock golf lawn and many other facilities are dotted around the gardens. Cloughton Wyke, a rocky bay amid the cliffs, is just a 10 minute walk away down a picturesque minor road and Cober Hill is well-placed for exploring the eastern side of the Moors.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Cleveland Way, Cloughton Wyke to Hayburn Wyke

This rewarding four mile round-trip follows the cliff-top footpath, which climbs several hundred feet above the sea to offer fine views over the rolling fields to Scarborough castle and the headlands beyond. The trail has plenty of twists and turns surrounded by pastoral, timeless scenery - a throwback to a more leisurely, less-crowded era. The path, which mostly stays a safe distance from the cliff edge, is well-maintained, but some of the stone-step descents can be treacherous when wet. Even on bright summer days you will only pass a handful of other walkers. Stop at the Hayburn Wyke pub, which is a few minutes inland from the Cleveland Way, for refreshments. 8/10

Hayburn Wyke pub, near Cloughton, Yorkshire

A homely early nineteenth century stone pub nestling in a secluded wooded valley near the Cleveland Way, the Hayburn Wyke Inn serves a continuos trickle of thirsty and hungry customers. Outside, there is a small and unobtrusive adventure playground made from tyres and timber, a large lawn and some garden tables. The inside is a little dingy, but the good-value, tasty and fresh pub fare, such as steak pie, seafood bake and the gigantic 'gorilla' grill (£6 to £13), prepared on the premises, makes up for that. The steak sandwich with chips and a small salad (£5) makes a decent brunch, while good-quality kids meals cost just £3.50. Although the coffee choice is limited to filter or filter, there are real ales on tap and the middle-aged ladies manning the bar are warm and friendly. 8/10

Tuesday 21 August 2007

TransPennine Express, York to Scarborough

Despite the Express moniker, this is a leisurely 50-minute journey providing far-reaching views across the Vale of York - a wide valley of fields and hedgerows bordered north and south by gentle, tree-lined slopes. The interior of this modest train isn't so gentle on the eye - furnished in lurid purple, it tends to be packed with pasty and puffy English holidaymakers heading for the slot machines and beaches of Scarborough. Book well ahead for the cheapest tickets and opt for first class if you want a bit more space and a lantern on your table. 6/10

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Thames Path, Kew to Richmond, London

Despite being just six miles from central London, much of this raised footpath feels like a serene riverside bridleway deep in the English countryside. On one side there is the greenery of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, while on the other swans and boats glide past trees and parkland, punctuated by occasional houses and riverside apartments. On sunny weekends, however, the tranquility can be broken by mountain bikers trying to speed past walkers without falling into the river 25 feet below. Across the river, you can see Syon House, a sixteenth century stately home, followed later by a pink neo-classical boat house next to the picturesque waterfront of Old Isleworth. After three miles or so, you reach the ornate Richmond Lock bridge, the first in a series of bridges as you venture into handsome Richmond. Here, people mill around the riverside cobbled streets, pubs and cafes, which make for a good refreshment stop before hiking a mile or so upstream to see the stately elegance of Ham House built in 1610. 8/10

Monday 13 August 2007

Taberna Etrusca, Bowchurch Yard, the City of London

Large, fairly upmarket, Italian restaurant tucked away in a quiet alleyway in the financial district. You can choose a table in the kitsch interior, decorated with elaborate plasterwork and religious murals, or in the covered courtyard. In both cases, there isn't much elbow room and you can easily eavesdrop on the other clientele - a mix of pin-striped city workers and more ordinary folk. You sit down to crisp white table cloths and napkins, plus a basket of crusty bread to dip in a saucer of olive oil while you peruse the menu. Some dishes are pricey, but they tend to be expertly-prepared and come in well-judged portions. Both the carpaccio sedano (fine slices of beef topped with flakes of parmesan) starter for £8.75 and the main course of chicken stuffed with ricotta cheese on a bed of mash potatoes and spinach (£11.75) are full of flavour. There is also an extensive list of Italian wines to choose from and service (12.5% on your bill) is professional and efficient. 7/10

Friday 10 August 2007

Hyde Park, London

Central London's largest green space, Hyde Park is 340 acres (about 200 football pitches) squeezed in between Kensington and Mayfair. While it attracts lots of visitors, many on roller blades, it has plenty of secluded spots in which to escape the bustle of the City. There are enticing avenues lined by large, mature trees criss-crossing the park and a scattering of interesting monuments, but the northern half is rather flat and featureless. The southern section is dominated by the Serpentine boating lake, which is bordered by a lido, several smart, tasteful cafes and premium ice cream stalls. Further south, is the Princess Diana Memorial fountain - a fast-flowing artificial stream, made out of Cornish granite, that loops back on itself. You can sit on the banks and dangle you feet in the ice-cold water, but yellow t-shirted wardens are quick to stop anyone trying to stand up and paddle. 7/10

Thursday 9 August 2007

Royal Windsor Racecourse, Family Fun Day

Every so often, Windsor Racecourse, a compact, attractive course bordering the Thames, goes to great lengths to pull in the family punter, installing giant inflatable slides, bouncy castles, a tent offering expert face painting and a miniature farm. Once you have paid the admission fee for the course, all these goodies are free. The downside is lengthy queues for the face-painting, in particular, ice creams and at the bars, meaning you might not find time to place a bet. A ticket for the buzzing Club Enclosure, which is in line with the winning post and offers a prime view of the closing stages of each race, is £18 for adults and free for children. Even on a 'Family Fun Day', this enclosure, with a dress code insisting that men wear a shirt with a collar, attracts groups of raucous, but good-natured and sharply-dressed lads and bubbly, dolled-up ladettes. 8/10

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Hotel Wilson, Place Wilson, Dijon, France

A three-star hotel has been shoe-horned into this timber-framed seventeenth century post house on the edge of a pretty green square just outside Dijon's historic core. While the foyer area and lounges, which are sprinkled with vintage suitcases and trunks, have character, the decor in many of the bedrooms (doubles from 75 Euros) and bathrooms is dated and unimaginative. Still, some of the rooms retain their original wooden beams and most are a reasonable size, quiet and comfortable. Breakfast for adults and children is a hefty 11 Euros a head and you might prefer to eat in one of the more atmospheric pavement cafes in the middle of Dijon. Similarly, it costs 9 Euros to use the private car park in the interior courtyard, but you can park right outside the main entrance for free. 6/10

Monday 6 August 2007

Villa Romana, rue Quentin, Dijon

A lively and popular Italian restaurant that is one of the most inviting of the eateries packed into the streets surrounding Dijon's covered food market. You can choose to sit outside or inside amidst the funky deep orange decor. The pizzas (8 to 10 Euros) are pretty good, as is the three-course Menu Decouverte (18 Euros), which has several options for each course. The mozarella bruschetta to start came with a nicely dressed salad, while the chicken kebab main course was served with a flavoursome sauce and a mountain of succulent green beans. The pudding options include some high quality ice cream in adult flavours, such as coffee or rum and raisin. There is also a two-course (7 Euro) kids menu, which is basically a pasta dish, some ice cream and a drink. Service is friendly, but erratic and sluggish as the over-stretched waiters and waitresses sometimes forget basics like glasses to go with bottled water. 7/10

Saturday 4 August 2007

Dijon, Burgundy, France

Prosperous Dijon has an exceptional concentration of historic and atmospheric streets, squares and alleyways. In the well-preserved centre you can easily walk for 10 minutes and barely see a building built after 1900. And to its credit, the city hasn't given itself over to tourist tack - the streets are blissfully free of souvenir shops or fake 'attractions'. The mostly-pedestrianized Place de La Liberation is the focal point of the city and a fine spot to enjoy breakfast or a coffee in one of the pavement cafes, while admiring the rows of fountains and the grand and elegant Palais Des Ducs - the original seat of power of Burgundy's medieval Dukes. Another good place to refuel is one of the many restaurants and bars in the streets around the extravagant food market at Halles Centrales. But first build up an appetite by wandering around the rest of the city, which is awash with attractive squares and fine, well-preserved town houses, many with half-timbered frames or intricately-tiled roofs and ancient churches. 8/10

Friday 3 August 2007

L'Auberge des Lavandes, Place General De Gaulle, Villecroze, Provence, France

Although it is run by a middle-aged Norwegian couple, this hotel and restaurant, housed in a 19th century terracotta building with bright blue shutters overlooking a picturesque village square, is dripping with French style and character. The winding stair case leads up to en-suite bedrooms (53 Euros for a double) with high ceilings containing an eclectic mix of aging, distressed furniture and Impressionist prints. Make sure you have dinner in the ground floor restaurant, which has tables in the square. Both the starters, such as fish soup or pate, and the main courses (lamb, trout or fillet of pork in a cream sauce) in the 20 Euro menu use high-quality ingredients prepared and cooked with precision and skill. But the highlight of the meal has to be the sumptuous deserts, such as the moist, light chocolate cake containing an inner reservoir of rich chocolate sauce, a fine creme brulee and a tangy apple tart. Get to bed early, as a deafeningly loud machine is sometimes used to clean the square from 6am in the morning. By the time you eat your simple breakfast (5 Euros for bread, coffee, jam, baby bell cheese and orange juice), your head should have stopped ringing and you will be able to soak up the idealized Provencal ambiance. 8/10

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Restaurant Musiques, Setcases, Catalonia

This establishment dominates the quaint little square in the heart of the medieval village of Setcases, which is marred only by a couple of coin-operated rides for kids. Choose one of the outside tables in the square rather than those in the more dingy upstairs room and try to ignore the brusque proprietor who hangs around the doorway to the restaurant. And avoid the tapas. 'Patatas' for 3 Euros turned out to be 20 Pringles crisps in a bowl, while half a tin of pitted olives will also set you back 3 Euros. For 4.5 Euros you can get a limp green salad and 6 Euros will buy you a modest plate of cold meats. And you pay 7% tax on top of these prices! While the four-course menu (12 Euros) only has a couple of options for each course, it has to be better value than the tapas. To be on the safe side, just buy a beer and eat somewhere else. 4/10