Sunday 27 January 2008

Woldingham Country Walk, Surrey

Set in the bucolic Surrey Hills, this well signposted five-and-a-half mile route starts at Woldingham station. Part of the walk traces the 200-metre high ridge overlooking the steep slope running down to the M25. On this stretch, there are sweeping and far-reaching views south, taking in the prosperous town of Oxted and the rolling countryside surrounding it, but the loud hum of the motorway is ever present. Another stretch, along a minor road running through a secluded and picturesque valley up to Woldingham boarding school, isn't quite as spectacular, but is much more peaceful. From the school gates, a short cut follows a grassy path that climbs steadily up the side of a hill back into the woods overlooking the M25. From this track, you can glimpse the school's 19th century red brick mansion nestling in the base of the valley. Despite its proximity to London, this walk is a surprisingly rural and scenic antidote to city life. 8/10

Sema Thai Restaurant, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, London

Bustling and utilitarian Thai restaurant with mostly bare white walls, plain brown tables and a glass front often misted over by condensation. The black-shirted, sometimes sullen, staff serve stock Thai dishes, which are, by comparison, colourful and imaginatively-presented. To start, the fishcakes (just over £4) are five small, solid spicy discs, accompanied by a peanut dressing and pieces of carrot carved into crown shapes. Among the many main courses is a rich beef massaman stew containing juicy and delicious chunks of meats and a great hunk of potato (about £7). In the precisely-cooked, sumptuous seafood curries, the succulent king prawns have shells thin enough to eat easily. Pad it out with steamed rice (about £2) and wash it down with a couple of bottles of Singha beer for a good value and tasty Thai meal in a rather dour room. 7/10

Saturday 26 January 2008

Horniman Museum, London Road, Forest Hill, London

A quirky and sometimes charming museum set in 16 acres of manicured gardens perched on top of a hill providing fine views across much of south London. Entrance to the permanent exhibits is free. These include a large gloomy Victorian room stuffed full of stuffed animals, a full-scale model of a walrus and a couple of skinny, but living, snakes. More entertaining and interesting is the music gallery, which contains a dizzying array of instruments from all over the world and interactive screens that enable you to hear the sounds many of the exhibits make in the hands of a musician. In an adjacent room, kids can bash a jumble of unusual percussion instruments to their hearts' content.

Also worth seeking out are the imaginatively decorated tanks of jellyfish, sea horses and radiant Angel fish in the recently refurbished aquarium downstairs. By comparison, a small ground-floor room containing a beehive in a transparent box seems neglected and run-down. The temporary exhibitions, which usually involve an admission fee, are also hit and miss.

When you have seen enough, a reasonable cafe is on hand to provide refreshments or you could enjoy a picnic beside one of the colourful flowerbeds that surround the museum. The hillside gardens are partitioned into themed sections, many with elaborate borders dotted with sculptures of exotic animals, birds and mythological creatures. Alongside the museum is a large, gleaming white Victorian conservatory available for hire for wedding receptions and the like. Elsewhere in the gardens, there is a large animal cage containing a trio of grumpy goats, some equally grumpy geese and fluffy rabbits. 7/10

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Ristorante Barbanera cucina Italiana, Rue Archimede, Brussels

A top notch and pricey Italian restaurant, Barbanera has a charming dining room with a high ceiling, oodles of period elegance and a besuited clientele of lobbyists and senior Eurocrats. A selection of neck ties is available for any male presumptuous enough to arrive without one. On the menu is a broad selection of starters, such as beef carpaccio (15 euros) - a tantalising mix of finely-sliced raw meat and Parmesan cheese. The myriad of main courses include a dish of fresh pasta in a mushroom sauce sprinkled with truffle shavings (26 Euros), creating an unusual blend of subtle and refined flavours. From the very traditional desert trolley, you can have tiramisu - a large, delicious heap of nicely-judged sugar and cream. Unfortunately, service can be too attentive - the waiters frequently interrupt your conversation to top up your drink. 7/10

Sofitel Brussels Europe, Place Jourdan, Brussels

Recently-built, stylish and understated hotel in Brussels' European district with young, friendly staff and spacious, cool, mostly white rooms, tastefully decorated with restrained prints. The large soft beds are exceptionally comfortable and the windows and walls well sound-proofed so guests returning from sampling Brussels' limited nightlife don't disturb each other. A coffee-maker, a large flat-screen television, a cordless phone and very quiet air-conditioning are among the mod-cons designed to justify the pricey 235 Euros room-rate. The in-room broadband Internet service is easy to access, but it costs almost 20 Euros for 24 hours. The buffet breakfast in the light, but surprisingly ostentatious, restaurant costs a further 25 Euros. As well as the usual yoghurts, cheeses, fruit and other cold fare, English breakfast fans will find delicately-spiced sausages, expertly-cooked scrambled egg and flavoursome mushrooms. Unfortunately, this 'hot' food can be tepid by the time you heap it on to your plate. Moreover, you may find the constant mood music in both the restaurant and the foyer loud and jarring. 6/10

Rubens, a Genius at Work, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Rue de la Regence, Brussels

Thinly spread over six galleries, this informative exhibition mixes paintings by Rubens and his collaborators from the Museum's permanent collection with works on loan from elsewhere. The curator has carefully combined a variety of portraits and group paintings to show how Rubens worked 400 years ago. It appears, he started with a small painting before repeating it on a much bigger scale, often delegating the less prominent elements of the canvas to other artists in his studio. In some cases, a painting was also replicated as a huge and intricate tapestry - one of which covers an entire wall of the museum. The curator has also hung an original Rubens alongside a replica painted by one of his studio staff, clearly demonstrating the difference between a master and a less talented artist. The exhibition also highlights how Rubens repeatedly painted the same subjects, such as a wild old man, into several - very different - works, reinforcing the impression of an exceptional, but businesslike, artist seeking to maximise his output. 8/10

Eurostar, St. Pancras, London to Brussels

St. Pancras is a beautifully-restored Victorian station, seemingly designed to usher in a new golden era of rail travel. A vast, soaring glass roof, laced with pale blue steel girders, arches over the top of the grand red-brick Victorian building, allowing daylight to pour on to the platforms and the upmarket shopping concourse one level below. The station is also dotted with charismatic bronze sculptures, such as one of writer John Betjeman holding on to his hat as he surveys the stunning roof. The ideal place to admire this inspiring station is probably the champagne bar next to the platform. On a more practical note, St. Pancras' is also handy for the many tube and rail connections at nearby Kings' Cross. On board the Eurostar, little has changed. The trains run faster through England (Brussels to London is now just under two hours), but still half empty. As ever, you move through stations much quicker than you do through airports, but the Eurostar isn't cheap - a fully flexible standard class return is a whopping £309. 7/10

Sunday 20 January 2008

Primrose Hill, north London

Just north of Regent's Park and London Zoo, this picturesque green space climbs sharply upwards to a viewpoint from where you can see right across London, taking in everything from the London Eye to St. Paul's Cathedral to Battersea Power Station. A row of grand Regency town houses, painted in a variety of pastel shades, lines the east side of the park. The period ambiance is accentuated by the Victorian lampposts lining the pathways that run down the hillside towards a large children's playground and adult fitness circuit. One of London's best parks. 8/10

The Phoenix Palace, Glentworth Street, near Baker Street, London

A sprawling, yet plush, Chinese restaurant, the Phoenix Palace is packed at weekends with both ethnic Chinese and Anglo-Saxon diners from noon to late into the afternoon. The businesslike waiting staff show you to a table covered by a white cloth and surrounded by ornate wooden chairs. Hanging from the ceiling are intricate Chinese lanterns and the walls are decorated with traditional prints. The choice of dishes is bewildering - the dim sum menu alone is several pages long and there are scores of main courses on offer. Even though a dim sum dish costs just a few quid, each one is big enough to act as a starter and most are delicious. The Shanghai dumpling, the paper wrap prawns, the pork buns and the prawn sesame toast are particularly good, while the beef dumplings, which can taste oily, are disappointing. Among the main courses, avoid anything containing the almost obnoxious salt fish and watch out for the rather bony chicken dishes. The Kung Po Prawn (£9.90), served with sweet peppers and peanuts, is a fun combination of flavours. If you order too much, ask the waiters to pack up the remains in a doggy bag. You can wash it all down with a bottle from the extensive wine list or a pint of lager or bottle of sparking water (both £3). Even though service is an extra 12.5%, the Phoenix Palace is good value, particularly if you are lucky enough to select some of the better dishes. 7/10

Saturday 19 January 2008

The Cat's Back, Point Pleasant, Wandsworth, London

Characterful period pub tucked away amongst a modern residential development near the Thames, the Cat's Back has a hardcore of regulars and a friendly air. Surrounded by an eclectic jumble of objects, the bar serves a good selection of lesser-known beers. Upstairs, there is an elegant dining room, with burgundy walls and plenty of Victorian fittings, which will just about sit 16 people around a large table. For £55a head, including service, the Cat's Back will provide a substantial and cholesterol-packed three course meal and more bottled beer and table wine than you will care to drink. The modern British menu has a choice of four starters and six mains. To start, the chicken liver pate looks like solidified fat, but tastes good once you penetrate the surface. The rib eye steak comes with plenty of rich red wine sauce, compensating for the cutlery-bending meat. Finally, the solid Baileys cheese cake is served with a generous dollop of thick cream, which will help soak up the alcohol. Service is efficient and discreet. 7/10

Monday 14 January 2008

East Dulwich, London

In the past decade, East Dulwich has transformed itself from a down-at-heel Victorian suburb into a fashionable magnet for young families priced out of south west London. Lordship Lane, the main thoroughfare, and its adjunct North Cross Road now house a bunch of buzzing gastropubs, a variety of stylish restaurants, elaborate delicatessens and upmarket clothes retailers, as well as long-established DIY stores and charity shops. Up the hill, there is a queue every Saturday outside the organic butcher. While many of these businesses are still quirky independents, the chains are now moving in - sloaney clothes shop White Stuff and Costa Coffee were among the first arrivals. The surrounding streets cram in scores of small Victorian terraces, but there are some grander houses overlooking Goose Green, a sizeable patch of grass, and in nearby The Gardens. During the daytime, about six trains an hour stop at East Dulwich on their way to London Bridge, a journey of just over 10 minutes. Anyone who bought a property here five years ago will have made a mint. 8/10

Sunday 13 January 2008

Peckham Rye Park and Common, south London

Another substantial Victorian Park being restored with the help of the National Lottery, Peckham Rye has a series of pretty themed-gardens, criss-crossed by streams, a geese pond, a modest playground designed for pre-school children and a smattering of sports facilities. The park is at the southern end of Peckham Rye Common - a mostly featureless expanse of grass running gently downhill towards East Dulwich and Peckham. But the views are enriched by the grand Victorian houses and a sadly-derelict school from the same era overlooking the west side of the common. Between the common and the park, is a modernistic circular cafe coolly kitted-out with glass walls, wooden beams, metallic tables and black chairs. On offer is an extensive range of mostly organic and pricey snacks aimed primarily at the middle class families now colonising this part of London. 6/10

Saturday 12 January 2008

Au Ciel, Carlton Avenue, Dulwich, London

A pretty little cafe and delicatessen specialising in lavish gift-wrapped sweets, cakes and chocolates. Even if you don't want to indulge your sweet-tooth, it is well worth stopping for a snack or a drink at one of the handful tables often bathed in sunlight streaming through the large south-facing window. A big, frothy and very drinkable cappuccino costs a reasonable £1.80, while a hefty slice of rich and tasty quiche Lorraine is £2.75. Service by the French staff can be sullen, but the food is a cut above typical cafe fare. 7/10

b@1, Battersea Rise, Clapham, London

Aging public school kids cram into this small bar to drink cocktails or bottled beer and shuffle along to the loud and nostalgic music - typically anthems from the eighties and nighties mixed in with the odd catchy modern track. It tends to close at 1am, but it can get so crowded that the friendly doormen may stop letting people in after 11.30pm. b@1 usually has a happy, almost euphoric, atmosphere, but the roaming groups of men mean it can sometimes feel a bit like a pick-up joint. 7/10

The Goat, Battersea Rise, Clapham, London

On the outside, The Goat is a very distinctive and distinguished building - an elaborately-tiled former temperance billiard hall. On the inside, it is a sprawling and dark pub packed with bright young things on a weekend evening when the punters at the bar can be several rows deep and service can be slow. Still, there is Bombardier, Tiger bitter, Budvar and several other renown beers on draught. The 1970s patterned wallpaper and frilly lampshades add a slightly surreal touch and a welcome change from the identikit and minimalist decor in many modern bars. 7/10

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Matsuri, High Holborn, central London

Aim for a table in the light and airy ground floor of this large and popular, contemporary Japanese restaurant. There are a myriad of set menus to choose from, such as the £25 Matsuri lunch. Bizarrely, the rib-eye terikayi, which comes with a bowl of rice, some miso soup and a modest salad, can arrive before the salmon and tuna nigiri sushi. The rib-eye is succulent and well-seasoned, but won't satisfy a big appetite. Still, the fish sushi is both fresh and filling. All the food is beautifully presented on traditional platters and in bowls accompanied by wooden chopsticks. Matsuri gets busy with local office workers on weekday lunchtimes and service by the black-shirted staff can be erratic - fortunately the 12.5% service charge is discretionary. 7/10

Sunday 6 January 2008

Ranmore Common, near Dorking, Surrey

A section of the long-distance footpath the North Downs Way follows the ridge that runs through the heart of this heavily-wooded tract of land. In places, the trees open up to good views of rolling hills and the suburban sprawl of Dorking. The ridge is about 200 metres above sea level and on the south side the bank is particularly steep making for more dramatic walking than you typically find in the home counties. On the north side, the woods tumble down the hillside into a beautiful valley overlooked by Polesden Lacey country house. Most of Ranmore Common is owned by the National Trust, which charges £2.50 to non-members using its car-park on the minor road between Effingham and Dorking.7/10

Saturday 5 January 2008

Rough Guide to Climate Change

A good antidote to the often superficial and simplistic media coverage of global warming, this book methodically, calmly and clearly explains in detail what is happening to the temperature of the planet. After reading the chapters documenting the increasingly extreme weather patterns, the expanding oceans, the shrinking polar regions, the growing frequency of droughts and other painful symptoms, you are left with the overwhelming impression that Earth is convulsing with a fever. Author Robert Henson then treats you to a reasonably readable precis of the science behind climate change, before changing pace to outline the daunting political, economic and scientific obstacles to reversing the damage humanity is doing to its habitat. Still, the very existence of a Rough Guide to Climate Change leaves you with a sense that at least some of those obstacles can be overcome. 8/10

Friday 4 January 2008

Valentino's, Little Turnstile, London

Order at the counter downstairs from a choice of pasta dishes, chicken curry, soup of the day, sandwiches, jacket potatoes etc. and choose a drink from the fridge. Then head upstairs to one of the small, but pleasant rooms with big sash windows overlooking High Holborn. In a surreal touch, the top room has table football. Service can be sluggish, so you may have finished your drink by the time your food arrives. Bad news if you have chosen the substantial and fiery chilli (£4.40), which is served with rice, peas, sweetcorn and lettuce. The upstairs toilet can be grubby and the radio is often loud enough to be irritating, especially if you aren't in the mood for cheesy FM. Cheap and cheerful. 6/10

Tuesday 1 January 2008

The Ritzy Cinema, Brixton, South London

A charming Edwardian building on the outside and a modern multiplex cinema on the inside, the Ritzy has five small auditoria, most of the latest films and a couple of decent bars. Family tickets for a movie can cost as little as £4.50 per head, but you may end up spending as much again on snacks and drinks. A bag of wine gums, for example, costs a hefty £2. Still, the Ritzy is a good local cinema that manages to mix lightweight Hollywood blockbusters with heavyweight film festival fodder. 7/10

The Golden Compass

Fast-paced and beautifully shot adaptation of the first part of Philip Pullman's highly-acclaimed 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. Unless you have read the book, the plot may seem weak and difficult to follow, as the action moves too quickly to flesh out even the main characters' motivations. The film also tiptoes around one of the books' strongest themes - the tendency of organized religion to quash free-thinking. Still, the computer-generated polar bears and animal daemons are impressively lifelike and there is some visually-stunning footage of the dreaming spires of Oxford and the snowy wastes of the Arctic Circle. Moreover, Dakota Blue Richards and Nicole Kidman put in strong performances despite the skimpy script. 7/10