Sunday 30 March 2008

Nymans, Handcross, West Sussex

A charming, ruined manor house set in picturesque grounds, encompassing 35 acres of expertly-tended gardens and 275 acres of woodland, with views across the Sussex Weald, Nymans is one of the most varied of the many National Trust properties dotted across southern England. From the entrance gate, Lime Avenue takes a circuitous route down to the house, surrounded, in the spring, by hundreds of daffodils, following the crest of the hillside overlooking an arboretum and the woods below. Alternatively, you can thread your way through the top garden, the rose garden and the walled garden, which are punctuated with statues and manicured, ornamental hedges.

Saturday 29 March 2008

Hope & Greenwood, North Cross Road, East Dulwich, London

A small, but fantastical and colourful shop, Hope and Greenwood is brimming with a dazzling array of sweets and chocolates. Behind the counter are nostalgic glass jars containing wine gums, jelly beans, gobstoppers and other old-fashioned favourites. The counter itself is laden down with a wide selection of chocolate truffles and other grown-up delicacies. Opposite the counter, at the right height for kids armed with plastic baskets, are trays containing big blue rubbery fish, refresher chews, lollipops, pink skulls, sherbet-filled plastic strawberries and many other weird and wonderful goodies. But don't go wild - a handful of sweets can easily set you back a pound or more. 7/10

The Drum, North Cross Road, East Dulwich, London

Bohemian cafe with dark red walls decorated with kitsch paintings of nudes, the Drum has a clutch of sturdy tables and a couple of comfy leather sofas. Decent cappuccinos and lattes cost £1.50 each, while an enormous croissant, served with salty butter, is only £2. The menu also offers salads, sandwiches and other snacks. Run by a friendly couple with an equally-friendly stocky white dog, the Drum is a popular choice with young families and couples taking a break from browsing the quirky shops on North Cross Road. 7/10

Friday 28 March 2008

Club Gascon, West Smithfield, central London

A plush, expensive restaurant specialising in the cuisine of Gascony and particularly foie gras, Club Gascon has a long-standing following among City types and other well-heeled Londoners. The stylish dining room is small, intimate and often crowded. One wall is lined with a luxurious deep-blue velvet sofa, while the tables are laid with silver-plated cutlery. If you choose the set menu (everyone at the table must have it), you are served five eclectic courses, including foie gras ice cream. The menu comes to £65 a head with an appropriate glass of wine with each course.

Pyrenean milk-fed lamb

Alternatively, choose three dishes from the a la carte menu. The venison carpaccio with truffle shavings and crispy artichokes (£18) is very fresh, but the flavours are a too subtle for some palettes. Much more memorable is the abalones and razor clams fricassee (£17) served with parsnips and seaweed tartare. Another remarkable dish, served on a slab of slate, is the black cod (£17), which is cooked to perfection and accompanied by pomegranate seeds, producing a startling and mouth-watering mix of flavours. The pretentiously named Pyrenean milk-fed lamb (£21), served medium-rare with wood cedar sauce and crispy red noodles, is delicious, but lacks the surprise and novelty value to justify the price tag.

Attentive and impeccable
Despite the sky-high prices, each course is the size of a large starter and you will probably have room for a desert. The white chocolate boule (£9) doused in pineapple juice is attractive, refreshing and sweet. Club Gascon also has a lengthy wine list made up of French vintages starting at about £30 a bottle. Several wines are also available by the glass from about £5. Service by the French staff is attentive and impeccable, but the optional service charge of 12.5 per cent can end up being a big chunk of money. Very fine food at very high prices. 8/10

Sunday 23 March 2008

Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London

A vast, palatial neo-Gothic edifice, the Victoria & Albert Museum houses a dizzying array of artifacts from all over the world and spanning many hundreds of years. The common theme is design and art. The dozens of dimly-lit rooms and corridors are laid with intricate mosaic floors and furnished with elaborate period fittings. Each gallery is dedicated to displaying a diverse collection of finely-crafted and often-beautiful objects from a particular region and a particular era. Some of the exhibits, such as the swirling green and yellow glass sculpture hanging over the ticket desk, are very large and very striking. The centrepiece of the Islamic Middle East room is a ancient rug the size of a badminton court, while nearby is an elegant Moorish wooden staircase. Next door, the South Asia room has a beautifully-decorated and finely-detailed black and white cabinet. Another rather gloomy gallery is dedicated to fashion, displaying a succession of dresses, suits and other outfits from the past two centuries.

Downstairs is an extraordinary series of rooms packed with lavish and ostentatious pieces of furniture from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Equally fascinating are the twentieth century rooms on the second floor, which show off modern design icons, such as the Swatch Watch, Alessi kitchen gadgets and the distinctive poster advertising the Trainspotting film. These rooms overlook a picturesque courtyard garden surrounded by the museum's fine Gothic architecture. Make time for a visit to the large and bustling cafe at the back of the ground floor. Go through the main sitting area decked out in white minimalism and aim for a table in one of several spectacularly ornate rooms, featuring elaborate arches and pillars lit by chandeliers that resemble great balls of light. The food is delicious - the freshly-baked cookies are served warm, so that the chocolate oozes out with each bite. The V&A is free to get in, except for the temporary exhibitions, so it is justifiably busy, but not as packed as the neighbouring Natural History Museum. 8/10

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, London

Another canteen-style restaurant wooing the burger aficionado. The plain decor is enlivened by red plastic tomatoes on each table and big black and white photos, including one of the All Blacks rugby team, on the walls. Grab a table and head to the counter to order one of the wide range of burgers. The chorizo burger (about £7), served with sweet potato and some salad in a large sesame seed bun, is spicy, rich and tasty, while the fat chips (about £2) are salty and succulent. Kids can choose one of the junior burgers (£4) - pui lentils, beef or chicken. The junior portions are large, but unhealthy and disappointing - the dry chicken is deep-fried and there is no salad. The drinks selection includes some fine fresh fruit juices (£2.50) and Coca-Cola in the 1950s' curvaceous bottles. The foreign staff are lively and friendly, but you can't book ahead and you may need to queue for a table. 7/10

Heroes and Superheroes Noisy Kids concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London

Performed by a 85-piece orchestra made up of some of Britain's finest musicians, Heroes and Superheroes is an 75-minute concert with a childish twist - a compere banters with the deadpan conductor between each piece and chivvies the audience of young families into doing dance routines and even singing. Members of the orchestra, dressed up as Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman and Captain America, come to the front of the stage to help with the sometimes overly-long audience-participation routines. The music itself, as you would expect from an orchestra of this calibre, is played impeccably and with panache. The pieces, which include Rossini's William Tell overture, Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Williams' Superman theme, are well known and accessible enough to get toddlers' attention. The Royal Albert Hall is a distinguished and grandiose circular venue packed with maroon seats, boxes and ornate Victorian trimmings. Avoid booking tickets in the arena, which is directly in front of the stage, but is too low to provide a good view of the orchestra. Five family seats in the stalls, which offer a much better view, come to a total of just £20. This kind of concert is an ideal way to give young children a taste of the rarefied world of live classical music. 8/10

3 Peaks 3 Weeks Challenge Africa

Screenshots from promotional video

Inspiring 2007 expedition by ten Aussie and American women to climb three of Africa's highest mountains - Mount Kenya, Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro - in the space of three weeks on behalf of three charities. The women's exertions, which is the subject of an hour long film, raised a staggering 375,000 Australian dollars for the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, Tanzania's School of St. Jude and a HIV/AIDS mobile testing programme. The professionally-shot film, available on DVD, captures both the drama of the landscape and the camaraderie and charisma of the trekkers. Sequences filmed in St. Jude's rudimentary classrooms, the homes of ostracised HIV sufferers and a luscious wildlife reserve also explain vividly why the money raised is needed. Shown earlier this month at London's venerable National Geographical Society, the film suffers slightly from the cheesy American voice over and some viewers will want more factual information about the mountains themselves. Two further all-women expeditions are planned for 2009 and 2010. The 3 Peaks 3 Weeks concept is an emotive wake-up-call for all those hand-wringing Westerners who think they are powerless in the face of Africa's many woes. 8/10

Sunday 16 March 2008

The White Hart, Kennington Lane, Kennington, south London

An unpretentious and utilitarian pub with stripped floor boards, battered furniture, spinning ceiling fans, black and white prints and low-key decor, the White Hart occupies the ground floor of a ornate building dating from 1897. Many of the tables are in a raised partitioned area next to the large windows where you can settle down with one of the free newspapers. On tap are the ubiquitous lagers, such as Fosters, plus Bombardier and Landlord real ales. For the hungry, there is a respectable food menu scrawled on a blackboard and, for the peckish, there are nibbles, such as whitebait, potato wedges and scampi for £3.50 each. On a Friday evening, the White Hart hosts a lively crowd of young dressed-down workers enjoying a giggle and a gossip after work against a backdrop of fairly loud Indie music. A decent local. 7/10

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Bloomsbury, central London

Often overlooked, Bloomsbury is one of the most understated, yet characterful, neighbourhoods in central London. Scores of elegant five-storey Georgian terraced houses, together with many other notable buildings and old-fashioned lampposts, line a series of large, green squares. Among the biggest is Russell Square, which has a park-sized garden enclosed by black iron railings and containing some fine old trees, plus a smart cafe selling a range of mouthwatering hot ciabatta sandwiches, including one filled with Italian salami, mozzarella and black olives for £4.20. The dozens of metallic outdoor tables, which are overlooked by the dramatic red and gold neo-Gothic Hotel Russell, make for a pleasant lunch spot.

Bloomsbury is also home to dozens of quirky, specialist shops selling new and second-hand cameras, books, games, art and many other collectors' items. Be sure to wander down Sicilian Avenue, a short, but eye-catching pedestrianised street with grand neo-classical columns at each end. Still, the area's centrepiece and star-turn is the vast and imposing British Museum, a 250-year-old neo-classical pile housing an unmatched collection of artifacts and antiquities from all over the world, accumulated in the days when Britain, quite literally, ruled the waves. 8/10

Tuesday 11 March 2008

St. Barnabas Church, Dulwich, south London

Built in 1996 to replace a burned-out Victorian building, St. Barnabas is a rare example of a modern church that matches the beauty and elegance of many ancient ecclesiastical buildings. Daylight pours in through the large glass windows that dominate the east face of this red-brick church, illuminating the striking interior. Beneath the rows of spot lights suspended from the slim wooden beams that line the high arched-ceiling, is a kind of religious theatre-in-the-round. The altar is surrounded on three sides by light and modernistic wooden pews, bringing the entire congregation close to the vicar. Covering the wall behind the altar are the shining, golden pipes of the organ opposite a large cross, made from wooden beams from the old church, hanging from the ceiling. Surrounded by green playing fields and facing a row of grand Edwardian houses, St. Barnabas, with its tall glass spire, is a fine local landmark. 8/10

Saturday 8 March 2008

Shakespeare's Head, Kingsway, central London

Probably one of the largest and cheapest pubs in central London, the Wetherspoons-owned Shakespeare's Head occupies much of the ground floor of the monumental Africa House. It is a cross between a venerable Victorian pub and a brash motorway service station. Colourful menus and posters advertising special deals are sprinkled liberally among sombre brown tables, bookcases, leather sofas and ornate glass screens. By London standards, the prices are keen and the menu has a bewildering selection of dishes ranging from ciabatta sandwiches (£3.19) to beef and Abbot Ale pie (£7) to cooked-breakfasts and chocolate-chip muffins. A burger, chips and drink costs a fiver, while a curry and drink costs one pound more. Even so, the portions are substantial. The tasty and fairly spicy fish curry is served with a big pile of yellow rice and three poppadoms. Condiments are the mass-produced variety available in brightly coloured sachets. Large coffees cost just £1.19, while a pint of Greene King IPA is £1.99 and there are plenty of other real ales and lagers on tap, plus many bottled drinks. Service can be haphazard, but is generally friendly. Great value, the Shakespeare's Head is deservedly popular with pensioners, builders, young office workers and budget-conscious tourists, but snobs should avoid. 7/10

Sunday 2 March 2008

Ganapati, Holly Grove, Peckham, London

A spartan, yet colourfully decorated, neighbourhood restaurant serving authentic south Indian cuisine, Ganapati has bare wooden tables and friendly staff in traditional costume. On weekend evenings, there are two sittings at 7.30pm and 9.15pm. The latter can attract raucous groups of young professionals, giving the restaurant a lively atmosphere. The menu is varied and stimulating. Among the starters, is a very spicy fillet of mackerel served on a banana leaf (about £5) and with finely-sliced red onions. The hungry should choose the enormous Masala Dosa (£5.50) -a rice flour and lentil pancake stuffed with spicy mashed potato. Even the pappadoms come with four diverse pickles and chutneys. Among the mains, the Nagore lamb kurma curry (about a tenner) with rice is nourishing and tasty enough, but lacks the variety of the other dishes. More interesting is the Banana Leaf Thali - a classic south Indian dish served in a myriad of multi-sized metallic pots containing a fish, meat or vegetable curry, pickles, chutneys, rice, yoghurt and other condiments. To drink, you are given a large metallic flask of tap water with matching beakers. Or you can have a fruit lassi for about £3, or a 330ml bottle of cobra beer for £3.25. Ganapati also sells several unusual beers from the Meantime brewery, while wine starts at about £13 a bottle. Note, there is also an obligatory 10% service charge. All in all, good value for a taste of genuine southern Indian food. 8/10

Montpelier, Choumert Road, Peckham, London

Once a seedy boozer, now an aspiring gastropub sticking closely to the popular formula of stripped floors and a spacious, airy bar. In the evening, the bar is lit primarily by table lights, making it quite dark and intimate. Montpelier is still getting established in its new guise and, even on a Saturday night, it is surprisingly easy to get a table. Beers on tap include Czech pilsner Staropramen, while its compatriot Budvar is available by the 330ml bottle. 6/10