Tuesday 29 April 2008

Blockley, Gloucestershire

A tranquil and charming village overlooking a serene Cotswold's valley, Blockley is a fine place to chill out on a sunny afternoon. Clinging to the hillside are beautiful eighteenth century townhouses made out of the golden Cotswold's stone interspersed with some newer, but still attractive, dwellings. Streams trickle through some of the well-tended gardens, while pavements, lined with dry stone walls, climb high above the road to give sweeping views across the valley. The seats at the top of the steeply-sloping village green, which has a playground and bowling club, are a good vantage point to admire the view over the ancient church bell tower to the countryside beyond. Alternatively, hidden away in the quiet lanes are a couple of appealing and traditional pubs. 8/10

Monday 28 April 2008

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Perhaps the most handsome and atmospheric of The Cotswolds' towns, Chipping Campden's lengthy high-street has an extraordinary array of beautiful and well-preserved medieval houses built with the proceeds of the lucrative wool trade. Nearly every house is made out of the Cotswold's distinctive honey-coloured stone enabling buildings spanning several hundred years and many architectural styles to blend together into one coherent and picturesque townscape. In the middle of the high street is a four hundred-year-old market hall lined with stone archways and crowned with a handsome tiled roof. Even though there are too many cars and too many visitors pottering in and out of the sometimes twee shops, restaurants and pubs, Chipping Campden has resisted many of the excesses of other Cotswold's tourist traps and it maintains a dignified sense of its own history.

Friday 25 April 2008

The Conduit Coffee House, Lambs Conduit Street, central London

A deceptively-named greasy spoon cafe with a clutch of metallic tables on the pavement of this pleasant semi-pedestrianised street distinguished by its independent, upmarket shops. The cramped interior of the Coffee House is frequented by workmen and smells of English breakfasts. On the walls are signed photos of Gary Lineker, Paul McCartney and other celebs. The large menu has a broad selection of sandwiches and traditional hot dishes, such as Shepherd's Pie or Spaghetti Bolognese. The steak kidney pie (£4.70), which comes with a trio of crispy roast potatoes, is okay, but the accompanying mountain of carrots, sweetcorn and peas can be well over-cooked and very unappealing. Moreover, the banana milkshake (£1.10) is thin and watery. You get what you pay for. 5/10

Lounge Bar, High Holborn, central London

Low-key bar with a mock-slate floor, plain walls and Ikea-style fittings, the Lounge Bar attracts a steady flow of office workers at lunchtimes and after work. The uninspiring lunch menu is mostly limited to staples, such as fish and chips, burgers, salads and wraps. The "home made" fish cakes (£7.95) look suspiciously neat, but are well fleshed out with tasty pink chunks of salmon. They are accompanied by a large salad with plenty of dressing, but no carbohydrate. The hungry would be better choosing two long sausages resting on a large bed of white mashed potato (£7.75). The filter coffee (£2.25) is strong enough to ensure you will get through the afternoon. The service is friendly and the food arrives promptly, but you might be better skipping the lackluster food and having at beer at one of the pavement tables or on a sofa in the upstairs chill-out zone. 6/10

Sunday 20 April 2008

Knole House, Sevenoaks, Kent

A dark brooding beast of a building perched on the crest of one of the rolling hills that make up this vast deer park, Knole House is half-castle, half manor-house. The higgedly-piggedly stone walls of the remarkably-intact five-hundred-year-old building are studded with leaded glass windows and crowned with handsome gables, thousands of battered roof tiles and a series of red-brick chimneys. To enter the house, you pass through a stone gatehouse, a large grass courtyard and a smaller paved courtyard, one wall of which is lined with forbidding deer skulls complete with antlers. Still occupied by the Sackville-West family, owners of Knole for 400 years, most of this great house isn't open to the public, but visitors can admire 13 grand state rooms courtesy of the National Trust (admission £9 for adults).

Saturday 19 April 2008

La Gastronomia, Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill

Reasonably-priced Italian deli doing a thriving trade despite an unpromising location in a short strip of tatty shops half way between Herne Hill and Dulwich Village. Packed to the rafters with tasty morsels to takeaway or eat-in, La Gastronomia's sturdy inside tables and compact garden are popular with local parents and their lively offspring who nibble on snacks, ranging from slices of apple pie to spinach and ricotta puffs, while sipping on very creamy and chocolaty cappuccinos (£1.70). Particularly good are the caramel slices (£1.10), which quite literally melt in the mouth. It can get noisy, but toys and books are on hand to keep the youngest customers entertained. On a Saturday, La Gastronomia is staffed by three young women who work their socks off to keep up with the constant flow of customers. 7/10

The Sun Tavern, Long Acre, Covent Garden, central London

The black and white facade of the Sun Tavern, which is adorned with a large arched window, ornate Victorian plasterwork and hanging baskets, looks appealing. But the inside of this slim pub is more mundane. The attractive wrought iron lamp wall fittings and high ceilings are let down by the modern wooden floor and the large mirror panels on the walls. Loud pop music competes with the buzz of conversation creating quite a din. On tap are several respectable real ales, such as London Pride and Adnams (£3 a pint) plus the ubiquitous Fosters, Guinness, Kronenbourg and Strongbow. After work on a Friday evening, the Sun Tavern is about two-thirds full with local office workers of all ages. Although there is also an upstairs bar available for private hire, the Sun Tavern isn't going to be a memorable venue for a party. 5/10

Friday 18 April 2008

Ruskin Park, Denmark Hill, south London

Ruskin Park is a large, slightly-dilapidated green lung running down the gentle slope from genteel Herne Hill to gritty Brixton and Camberwell. Gangs of mouthy teenagers sometimes hang around the battered playground and football pitches, where wannabee pit bull terriers take their early evening exercise. Even so, avenues of mature trees, a hundred year old bandstand and distant views of the city from the top of the slope, mean Ruskin Park maintains some of its original Edwardian dignity. At the northern end, adjacent to Kings College Hospital, there is a pleasant wooded glade and gardens planted with plenty of flowers and shrubs, but the edgy atmosphere means you may not want to linger too long. 6/10

Sunday 13 April 2008

Fenton House, Hampstead Grove, Hampstead, north London

This distinguished late seventeenth-century town house faces a sprawling Victorian hospital across a quiet, timeless square perched on a hill overlooking Hampstead village. A discreet National Trust sign directs you through a grand gateway and the formal front garden to the red-brick, four-storey house.

Pizza Express, Heath Street, Hampstead, north London

Housed in an attractive period building just north of the tube station, this is one of the more pleasant branches of the child-friendly Pizza Express chain. The black granite-style tables are spread out across two floors decorated in maroon and cream and well lit by large windows and skylights. The food on the standard kids menu (£5.65) is served in generous portions and with some nice touches not found in every Pizza Express, such as real strawberries or crumbly chocolate cake on top of the ice cream. To start, the dough balls are accompanied by plenty of garlic butter and a decent serving of cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices and red peppers. You can request a large jug of tap water (free), which is served with some slices of lemon. But the toppings on the standard pizzas on the adult menu can be a little threadbare. There really isn't enough spinach or mozzarella on the fiorentina (about £7.25), for example. Even so, this branch can get packed with young families putting the patient waiting staff under a bit of pressure and you may find the service a tad sluggish. 6/10

Friday 11 April 2008

Prince of Wales, Cleaver Square, Kennington, South London

Tucked away in the corner of a pretty square lined with Georgian terraced houses, the outside tables of this distinguished pub are a fine spot to enjoy a sundowner on a summer evening. Alternatively, you can take your pint and play boules on the gravel, tree-lined square. Inside, the Prince of Wales is a cosy, slightly battered Edwardian pub with dark red walls adorned with prints of mustachioed cricketers, gold-framed mirrors and blackboards advertising food and ales. Early on a Friday evening, it can get packed with lively bohemians (there are often half a dozen bikes parked outside) and you may struggle to get a seat. A Shepherd Neame pub, the beers on tap include Spitfire bitter, Invicta Ale and Holsten Export (£3.35 a pint). The staff are laid-back, but bar service is swift and there isn't a fruit machine or telly in sight. Dedicated to chatting and drinking, the Prince of Wales is an old-fashioned pub in the best traditions. 8/10

Myatt Fields Park, Camberwell, south London

A small, but attractive neighbourhood park frequented by lots of kids, Myatt Fields has a couple of ragged tennis courts, a dinky astro-turf football pitch, a handsome bandstand and a large children's playground, which is currently a building site. But it is the sprawling, ancient trees, the elegant iron railings and the surrounding Victoriana that give this park its pleasant ambiance. 7/10

Sunday 6 April 2008

Amazing Butterflies Exhibition, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London

To enter this unusual living exhibition, you first have to find your way through a maze of blue mesh fences. At each junction of the maze, there are rhyming poems, sometimes supplemented by a game, tracing a stage in the life of a butterfly. Kids are issued with a black and white picture card, which they can decorate with insect stamps dispensed by small machines sprinkled around the maze. But some of the games appear to be broken and the maze can get a bit wearing for adults.

When you finally enter the porch of the temporary butterfly house, you immediately notice the warm, moist atmosphere. Inside are a myriad of exotic and colorful flowers, scented plants, young citrus trees and bowls of rotting fruit. Scores of colourful and intricately-patterned butterflies cling to the side of the marquee or flutter around your head. Some of these tropical butterflies are as large as a child's hand, but their paper-like wings look very flimsy. In one corner, a glass cabinet contains hundreds of chrysalis in various stages of the metamorphosis into butterflies. At weekends, it can get rather crowded and there is sometimes a shortage of the laminated sheets identifying each butterfly. But this enthralling exhibition is still worth the modest entrance prices - an adult ticket is £5, while a family ticket costs £14. 7/10

The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London

An atmospheric Victorian Gothic building of epic proportions, this is the archetypal museum and a perfect movie set. The centrepiece of the spectacularly ornate and cathedral-like entrance hall is the skeleton of a Diplodocus, which dwarves the scores of visitors milling around the intricate mosaic floor. This dramatic exhibit, which is surrounded by handsome archways leading to the museum's many galleries, is overlooked by stain glass windows, grand stairways and balconies made from attractive brown and fawn brickwork.

A large and typically-crowded gallery to the left of the hall houses many more dinosaur skeletons accompanied by informative posters pitched at both adults and kids. Towards the end of the elevated stairway are two small animated predators who eye the passing visitors, their teeth stained red from a recent meal. From behind a large screen at the end of the walkway, you can hear bloodcurdling roars. Rounding the corner, you are confronted with a full-size Tyrannosaurus Rex. The huge swivelling head and snapping jaws are realistic enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. But the effect is spoiled somewhat by a voice over the tannoy telling you to keep moving and an information board explaining that if a charging Tyrannosaurus were to trip up, the fall would probably kill it.

More recent fauna are covered in other galleries devoted to mammals, fish, amphibians, birds and reptiles. These contain impressive full size models of giraffes, African elephants, rhinos and even a massive blue whale, while monkey skeletons swing around the upstairs balconies. Many other aspects of life on earth from giant sequoia to climate change are tackled elsewhere in the museum. You are unlikely to have seen even one third of the exhibits before retreating to one of the cafes or restaurants. The self-service, but elegant, cafe behind the entrance hall sells moist and mouthwatering slices of cake for three pounds or four pounds bundled with a hot drink. It could end up being an expensive pit stop, but at least you don't have to pay to get into this excellent museum. 8/10

Saturday 5 April 2008

Continental Breakfast at Cafe Rouge, Hay's Galleria, London Bridge.

The riverside Hay's Galleria shopping precinct is home to a large branch of the long-standing, ubiquitous Cafe Rouge chain of bistros, which do a respectable job of capturing a flavour of France. At the front are plenty of tables underneath the soaring glass canopy of the Galleria. Inside a swarm of waiters and waitresses in white shirts buzz around against a backdrop of yellow walls decorated with prints and posters from France. The "regular" filter coffee (£1.85) is pretty good, but the fluffy cappuccino (£2.25) tends to be lukewarm. Both are served in cups the size of a small soup bowl. The refreshing fruit juices (£1.85) also come in generous portions. For about a fiver, you can get a basket containing two mini croissants, two mini pain au raisin, two mini pain au chocolat and some French bread with a small pot of quality jam - good value until you factor in the optional service charge of 12.5 per cent. 6/10

The Bank, Northcote Road, near Clapham Junction, London

Housed in an old bank branch with a grand neoclassical facade and large arched windows, this pub used to be called the Fine Line, but has now been rebranded by brewery owner Fuller's. Outside is a small terrace, well-placed for people watching on this busy shopping street. Inside is a large square bar with a high ceiling and a wall decorated with about a dozen clocks, dimly-lit in the evening by orange lights. On a Friday night, the music is cranked up loud and most of the tables are occupied by well-heeled young professionals, but the Bank is far from packed and you can get served quickly. You pay through the nose for the privilege - there are only pricey premium beers on tap - two pints of Peroni, for example, cost almost £8. 5/10

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Eurostar, Business Class, London to Brussels

At both St. Pancras and the Gare du Midi, a business class ticket gives you access to a compact lounge with snacks, drinks, newspapers and magazines. The lounge in Brussels is more dingy than its London counterpart, but it does have Internet access terminals. On the train, everything is entirely silver or grey - the wide comfortable seats, the carpeted ceilings and floors, the tables and the staff uniforms. Business class passengers are served an airline-style meal appropriate to the time of day. But the continental breakfast can be a little tired, sometimes featuring green-streaked ham, a battered apple, a tiny onion and parsley muffin, some mild cheddar, a grilled tomato and some lacklustre yoghurt. At least the coffee flows freely. The dinner isn't much better. The smoked salmon and dill tartare can be overly-chilled and lacks flavour, while the beef stew can taste like it was prepared in a school canteen - overcooked so you can barely taste the prunes and accompanying mangetout. The slice of Roquefort cheese and the waffles, served with blueberry jam, are small, but filling. You can wash your dinner down with a can of beer or a 187ml bottle of wine, such as the mediocre Dourthe Barrel Select Bordeaux 2005. All in all, nothing special. 5/10