Sunday 29 June 2008

Gambado, Natwest Sports Ground, Copers Cope Road, Beckenham, Kent

A frenzy of excitement and noise, Gambado is a full-on indoor children's playground with an elaborate multi-storey climbing frame, complete with slides, tunnels, assault course, trampolines and the like. This centerpiece, adorned with Gambado's tiger mascot, is flanked by a small bumper-car circuit and a gentle merry-go-round, plus a cafe with lots of tables, and even a handful of Internet terminals, for bored parents. But bewarned Gambado is easily big enough to lose your offspring if you aren't paying attention. In any case, the service in the cafe can be agonisingly slow, especially when children's birthday parties are in full swing. The party tea, served in a dedicated room upstairs, includes some fruit, cheese sandwiches, jam sandwiches, pizza bites, crisps and a big plate of chips. The birthday boy or girl gets to sit on a large tiger-shaped throne at one end of the table, while loud pop music, such as the Eighties hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight, is pumped over the sound system. Admission for children (aged 4 to 10) is a hefty £8.45, plus £2 for an accompanying adult, while parties cost £14 a head. 6/10

Saturday 28 June 2008

The Enterprise, Red Lion Street, Central London

With an eye catching mix of original Victorian features and quirky decorative touches, such as the large model biplanes hanging from the ceiling and the huge, gilded candlesticks, the Enterprise feels like a classy pub. Opposite the bar, is a succession of big mirrors surrounded by attractive tiling in several shades of green and illuminated by the large windows, but the middle of the pub can seem dingy by comparison. The simple menu features a dozen or so tapas dishes (about £3.50 each), including stuffed peppers, some delicious, but tiny, slices of chorizo and some very salty patatas bravas. On tap is a broad selection of well-known lagers, such as Amstel and Carling, served by a well-drilled squadron of young, glamorous bar staff. This formula pulls in a large contingent of boisterous office workers early on a Friday evening, but many of them stand and there are often empty seats. 7/10

Sunday 22 June 2008

Polesden Lacey, near Bookham, Surrey

A refined Regency mansion, painted a creamy yellow, overlooking an unusually serene and beautiful valley, Polesden Lacey has one of the best settings of any National Trust property in south east England. Adult visitors tend to sit on the great, sweeping lawn on the south side of the house, admiring the pastoral view, while their children hurtle down the slope and struggle back up again. But make time to wander through the fine walled rose gardens, admiring the many statues, past the herbaceous border, across the thatched footbridge and through the old kitchen garden. On the other side of the south lawn, you can stroll between the stone pillars topped with diminutive lions, on to the Terrace Walk, a wide grassy avenue, which runs for hundreds of yards along the north side of the valley. Beyond the stone sculptures, inscribed with the poetry of Pope, are more heart-warming views of the luscious, idyllic valley. Access to Polesden Lacey's gardens and grounds is £6.50 for an adult, but worth every penny, particularly if you linger on a summer's evening until most of the visitors have gone and you can enjoy this tranquil countryside at its best. 9/10

Friday 20 June 2008

Carters Steam Fair, south east England

An old-fashioned travelling funfair complete with vintage caravans, steam-powered rides and even a coconut shire, Carters Steam Fair is unashamedly nostalgic. Aesthetically-pleasing and fairly genteel, the sedate and charming attractions draw a more middle-class crowd than most fun-fairs. The tame rides, which include a merry-go-round, yacht-boats and swingboats, will appeal most to pre-teens, but their lavish paintwork and ornate decoration may also conjure up fond memories for their grandparents. Most rides cost one or two pounds, but it is worth splashing out three pounds for a dodgem car. Although these elderly and temperamental galopies tend to get stuck in jams, you will relish weaving your way through the traffic before giving one of your friends a bone-jarring jolt. 7/10

Wednesday 18 June 2008

London Eye, South Bank, London

A gleaming white bicycle wheel rising high above the south bank of the Thames, the London Eye is a magnet for tourists and everything that entails. Coming towards the Eye from the east you pass a dozen or more statuesque street entertainers painted as kings, sinners, chameleons and other imaginative characters. Up close, you can check out the handful of slim cables preventing this vast structure from crashing into the river. Although there are a lot of people milling around the base, you can generally board quite quickly, particularly if you bought a ticket in advance. Stewards ensure you move fast enough to step into the continuously moving glass pods, which hold about 20 people each. Your pod, with a central seating area and just enough space to avoid alarming the claustrophobic, then rises slowly into the sky. On a clear day at the top, you can see right to the suburban edge of south London. There are also fine views of the Victorian-Gothic spires of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the more distant Buckingham Palace surrounded by trees and other greenery. Vertigo-sufferers will want to avoid looking straight down on to the array of boats on the river or the tiny people strolling along the South Bank. As you descend, cameras automatically take photographs of pod passengers, which you can buy at the base. Book online (£13.95 for adults and £6.95 for children) for the best value tickets and make sure you go on a bright sunny day 8/10

P&O Ferries, Dover to Calais

Not the fastest way to cross the English Channel, but can be fun. Check-in, passport control and security are faster than at Heathrow, but still take at least half an hour. On board, you are compensated on a sunny day with great views of the striking White Cliffs of Dover as you chug out of the harbour and miles of golden sand as you arrive in Calais. Below deck, you can jostle with the motley assortment of backpackers, lorry drivers, coach passengers and families for something to eat or somewhere to sit. For £22 you can get two adults and two children a main course and a desert in the canteen, but don't expect a lot of meat in the chicken curry or much in the way of vitamins. Alternatively, you can wind away the 90-minute crossing by browsing through the shop, drinking Costa coffee, watching cartoons in the kids' lounge or playing arcade games, but try to avoid using the sometimes filthy toilets. Remember to purchase all the paraphernalia you need for driving on the continent, such as a first aid kit and red warning triangle, if you haven't got it already. Assuming you aren't in a hurry, P&O is good value at about £100 return for a family and a car. 6/10

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Hostellerie La Croix Blanche, place des Plantagenets, Fontevraud L'Abbaye, Vallee de la Loire

With an enviable position opposite the majestic Abbaye de la Fontevraud, La Croix Blanche is well-placed to lure in tourists to its hotel and trio of eateries. While the facade, with its attractive cobbled archway, is enticing, the modern extensions behind have less character. In one wing, refurbished in 2008, there are ultra-modern and rather sterile white en-suite rooms (100 euros a night) with splashes of colour, small flat-screen televisions, very contemporary fittings and solid pine, featureless furniture. The old battered beams and reclaimed fireplace in the hall aren't sufficient to capture the historical ambiance of the surrounding village. The double rooms are quite tight and a more spacious family suite is available for 130 euros a night, while half-board costs an additional 36.50 euros a day for adults and 19.50 euros for children. The buffet breakfast is set up in the slightly-staid Plantagenet restaurant recently refurbished in matching tones of red and gold. On offer is a selection of good quality cold meats, cheeses, bread, walnuts, croissants, fruit juices, a couple of cereals and plenty of coffee.

Monday 16 June 2008

The Gardens of Château de la Chatonnière, Azay le Rideau, Vallee de la Loire

Nestling in a secluded valley, this charming chateau and its aging outbuildings are surrounded by beautiful and charismatic gardens. You don't need to know the labels to appreciate the neat, symmetrical patterns of the formal 'L'Intelligence' garden, the curvaceous beds of lettuces in 'L'Abondance', the circular maze of 'Les Romances' or the parade of roses in 'Les Fragrances'. All four are surpassed by 'L'Exuberance' - rolling meadows of blue, red and pink wild flowers spreading up the hillsides around the chateau. You can peer over a high stone wall down into a large enclosed courtyard - 'Le Silence', which, ironically, is patrolled by four boisterous German Shepherd dogs. From there you can climb up through some trees and follow a path down to the main gates where there is lovely view across a luscious green basin back to the conical slate roofs of the towers and creamy stonework of the chateau. Admission to the gardens, which stay open until 7pm, is 6 euros for an adult. With just a handful of visitors on a sunny afternoon in late May, the Château de la Chatonnière is a magical place. 9/10

Friday 13 June 2008

Chateau de Villandry, Vallee de la Loire

The substantial Renaissance Chateau de Villandry serves primarily as a handsome backdrop for the imaginative, but meticulous and highly-regimented gardens. Just beyond the chateau's moat, are a series of large squares marked out with boxed hedges, low-level uniform flower beds and small trees trimmed to precision, each symbolising a kind of love from tender to romantic to passionate. Vibrant shades of green are laced with splashes of colour. Nearby is an aromatic and bountiful kitchen garden, while another large section is given over to topiary with rows of ice-cream shaped-trees each spliced into horizontal sections. Children will find the maze, with its central viewing platform, great fun and will also want to linger in the fine wooden playground. Circling the chateau, you pass a peaceful lake lined by a row of trees broken only by a stone bridge positioned dead-centre. Climbing up a steep bank takes you into a small wood with good views through the trees of the gardens and the venerable village church beyond.

Saumur, Vallee de la Loire

Standing haughtily on a hill on the south bank of a very broad stretch of the Loire, the pointed turrets of Saumur's chateau make this well-heeled town a beacon for tourists. It is quite a steep climb through Saumur's lanes up to the grassy dry moat surrounding the chateau, which looks disappointingly worn and weather-beaten up close. Cross a couple of drawbridges for a view over the vineyards and handsome town houses lining both sides of the river. Below the chateau, are some attractive streets and small cobbled squares with fountains, smart shops, cafes and excellent boulangeries selling particularly delicious baguette sandwiches and extravagant cakes. Home of the refined École Nationale d'Équitation and a large tank museum reflecting its longstanding connections with the French cavalry, Saumur is a swish, yet smug, town. 7/10

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, Valle de la Loire

Made out of the sumptuous creamy stone typical of the Loire valley, the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is an extensive, pristine and well-preserved monastery founded in 1101 and the resting place of Richard the Lionheart and Henry II of England. You enter the complex (7.90 euros for adults and free for children) via a grand gateway and a distinguished eighteenth century courtyard. Beyond the ticket office is a 34-acre site containing a series of remarkably coherent medieval buildings, topped with steeply sloping slate roofs and enclosed by a high stonewall. You come first to the church with its attractive bell tower. Inside, there are four recumbent statues of dead Plantagenet kings and queens - the main feature of the austere and elegant nave.

Sunday 8 June 2008

Old Town, Le Mans, Pays de la Loire,

Renown for its turbo-charged 24-hour car race, Le Mans is also a hotbed of history. You can reach the elevated heart of the city by crossing the Sarthe river and climbing the steps over the extraordinary Roman city walls with their moasic-style brickwork. Up here is an atmospheric maze of cobbled medieval lanes lined by a mixture of four-storey timber-framed and Renaissance stone houses complete with wrought iron street lamps and balconies. Particularly handsome is the stately and solid cardinal's residence with its elegant and intricately-carved stone turrets. It faces Le Mans' ginormous Cathedrale St-Julien, which was built over several hundred years. The cavernous interior is remarkable for the series of ornate and sometimes beautiful chapels that buttress one end of this hulking cathedral. Despite its age and beauty, the old quarter of Le Mans is quiet and mostly free of tourist tat, opting instead for stylish restaurants and chic boutiques selling art and antiques. 8/10

Saturday 7 June 2008

Walk from Moutiers-au-Perche, Normandy

From Moutiers-au-Perche's brooding medieval church, perched on a hillside above the village, you can follow a 6.5 km circular walk through luscious woods and farmland. Although the route takes you past some open fields, home to a herd of fawn-coloured cows and the odd frisky bull, you spend much of the walk surrounded by trees with little to see. The route ends with a steep climb back to the church from which there are sweeping views over the rooftops of the village to the verdant countryside beyond. 5/10

Stroll around Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, Normandy

While Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei doesn't quite live up to its billing as one of the "most beautiful villages in France," it is blessed with a lovely setting on a bend in the river Sarthe. The main square is tarnished by the plastic tables of a couple of tourist-orientated cafes, but it is a short stroll down to a picturesque stone bridge overlooked by resident artists' workshops and studios. On the other side of the main square is another charming stretch of the river where you can watch dozens of dragonflies buzz in and out of the reeds, while admiring the towering old forest on the other side of the Sarthe. Follow the riverside path left for six hundred yards or so and you come to a small chapel marking the start of a path leading back up the hill past the village's weather-beaten eleventh century Romanesque church. 7/10

Friday 6 June 2008

Sées, Normandy

Heading south on the autoroute through Normandy towards Le Mans, you will glimpse the distinctive twin spires of Sées' thirteenth century Gothic cathedral. Up close, the cathedral dominates this peaceful and prosperous town. Inside, you can admire the intricate stain glass windows, the light and airy nave and the graceful, soaring ceiling. Nearby are narrow medieval lanes, an elegant nineteenth century town hall and several other fine period buildings. Although Sées attracts few tourists, it is a pleasant place to pass a couple of hours. 7/10

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Chateau de Villiers, near Essay, Normandy

A small, but perfectly-formed, moated country house dating from the sixteenth century, Chateau de Villiers sits in splendid isolation in a large plot of land overlooking rolling fields. The steeply sloping roof, the shuttered windows, the miniature bridge across the moat and the venerable outbuildings make this chateau, owned by a young and friendly family, a charming place to stay. Inside, the guest and the family rooms still have their original fireplaces, high ceilings and other period features, plus the appropriate furnishings. Two adjoining large rooms at the front, for example, are kitted out in all the flowery and finery of the Haute Epoque style. The emphasis on authenticity and homeliness means the guest rooms (about 100 euros per room per night for bed and breakfast) lack many of the conveniences found in most hotels, such as televisions, phones, kettles, power showers and even external locks. The gardens, complete with hen house, vegetable plot and paddock, also have an old-world feel, and it is surprising to find one of the barns contains a flashy spa. Breakfast is served in an atmospheric dining room with a huge antique radiator, a yellowing bust of a bearded aristocrat on the mantle piece and a vintage gun hanging on one wall. You take your place at one of the handful of round tables set with fine table cloths, posh cutlery and smart napkins. Breakfast consists of orange juice, coffee with warm milk, fresh bread and butter, moist banana cake or madeleines.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Taverne Au Normandy, Place de La Cathedrale, Sees, Normandy

Behind an appealing burgundy facade, opposite Sees' majestic cathedral, is a traditional restaurant with a rustic, homely ambiance. Below the wooden beam ceilings, the walls are decorated with a bison's head, a deer's head and even a startled stuffed fox, while one wall is covered with dozens of framed stills from Joan D'Arc, which was partly filmed in Sees. Unfortunately, the overall effect is diluted by the waiters' white t-shirts emblazoned with a bison's head, and the laminated lengthy menus, which list scores of dishes including pizzas, omelets, crepes, traditional French specialities and even some Tex-Mex food. Still, Taverne Au Normandy serves huge, tasty portions and the cheapest fixed menu (18.50 euros for three courses), in particular, is great value.

A massive meringue glace
To start, for example, you can enjoy a great big bowl of peppery fish soup served with a heap of grated cheese and eight croutons. The main courses include a plate of juicy duck medallions accompanied by a hunk of artichoke, a pleasant plum sauce, crispy slivers of potato and some salad. You can top that with a massive meringue glace covered in warm chocolate sauce and surrounded by whipped cream and two scoops of coffee ice cream. Even the salads are very filling. The tomato salad (4.55 euros) is two huge chopped tomatoes lying on a forest of lettuce doused in French dressing, while the lardons salad (11.50 euros) features scores of bacon bits, pieces of Roquefort cheese, walnuts, plus toast and butter. The children's menu (8.50 euros) includes an almost adult-size serving of respectable ham, French fries and salad, followed by a couple of scoops of ice cream served in a vase-style glass. Whatever you order at the Taverne Au Normandy, you probably won't need the basket of bread. The wine list includes a 50cl pitcher of drinkable Cote de Bourg for just 6.90 euros. Service is generally swift and, full and happy, you will be tempted to tip generously. 8/10

Monday 2 June 2008

Rouen, Normandy

The ancient capital of upper Normandy boasts an unusually extensive medieval centre with scores of tall, stately, timber-framed houses and cobbled streets, many pedestrianised. Within a few hundred yards of each other is an imposing and lavishly-carved Gothic cathedral dating from the twelfth century and an equally substantial, but not quite so ornate, church built in the fourteenth century. It is also worth seeking out the eye catching and colourful gold clock mounted on an aging archway over one of the main shopping streets and the extraordinary array of gargoyles and statues that adorn the newly-cleaned Gothic Palais de Justice. As you stroll from one sight to another, you will also pass quirky modern sculptures, statues and fountains, but watch your step - there is dog poo on almost every pavement. The riverside is also marred by the nearby dual-carriageways, while outbreaks of graffiti and the odd intoxicated vagrant can make Rouen feel a bit edgy, 8/10

Sunday 1 June 2008

The Swan, Clapham Road, Stockwell, south London

A longstanding Irish drinking den and club right next to Stockwell tube station, the Swan is still a cheap and cheerful institution. Admission is just a fiver and that includes a barely-edible portion of sausage and chips, while pints of beer are available at pub-ish prices. Downstairs, on a Friday or Saturday evening, there is usually passable live music prompting the mostly white and mostly tipsy punters to throw themselves enthusiastically on to the modest dance floor. 7/10

The Falcon, St John's Hill, Clapham Junction, south London

A stone's throw from Clapham Junction rail station, the Falcon is a spacious pub dominated by a large central bar encircled by seats, tables and alcoves. The decor, with wood-panelling just about everywhere, is traditional and there are more than a half-a-dozen real ales on offer, as well as the mandatory lagers. The close proximity to one of London's busiest stations makes the Falcon a convenient meeting place for would-be revellers and by 9pm on a Friday night, some of the clientele maybe a little worse for wear. Plenty of choice, but service can be sluggish. 6/10