Monday, 29 September 2008

Standen, West Hoathly Road, East Grinstead

Late-Victorian country house lavishly decorated in the Arts and Crafts style, which means lots of carpets and wallpaper with dizzying patterns of swirling fruit, flowers, birds and other flora and fauna. Not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but the house is also packed with period fixtures and fittings, giving a good insight into how the wealthy lived at the tail end of the 19th century. The upstairs windows also offer pleasant views of rolling Sussex countryside and the National Trust, which owns Standen, lays on Arts and Crafts-themed quizzes and colouring sheets for kids.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Foreign and Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, London

One of the hundreds of properties around London that open their doors for one weekend a year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a heavily-restored throwback to the mid-nineteenth century. The grandeur of the British Empire lingers on in its ornate meeting rooms, stately staircases and the marble splendour of Durbar Court - a covered courtyard ringed by balconies with beautifully-tiled floors and intricate plasterwork. The lavish India Office and the golden Locarno Suite, with its ostentatious arched ceilings, are still in use as offices or meeting rooms. One of the highlights is the Grand Staircase with its bronze bust of Anthony Eden, heroic neo-classical paintings and massive golden chandeliers. But all this extravagance is somewhat offset by the mundane reminders, such as the plastic water dispensers and waste paper bins, that this building has to earn its keep in the cash-strapped public sector. On Open House weekend, admission is free and the friendly security guards make you feel very welcome. 7/10

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Ashridge Business School, near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

A leading business school and conference centre on the site of a medieval monastery, Ashridge now resembles a fortified stately home. As you come up the drive, you might spot off-duty executives jogging around the parkland or playing football, tennis or pitch and put golf in the extensive grounds. Inside the main building, the ancient hallway, now serving as a reception area, and the dining rooms with their high-ceilings, are well-preserved and evoke a real sense of history. But the nearby bar, which looks like it belongs in an airport lounge, is disappointingly characterless and out-of-place.

Small and unsatisfying
Served in the distinguished dining rooms, the evening meal menus strike a suitably conservative note. The scallops, served on a cauliflower puree, are fresh, but a little bland. The roast lamb with truffle gratin potatoes, asparagus, pea shoots and minted hollandaise also needs more flavour. What's more, the portions can be small and unsatisfying. For desert, the lemon tart has some zing, but the slices are meagre. The wine list is also rather limited, with most bottles costing between ten and twenty quid.

Serious thinking
There is a big contrast between the venerable, almost ostentatious, mansion and the outlying modern conference centres, which were clearly built on a budget and feel like they belong in a mid-range hotel. Still, the bedrooms are comfortable and well-equipped with ironing boards, flat-screen TVs, coffee-making facilities and other creature comforts. If you miss the brief window for breakfast in the main house, you can get good bacon butties brought to your meeting room and the machine coffee is respectable. Although the Ashridge site is blanketed with paid-for Wi-Fi access, courtesy of T-Mobile, most of the buildings lack mobile coverage. That helps make Ashridge a good place to escape the interruptions of everyday working life and do some serious thinking. 7/10

Saturday, 20 September 2008

British Airways, Economy Class, London to Brussels

You start your journey at Heathrow's notorious Terminal 5, a cavernous, space-age building walled by glass and held up with gleaming white girders. Kitted out with plenty of electronic check-in kiosks, a high-tech security process and upmarket shops, Terminal 5 is actually quite a pleasant and efficient place. It is also very big and you may have to take a shuttle to get to your gate. On route, you can stop at a branch of Apostrophe to get a grilled, tepid cheese and ham croissant for £1.95 or a decent filter coffee served in a small cafeteria for the same money.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Tate Modern, South Bank, central London

Looming over the south bank of the Thames, the Tate Modern's mundane, industrial brick shell is the ideal counterfoil to the Baroque grandeur of St. Paul's Cathedral on the opposite side of the river. Housed in a former power station, the Tate Modern's vast turbine hall, a striking piece of architecture in its own right, is reserved for exhibits on a grand scale, such as the Shibboleth crack or Carsten Holler's slides, and is sometimes empty. Above it, roomy, white galleries display hundreds of modern paintings, photographs, sculptures, models and films. While many of the exhibits are weird and inaccessible, you will almost certainly find something you like. The most provocative stuff tends to be in the temporary exhibitions, some of which have an entrance charge. On some of the landings, there are engaging interactive consoles aimed mainly at children, while the walls above are decorated with a vast timeline marking the many movements in modern art from Cubism to Post Minimalism. The Tate Modern also has two good shops packed with books and other wares related to art and architecture.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Escape Bar, Railton Road, Herne Hill

On weekday lunchtimes, this quirky and slightly battered bar, opposite Herne Hill station, draws in a handful of young mothers and their noisy offspring, attracted by the spacious seats, the toy collection in the corner and the tasty food. The warm roast chicken and avocado ciabatta sandwich (£5.50), served with a sprightly green salad and honey dressing, is out of the top drawer. You can wash it down with a decent filter coffee or cappuccino for £1.50. Service by the staff, decked out in Gothic black, is friendly and easy-going, but the rock, Indie or dance music on the stereo can be too loud for a lunchtime. Still, there is free wi-fi and some sockets, where you can plug your laptop in, next to the modern leather sofas, arm chairs and tables with glass tops encasing hundreds of white pebbles. On the walls are cool, abstract paintings. But the furniture has taken plenty of knocks, the patchy maroon color scheme is a bit haphazard and the back wall is covered in garish, flowery purple wallpaper. 7/10

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

IKEA restaurant, Purley Way, Croydon

A bustling, self-service, first-floor canteen with solid wooden tables and views over the typically jam-packed car park, IKEA's restaurant specialises in good value staples, ultra-cheap kids meals and the odd Swedish delicacy. The hot dishes (about £4.25) include filling and passable meat balls, served with a creamy sauce and lingonberry jam, or fish in batter accompanied by peas. Both come with a choice of chips or new potatoes. The cold options include open prawn sandwiches and gravlax. There are also chocolaty Swedish deserts from 60 pence each and bigger slices of creamy gateau for £1.70 each. The children's meals (about £1.30) are usually smaller versions of the adult meals plus a free piece of fruit - an orange, apple or banana.

Neat little trolleys
You can stack it all on one of the neat little trolleys, which can carry three trays at once. And make sure you get everything you want first time, as the self-service queues can be long as weary shoppers seek sustenance. Still, once you have paid for a glass you can then fill it up as many times as you like with the soft drinks in the dispensing machines. When you are finished, you are supposed to clear your own tables - helpful signs explain that doing this will help to keep prices low. 7/10

Monday, 1 September 2008

Mela, Herne Hill, south London

Occupying a prominent corner plot opposite Herne Hill station, formerly the home of the renown Three Monkeys, Mela is a roomy and stylish Indian restaurant. You cross an elevated walkway above the downstairs bar to reach the dining room adorned with stylised, but attractive, travelogue prints of India on the white walls and ornate fabrics on the chairs, crisp white table cloths and tasteful parchment menus. Some of the substantial starters (around £5) feature big chunks of heavily-spiced meat served with dips. But save room for one of the curries (between £6 and £15), which tend to come in rich, creamy sauces offset, in some cases, by refreshing peppers. The more expensive dishes include novel ingredients, such as crab or rabbit, while one of the tasty vegetable curries features plump mushrooms and sweet peas. The naan bread is thin, crispy and moreish, but the dahl can be a little runny and the big bottles of Cobra beer are also a bit watery. On a Saturday night, Mela attracts enough people to create an atmosphere, but isn't usually full. Still, with efficient and courteous service, Mela is a cut above your average Indian restaurant. 7/10