Saturday 25 April 2009

Kingston Lacy, Wimborne Minster, Dorset

Approached via a B road lined by more than 700 ancient beach trees, Kingston Lacy is an elegant mansion dating from the seventeenth century and boasting a spectacularly ostentatious and ornate interior. In the dozen or so rooms that have been restored by the National Trust to look as they would have in their Edwardian hey day, there is almost too much to take in. Built originally for the Bankes family after Corfe Castle was demolished by Cromwell's Roundheads, the house became a treasure trove for an avid collector of antiquities - William Bankes, who was banished to Italy in the mid nineteenth century after an alleged homosexual act. Particularly noteworthy is the extraordinary Spanish room with its lavish ceiling salvaged from a Venetian palace and its painted leather-clad walls, lined with an imposing series of portraits. In fact, Kingston Lacy is awash with paintings including works by the likes of Van Dyck, Titian and Brueghel, while just about every room is stuffed full of intricately-carved chests, panels and furniture, together with rare and eclectic ornaments, such as a statue of a boy doing a handstand and balancing a vase on the soles of his feet. In the large library, 31 rusty iron keys to the gates of Corfe Castle hang over the fireplace, reminding you that the Bankes didn't always have it so good.

The Haven, Sandbanks, Dorset

Perched right on the tip of the prosperous seaside resort of Sandbanks at the end of a long swathe of fine beach and overlooking the picturesque Isle of Purbeck, the Haven has a superb location. Inside, it feels like a traditional English hotel with incongruously stylish and modern features, such as the cool, octagonal bar and the transparent, flat-panel CD players in some of the rooms. If possible, get a room with a sea view and insist on one that has been refurbished, despite the charcoal colour scheme, as the others can be dated, bashed-in and cramped. Twin rooms typically come with flat-panel TVs, Wi-Fi or wired Internet access, sachets of instant tea and coffee and good biscuits, refreshed every day, and large, comfortable beds. However, the bathrooms are quite basic and suffer from low water-pressure. It can also be a bit of a trek down the hot, stuffy and narrow corridors, broken up by irritating fire doors, to the ancient lift, with its metal grill, which takes you up and down from reception. Worse still, if there is an evening function on, the music can reverberate through the first and second floor bedrooms.

Chunky sausages, mouthwatering mushrooms
Still, the Haven is partially-redeemed by its pleasant beach-side terrace, exceptionally-warm indoor swimming pool, small gym, sauna and heated outdoor pool. The buffet breakfast is also very comprehensive and generally good despite the mediocre coffee. The hot food on offer includes chunky sausages, meaty bacon, well-cooked scrambled eggs, hash browns, fried bread, baked beans, fried eggs and large mouthwatering mushrooms. There is also fruit salad, yogurt, cereals, pain au chocolat, croissants, cheeses, hams, fruit juices and just about everything else you would expect. Eggs Benedict, Eggs Royale, kippers and other traditional breakfast dishes are cooked to order, but they can take time and come with too much Hollandaise sauce. The Haven's smart staff are mostly young, patient and tolerant of kids, but this timeworn hotel doesn't quite live up to its pricey room rates. 6/10

Loch Fyne, Haven Road, Poole, Dorset

Housed in a large white-clapboard building with its own car park, this branch of the Loch Fyne chain has dozens of wooden tables spread around a big open plan room peppered with alcoves. There is a lengthy a la carte menu with plenty of seafood options, including six refreshing oysters for £9 served with a selection of accompaniments, such as tabasco sauce and red onions. If you sit down by 7pm, you can have two courses for £12, but the choice is quite limited. Among the starters, the Thai spicy mussels aren’t very spicy, but are tasty enough, while the crevette salad is a generous plate of prawns with some greenery on the side. The nicely-seasoned salmon main course with a tangy salsa dressing can be slightly overcooked, while the hake fillet can be compact, bony and dry. You also get to choose a side order, such a new potatoes, chips, vegetables or green salad.

Not particularly fine
The kids menu (£6 for two courses) has an unusually broad selection of dishes including a decent bowl of mussels accompanied by crispy brown chips. But the fish goujons (also with chips) can be dry and caked in too much batter, while the peas may be slightly shrivelled. At least the kids ice cream, to follow, is creamy, rich and sweet. From the extensive wine list, you can get a half bottle of the straightforward and slightly sweet house white for £7, while full-size bottles start at £12 a pop. A 70cl bottle of fizzy water is just £3 or there is tap water with ice for free. The black T-shirted staff are warm and efficient, but Loch Fyne isn't always fine. 6/10

Corfe Castle, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

The garden of the National Trust tea room in Corfe must have one of the best aspects of any cafe in Britain. It sits just across a wooden drawbridge from the medieval castle's partially-ruined, but still proud, stone gatehouse, overlooked by the remains of the towering keep and battlements behind. Despite the crowds inside the sprawling and battered castle walls, which lean at impossible angles, you are quickly transported back to yesteryear. You have to cross another bridge over the "Great Ditch" before clambering up to an inner gatehouse, from which you follow a winding path up to the keep itself standing high on the hilltop. From here you get grand views of the surrounding countryside, the postcard-perfect stone village of Corfe and the stream train puffing in and out of the station. But don't let the kids run around like headless chickens - there are some steep drops.

Walk from Studland to Old Harry, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

After crossing on the chain ferry from Sandbanks, it is a short drive along Ferry Road to the National Trust car park backing on to the pleasant beach. From here you can stroll along the fine sand, towards Old Harry, visible in the distance, working your way over the slippery, green rocks below the cliffs. After about a mile you turn inland to join the popular wide grassy cliff path offering a glimpse of a grand Victorian home on the clifftop and big-sky views across the bay back to Bournemouth. Before long, you are at the promontory, surveying the white, craggy archway of Old Harry, which looks like it was made out of cottage cheese, and the nearby pinnacles rising out of the sea. You will need a head for heights to follow the narrowing path all the way to the cliff edge. On the way back, it is well worth wandering around the olde worlde village of Studland with its charismatic pub and ancient church. 8/10

Saturday 18 April 2009

Crab House Cafe, Portland Road, Wyke Regis, Dorset

The Crab House Cafe is housed in an unpretentious wooden shack with plaster of Paris sculptures of seafood on the walls, belying the quality of the cooking and the premium prices. If you can get a table in the bustling main dining room, you can see the courses prepared and grilled in front of you by pedantic chefs in blue and white fishmonger aprons. The cafe overlooks the bay, but some ugly railings partly obscure the view. In any case, most people come for the food. To start, the Thai fish cakes (about £6) - three ping pong ball-sized morsels with a side salad - are pretty spicy, tangy and tasty. Or you can get half-a-dozen oysters ultra fresh from the farm outside the shack for £8.50. As part of the cover, you'll also get some rubbery snippets of octopus, small chunks of brown bread and some strong olives.

A creative mix of flavours
On a typical day, there is a choice of about ten main course fish dishes ranging from about £14 to £20. Each is accompanied by a couple of new potatoes and some roasted vegetables. The mackerel fillet with cumin and curried apple (£14) is unusual, delicate and has a good mix of flavours, but you'll need to watch out for the many small bones. The grey mullet (£15) is also served with a creative mix of flavours, but the portion can be on the small side. If you order the crab you are given a hammer to bang away at the shell. The healthy white fish in the house kids dish (about £6) comes without any batter, but with chunky and crispy chips and a small salad. Adults can get a large side order of the chips for just £2.50, but a pint of Carlsberg lager will set you back a whopping £4.80. Moreover, the decent ice cream and sorbets are priced at £1.95 for a single scoop. Children might prefer the sickly sweet hot chocolate, nicely presented in a tall glass for a couple of pounds. There is no service charge if your group is smaller than eight, but the chatty, young staff are fast and attentive and you will be inclined to tip. 7/10

Walk from Isle of Purbeck Golf Club to Corfe Castle, Dorset

From a gate on the B3551, a well-marked trail takes you up through a small patch of woodland and on to a grassy ridge with far-reaching and uplifting views across the archipelago in Poole harbour on your right and lush rolling countryside on your left. The path takes you past nine grassy hillocks (ancient burial grounds or barrows) and a herd of sheep before descending down towards a mobile phone mast and the atmospheric medieval ruins of Corfe Castle beyond. The steep descent towards the castle also gives you a great view of the picturesque stone village of Corfe with its turreted church tower and, if you are lucky, the steam train puffing in and out of the local station. The round trip back to the car park just beyond the golf club is about six miles with the return leg involving some hard climbs. 8/10

The Bull Hotel, Bridport, Dorset

Housed in a fine early Victorian building, the Bull Hotel is a stylish inn with an elegant function room upstairs. Although its upmarket cooking isn't really in keeping with the charity shops and chain stores of Bridport, on a weekday evening, the Bull still pulls in enough punters to muster a buzz. Inside, much of the furniture and many of the walls are white, broken up by the occasional panel of swirling wallpaper, the odd duff print on the walls and modern sofa benches in the bar area. If you want some privacy, head for the table with sofas and cushions enclosed in an alcove.

Cooking of the highest order
A squadron of well-trained girls run the bar, which has the pleasant malty Otter Ale (£3 a pint) on tap, and wait on the tables. They bring over three varieties of mouthwatering speciality bread rolls, served with a choice of pesto and olive flavoured butter. The modern European menu has a heavy emphasis on fish and varies according to the day's catch. The well-presented hake fillet (£14.50), served with cabbage, a cassoulet of beans and chorizo in a creamy sauce with a quirky topping of guacamole, is a rich and delicious combination - cooking of the highest order. Chive mash, chips, green beans and other side orders are available for £2.50 apiece. The kids' main courses (£4.50) are generally good value with the exception of the small bowl of fresh pasta awash with pesto. Much more substantial is the fine fish in batter accompanied by piles of skinny chips and peas. For £2.50, the kids can also get three scoops of excellent ice cream or sorbet in appealing flavours such as cherry or pistachio. 8/10

Sandbanks, Poole, Dorset

A tennis racket-shaped spit enclosing part of Poole Harbour, Sandbanks is blessed by one of the best beaches in the south of England. The wide tracts of very fine sand, which stretch for several miles towards Bournemouth, are lined by detached art deco villas, blocks of apartments and scores of beach huts. From the southern tip, which is laced with short rocky piers, there is a good view of an undeveloped beach and the green hills of the Isle of Purbeck. The north side of the spit, which is also lined with houses and apartment blocks, overlooks Brownsea Island, the last English sanctuary of the red squirrel, and hundreds of yachts spread out across the wide open spaces of Poole harbour. 8/10

Walk from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door, Dorset

From the Lulworth Cove car park (£3 for two hours) in a sloping green field, you can join the steady stream of casual walkers hiking west up a steep wide stony path towards Durdle Door. After a tough, but short, climb you reach a grassy knoll with dramatic views of the jagged white cliffs and coves of the so-called Jurassic Coast - a fine, if rather public, spot for a picnic. From there a path keeps a safe distance from the cliffs and a caravan park, while heading down towards the small beaches around Durdle Door - an eye catching archway in a cliff jutting out into the sea. On the way you pass a small tractor-drawn kiosk selling refreshments. The round trip is only a couple of miles, but the steep climbs will make sure you get plenty of exercise. Back in the car park, you can admire the white-washed thatched cottages of Lulworth Village or browse around the Heritage Centre. 7/10

La Roche Restaurant, The Haven, Sandbanks, Dorset

Boasting a great setting overlooking the English Channel and the chain ferry chugging back and forth to an unspoilt beach on the Isle of Purbeck, La Roche has cool, minimalist decor, which some diners may find a little clinical and soulless. You can eat a la carte or from the set menu (£15 for two courses and £20 for three courses). Ahead of the starters, comes a selection of warm and delicious rustic bread rolls. Eat them up because the portions on the set menu are small. The choice of three starters can include six al dente asparagus tips with a drizzle of Hollandaise sauce and a modest bowl of concentrated artichoke soup. Among the three mains, the small fillet of sea bream, served with potatoes, vegetables and a concentrated fish sauce, is expertly cooked and has a delicate, salty and moreish flavour.

Unfailingly professional and patient
La Roche has an extensive wine list starting at about £19 a bottle, but you can get a half bottle of the light, crisp and dry Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine for £12.50. On the children's menu, the main courses (£6 apiece) include a fat finger of succulent fish in batter accompanied by a handful of plump chips and a small dollop of mushy peas. Hungry youngsters will also appreciate the biggish bowl (£3) of excellent Italian ice cream with a biscotti biscuit. Service by the youthful staff in their smart waist-coats is unfailingly professional and patient, even with clumsy kids, but it can get slow as the evening wears on. 7/10

Mottisfont Abbey and Gardens, near Romsey, Hampshire

Surrounded by a large estate incorporating a beautiful stretch of the Test river, Mottisfont is a medieval abbey converted first into a Tudor manor house and then into an eighteenth century mansion. With an elegant red-brick heart flanked by grey, sturdy stone wings studded with flint stones, the house lacks the harmonious appeal of many National Trust properties. Inside, a series of spacious rooms on the ground floor are open to the public. With the exception of the trompe I'oeil drawing room, much of the decor, with doors painted the same lurid colours as the walls, and fairly innocuous period furniture is somewhat crude and plain by National Trust standards. The collection of wishy-washy paintings from the early twentieth century also won't appeal to everyone. Only in the Red Room, where a corner of the old stone abbey is visible, and the atmospheric vaulted cellar, do you get a real sense of the site's long, rich history.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Slow Food Market, South Bank, central London

From time-to-time this homage to food prepared with care and attention is set up next to the Southbank Centre. The market is a clutch of neatly-arranged stalls with white hoardings, bearing the Slow Food motif and the name of the retailer, each specialising in food from speciality breads to lavish cakes to sumptuous cheeses to fancy chocolates to fresh nettle juice to organic fruit and veg. The honey seller even brings a small bee hive. You will soon be hungry and fortunately some of the stalls offer hot take-away food. The carcass of a hog roasts on a spit, while the tantalising aroma of sea food paella wafts from enormous shallow pans. You can buy a plastic tray of the salty and rich paella with fat, juicy king prawns and calamari rings for £6. Nearby are tables under canvas where you can sit down and eat. Decent grub at prices slightly below those of Borough Market further down the Thames. 7/10

TH. 2058 by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster at the Tate Modern, South Bank, central London

In the Tate Modern's vast turbine hall, the top half of a sinister black giant spider and an angular red sculpture are visible above a screen serving as the entrance to this Unilever-sponsored exhibition by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. A sign explains that the year is 2058 and it is raining continuously, bizarrely causing sculptures in the open air to grow. The sculptures have been brought into the turbine hall, which also houses refugees from the rain. Behind the screen, scores of blue and yellow frames of bunk beds each with a paperback book attached are arranged around the sinuous legs of the giant spider (a bigger version of the one outside the Tate Modern), the abstract red structure, the skeleton of a dinosaur, a giant apple core and other over sized replicas of sculptures by leading artists. A large screen at the back of the hall plays a weird mix of clips from sci-fi films from the Planet of Apes to Fahrenheit 451 to Mission to Mars. Set against the threat of climate change, the overall effect is both disturbing and strangely comforting if only because it suggests people will still be reading books in 2058. Surreal, but free. 7/10

Sunday 5 April 2009

Keynes Country Park, Spratsgate Lane, Shorncote, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

At the west end of the Cotswold Water Park, Keynes is a low-key leisure park dominated by two lakes. You can park on site, but you will need to pay three pounds per adult and one pound per child to leave at weekends. There is just enough to do to justify the exit fees. If you have brought bikes you can cycle along the pleasant, but fairly short, trails around the lakes. There is also a decent children's playground with a small wooden castle and an undulating slide down to a small sandy beach in front of an area where you can have a chilly swim. If you don't mind spending a few more pounds, you can take a peddle boat or sailing boat out on to the lake or you can get roped up and clamber up some telegraph poles and perform other high wire feats. If the excitement is all too much, you can retreat to the cafe/shop or you can admire the distinctive wooden sculptures of animals dotted around the park. 6/10

Chedworth Roman Villa, Yanworth, Gloucestershire

These ancient, but surprisingly intact, remains of a Roman villa were built 1700 years ago next to a spring, overlooking a pretty valley. Today, they are adjacent to a Victorian shooting lodge and are owned by the National Trust, which has protected the stone bath houses, dining room and living room with incongruous wooden roofs. There isn't a huge amount to see, but young kids might find the latrines amusing before hurtling around the grassy courtyard, while adults will be impressed by the startlingly well-preserved and intricate mosaics in the dining room and the ingenious under floor heating system in the living room. Less impressive is the instant coffee (£1.50 a cup) and Ginster pasties on sale in the refreshments tent, while admission to the site seems overpriced at £6. 7/10

Chedworth Roman Trail ten mile multi-terrain race, Gloucestershire

Criss-crossing a picturesque valley, this tough ten mile outing attracts about 400 runners and is well-organised and marshaled by Cirencester Athletics Club. The race starts and finishes in a field next to the village hall, mostly following farm tracks and footpaths. Fun to run, the outward five miles is mostly flat or downhill, with one enjoyable leg through a scenic glade sloping gently towards the valley floor. About half way round, there is a water station, followed soon after by a stream crossing that will leave your wet feet for the rest of the run.

Gruelling climb
In the second half, there are several hills including a long, gruelling climb on a path of loose stones around the seven mile mark, followed by another hard, but shorter, climb a mile or so later. Many of the older runners, in their forties and fifties, walk sections of these hills. Thankfully, the last mile is mostly flat and you can put in a short finishing sprint in front of the small crowd in the final field. The entry fee is £8.50 and you get to use the basic showers and changing facilities in the village hall. Afterwards, the hungry runners form a good-natured queue at the coffee and cake stall. 8/10

Friday 3 April 2009

The Three Stags, Kennington Road, south London

Spread over two floors on a corner plot opposite the Imperial War Museum and a busy junction, The Three Stags is an archetypal Victorian pub with wooden floors, big windows and even a couple of cosy snugs partially enclosed by stained glass screens. Above the bar, which has IPA, Olde Trip and plenty of international lagers on draught, there is a display of white sculptures by London Art School. If you need to work, there is also free Wi-Fi and some electric sockets. If you need to eat, the regularly changing lunch and dinner menus have gastropub pretensions, serving fancy dishes, such as mussels with leek, dill and cider cream (£8) or cuttlefish with chick pea, bacon and saffron broth (£11.50). But there are also budget options. For just six pounds, you can get a doorstep sandwich containing sliced sausages and caramelised onions, accompanied by a mountain of greenery, plus a handful of fat salty chips with their jackets on. 7/10

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Pure Groove, West Smithfield, central London

This record shop-cum-bar-cum-concert venue has a lot going for it. Pure Groove plays great music, as well as providing free Wi-Fi and plenty of sockets to plug your laptop in. But there isn't any food on offer and the very chocolaty cappuccino (£1.80) is small and can be served lukewarm, so you might prefer a Peroni for £3. The furniture would be more at home in a student common room - toffee-coloured leather sofas and the kind of bashed-in metal and wooden chairs you used to get in council offices and NHS hospitals, while a long imitation wood bar faces the big front window opposite Smithfield meat market. The bare brick walls are decorated with garish modern art, t-shirts and record covers. It can be nearly empty on a weekday, which is a shame given the fine, funky sounds coming out of Pure Groove's speakers. 7/10