Tuesday 26 May 2009

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey

The spiritual home of posh English gardening, Wisley is an impressive showcase for the formidable skills and knowledge of the Royal Horticultural Society. In May, the green-fingered will hardly notice the fine imitation Tudor manor house that serves as a laboratory and the gateway to the 240 acre site. Instead, they will be transfixed by the extraordinary variety of plants and flowers that pack borders carefully-designed to provide a mesmerising mixture of colour, foliage and structure. Melded into the contours of the Surrey Hills, the gardens flow up banks, past ponds capped with water lilies and straddled by quaint bridges, around an undulating Alpine meadow, charming stone steps, rockeries and venerable old trees. To the south, Battleston Hill and Weather Hill, where the lauded rose gardens are now being redeveloped, both make for good vantage points for a sweeping view of the extraordinary array of landscaping and planting below. Urbanites in search of ideas should wander around the self-contained series of small gardens each designed around a theme, such as "rooms" or "pot plants".

Spectacular, high-tech glasshouse
Right now there is also a cheerful display of tiny themed gardens, just a few square feet, designed by local schools. One of them features characters from children's stories, such as Robin Hood and Peter Rabbit, while another is full of lavishly-painted pebbles. The fruit field and the arboretum in the south west corner are among the least colourful, but most peaceful, parts of Wisley. From here, you can follow the spiral path up to the top of the newly-planted fruit mount or head down the straight grassy path to the semi-circular lake in front of the spectacular, high-tech glasshouse. Inside are tropical, temperate and desert zones, each densely-packed with strange and eye catching plants. Steps, ramps and lifts enable you to get up amongst the treetops and survey everything from on-high. Entrance to Wisley costs £8.50 for adults, a fair price, but you will probably spend as much again in one of the several cafes and restaurants dotted around the site. And if you want a souvenir, there is also a pricey gift shop and plant centre. 8/10

Friday 15 May 2009

Green & Blue, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, South London

A stylish and atmospheric wine shop with bare brick walls, Green & Blue also has a laid-back bar with green cast iron tables, free Wi-Fi and some electric sockets where you can plug your laptop in. But most of the punters, with the exception of the odd toddler, are more interested in sampling the wines or one of the bottled British beers. There is also coffee, tea, a selection of Mediterranean snacks, platters of cheese, meat and fish, pies, sausage rolls and salads. The moist cakes are delicious, but the garlic bread and cheese straws are lackluster. Service by the black-shirted staff is cool and efficient. 7/10

Saturday 9 May 2009

Blue Mountain Cafe, North Cross Road, East Dulwich, South London

The striking mosaic on the Blue Mountain Cafe's front terrace draws you into this quite funky and cramped local eatery. The long, narrow dining room's centrepiece is an open and noisy bar, where hot drinks are prepared and served one-by-one by the slightly eccentric and meandering young staff. A large creamy cappuccino costs two pounds and a cafeteria of filter coffee a hefty £3.75, while kids' drinks, such as apple juice, milk or a 'babychino', all cost around one pound. The diverse selection of bottled beers (around three quid each) includes Budvar and Whitstable Bay Organic Ale.

Doorsteps of toast
The food menu includes jerk chicken (£8) - a generous piece of tepid meat in a fairly tame sauce served with some delicious and spicy rice and roasted plantain. Equally filling is the mezze platter (£7), made up of sun dried tomatoes or artichokes, grilled and salty haloumi cheese, a battery of olives, heaps of pitta bread, plus humus and aubergine dips. Among the half-dozen options on the kids menu are some doorsteps of toast with baked beans and egg mayonnaise sandwiches served in thick white bread. But save some room for a slice of one of the sumptuous and plump cakes on prominent display near the door. The Blue Mountain Cafe is understandibly popular with young families and couples and you may struggle to get a table on a Saturday. 7/10

Monday 4 May 2009

Hughenden Manor, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

A red-brick, eighteenth-century manor house with fussy little Victorian parapets, Hughenden Manor isn't particularly striking or attractive. But it is the former country home of Benjamin Disraeli, billed as "Britain's most unlikely prime minister" and it pulls in the crowds. On a sunny spring Sunday, the National Trust sometimes issues timed entry tickets and you may have to wait two hours to get inside the house. In the meantime, you can wander around the orderly garden with its displays of white tulips standing to attention surrounded by forget-me-nots, play croquet on the immaculate lawn or go for a walk. A two-mile round trip takes you up to a high vantage point next to a stone monument to Disraeli, from where you can survey the suburbs of High Wycombe encroaching on to the farms and woodland around the manor. Alternatively you can wander down through the many trees, past the elegant Georgian vicarage, the early seventeenth century almshouses and the parish church to a leisurely river where cows laze on the banks. Or you can head for the restaurant in the original stable block, which has a cobbled courtyard that makes a fine sun trap.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset

The view from the top of Gold Hill, a steep cobbled street bordered by quaint cottages and by the walls of ruined medieval abbey, against a backdrop of rolling countryside, is an instantly-recognisable image of rural England. It has been used in television commercials, including the highly-nostalgic Hovis advert featuring a boy in a cloth cap pushing his bike up the cobbles, plus calendars, chocolate boxes and other tourist memorabilia. But once you have gazed at that famous view for 30 seconds or so, there isn't much more to see. 7/10