Tuesday 22 September 2009

Skyride, central London

It only comes around once a year, so it is well worth taking this opportunity to ride past many of central London's most famous landmarks on traffic-free roads. Unfortunately, you'll be joined by tens of thousands of other cyclists on the route from Buckingham Palace along the Mall, which then skirts Trafalgar Square before swooping down Northumberland Avenue to the Victoria Embankment. It is tempting to watch the cruise boats on the river, but you'll need to keep your eyes trained on the kids swerving around in front of you and the human traffic-lights who frequently raise their stop signs to let pedestrians cross the road. A mile or so downstream, the route turns up to St. Paul's Cathedral, before looping through part of the City, where the mass of cyclists thins out a little. You pass an enthusiastic band of drummers as you enter the "noise zone" inside the Upper Thames Street Tunnel where all the cyclists ring their bells and shout - a lot of fun. Then you head to the Tower of London where you do a sharp turn into the return trip directly along the river, making for a 15 kilometer round trip.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Red Lion Inn, Stathern, Leicestershire

On the outside, the Red Lion Inn is an unremarkable pub with pebble-dashed walls painted a slightly garish cream. But on the inside, this is a busy seventeenth century inn with low ceilings, wooden beams and plenty of character, serving decent grub at a leisurely pace. There are several rooms each decorated in country kitchen-style with checked table cloths, checked serviettes tied up with string, flowery cushions and wooden spoons hanging on one of the walls. The extensive a la carte menu lists British dishes sometimes with a twist, such as smoked haddock, bubble and squeak and Welsh rarebit.

Smells and tastes great
On a Sunday, the set lunch (£18.50) is made up of three courses with three choices per course. The starters include a small, but tangy and ultra-fresh salmon terrine, with a crisp salad, spring onions and capers. One of the best mains features chunky slices of fatty, but delicious, beef served with a stilton hollandaise – a lovely combination. It comes with tasty al dente mini-carrots and fine roast potatoes, let down by dry, tough Yorkshire puddings, all doused in gravy. Vegetarians will struggle as even the sea bream is served with salad laced with chorizo. For pudding, the hot apple and blackberry crumble in a white ramakin dish, next to a miniature bowl of tepid, runny custard, served on a wooden board, smells and tastes great. The portions are just big enough to fill you up. On the kids menu (£6.75), is a selection of four dishes, such as battered fish and chips or cheese and tomato pizza. To follow, there is a selection of three deserts, including sticky toffee pudding. Reassuringly, all the kids food is billed as home made, using fresh ingredients. The Red Lion's beers on tap include London Pride and IPA, as well as lager stalwarts, while the young staff are friendly and exceptionally polite. Children can work off their lunch in the large, well-equipped playground in this pretty village with a handful of Georgian buildings. 7/10

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Notting Hill Carnival, West London

An enormous Caribbean festival held every August bank holiday in streets lined with beautiful Regency and Georgian mansion blocks, interspersed with arty shops, cafes and the occasional brutal council estate, Notting Hill Carnival is surreal, absorbing and overwhelming. Even on the more laid-back, less-crowded and child-orientated Sunday, this swanky suburb is awash with party animals blowing whistles, swigging beer and inhaling the odd joint. In amongst the gangs of teenagers and twentysomethings, you'll spot groups of bemused tourists, a few families and even the odd haggle of pensioners without their hearing aids. Get to Notting Hill before noon if you want to secure a front-row spot to watch the parade of decorated floats, fantastical costumes, towering puppets, throbbing sound systems and charismatic MCs that edge along the mile-long route, which encloses a grid of streets dotted with scores of sound systems, food stalls and Red Stripe vendors. As the floats pass, the music can be loud enough to make your rib cage vibrate. This memorable, and sometimes magical, parade is marred only by the mundane support lorries and the scarcity of steel bands - the original Carnival soundtrack.