Thursday 28 February 2013

Orio BCN Gòtic, Carrer Ferran, Barcelona

A mix of tourists and Catalans visit this welcoming pintxos bar on one of the main drags through Barcelona's Gothic quarter.  Touting "Basque gastronomy", Orio claims to serve more than 80 varieties of pintxos - garnished morsels of meat, fish, cheese and the like pinned to fairly hard bread with a toothpick. You can share one of the large wooden tables with your fellow diners in the lively restaurant with its high ceiling or eat al fresco at one of the outside tables on a covered terrace running alongside the restaurant. Either way, you can go to the bar buffet and select your pintxos (1.95 euros apiece) from large plates - you are charged according to how many toothpicks end up on your plate.  The spread is likely to include smoked salmon, topped with onion, mackerel, cured meats, tortilla, stuffed peppers and croquettes, all on bread. Some of the pintxos are hard to identify, but they often provide an interesting mix of sweet and savoury flavours. The friendly black-shirted staff also come round with platters of warm pintxos, such as sausages, encouraging you to try them. These snacks are generally good, but they are meant to be appetisers and it might cost you 20 euros or so to fill up. Orio also has a more conventional menu, an extensive wine list or can get a pint of beer on draught for about 5 euros. 7/10

Sunday 24 February 2013

The Royal Oak, Cues Lane, Bishopstone, Berkshire

In the village of Bishopstone just east of Swindon, the Royal Oak is a quirky pub aimed at foodies. The slightly eccentric literature and prints of cows disguise a commercial edge - the prices are quite high and the portions quite small. But don't let that put you off. The ingredients are good and the cooking polished. The Saturday lunch menu favours meat-eaters with a traditional palate - the delicious steak, kidney (and other offal) Guinness pie (about £13) with mustard mash and spinach is rich and earthy, but won't fill you up after a country walk. The pastry is excellent and the mash is smooth, but you need more carbohydrate. The other main courses, such as the pork belly, also come in modest portions, but they get rave reviews. If you are hungry, the generous serving of barbecued ribs, served on a wooden bread board with a pile of chips, is the best bet. The menu might also feature one or two more adventurous dishes, such as fried squid with pork belly and spelt risotto with broccoli. Kids can get a platter with decent sausages, chips and other finger food for £8 a head.

Saturday 23 February 2013

A Hunt, near the Ridgeway, South West Oxfordshire

A hunt near the Ridgeway in south west Oxfordshire involves a pack of hounds, bright red jackets, dozens of riders and a fleet of SUVs.

Walk around Uffington Castle and the White Horse, Oxfordshire

The National Trust car park on Woolstone Hill is a good starting point for a fun and scenic family walk around the iron age hill fort of Uffington Castle and the nearby White Horse. Head south on the minor road and the subsequent track that climbs up to The Ridgeway, the historic trail that runs along the dramatic chalk ridges of the Berkshire Downs. The treeless land up here at about 250 metres altitude can be bleak in winter, but it offers sweeping 360 degree views across rolling countryside. On a Saturday, you may spot red jackets, flagging a hunt galloping across the fields below. Kids will enjoy running along the mounds of earth that defended the hill fort. If you head north east across Uffington Castle, you will soon be standing at the head of the White Horse - an equally ancient stencil of a giant horse marked out in the white chalk of the hillside. Rather than descending north down the steep hill, you can extend the walk a little by heading east for half-a-mile until you come to a path that leads down past a small wood and the campsite of Britchcombe Farm. When you get to the road, head back west and then take the minor road, or one of the nearby footpaths, back up past Dragon Hill, the White Horse and Uffington Castle, towards the car park. All in all, this scenic stroll through ancient history is probably less than three miles - ideal for young children. 8/10

Thursday 21 February 2013

Crescent Grove, Clapham, south London

Tucked away just beyond the North East corner of Clapham Common, Crescent Grove is a secluded pocket of well-preserved Georgian homes, dating from the 1820s, overlooking a green peppered with mature trees. On one side, a stately terrace curves gracefully round the open communal garden. On the opposite side, there are handsome semi-detached homes complete with iron railings and classical doorways. Period lampposts add to the timeless atmosphere - only the parked cars mar the overall affect. 7/10

Sunday 17 February 2013

Tapas Brindisa London Bridge, Southwark Street, central London

It can be tough to get a table for dinner at buzzy Tapas Brindisa. This perennially popular tapas bar on the edge of Borough food market doesn't take bookings. If you pitch up around 8.30 pm on a Saturday, you may have to wait for up to an hour to be seated. In the meantime, you can have a drink, standing at the bar and order a dish or two to keep you going. The menu includes many of the classic tapas dishes, such as chorizo tortilla (£4.50) and chorizo with rocket and piquillo pepper on toast (£6.50). The succulent tortilla is impressively light, but would be even better warm, while the chorizo is mouthwateringly meaty and works well with the rocket. Seafood fans will like the juicy pan-fried clams in white wine sauce and garlic, but they are very salty and you might want to order some of the disappointingly tough white bread to mop up the sauce. You get about 20 clams or so for £8. The house specials include some delicate black rice and squid with alioli (£7) - it is a small portion, but the flavours are good. Another special is eggs broken over fried potatoes and pork (£7) - a really, rich breakfast-style dish. It is delicious, but won't do your cholesterol levels any good.

Saturday 9 February 2013

1001 Nights, Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street, central London

Aimed at children aged six or over, 1001 Nights is an enthralling juxtaposition of the power of the imagination with the modern world of mobile phones and international travel. Telling fantastical stories drawn from the Arabian Nights folk tales, the three actors carry you into their imaginary world using random everyday objects, such as a pan, and garbage for props. But every so often, one of their mobile phones rings, or they break into contemporary jargon, bringing you back abruptly into the modern world.  The simple story begins in Damascus,  where war breaks out, forcing a vizier and his daughter to flee, leaving the passport-less mother behind.  They end up in England, with the depressed vizier doing a dull desk job and the book-loving daughter swapping fantastical stories with streetwise locals.

Friday 1 February 2013

Grafton Square, Clapham Old Town, South London

One of the few garden squares in south London, Grafton Square is lined with elegant mid-nineteenth century white stucco terrace houses.  The garden in the middle, enclosed by cast-iron railings, has a small playground and some large mature trees. An oasis of calm amid the hustle and bustle of Clapham, Grafton Square's green space is owned by Lambeth Council and is open to the public. 7/10 

Vincent Square, central London

Tucked away behind bustling Vauxhall Bridge Road, Vincent Square is a surprisingly large expanse of peaceful green space near the heart of central London. However, the well-equipped and well-maintained playing fields and playground aren't open to the public - they belong to nearby Westminster School. Still, the square is worth a visit to see the upmarket Victorian terraces, the handsome red brick headquarters of the Royal Horticultural Society and the distinguished Grange Rochester Hotel. 7/10