'NAH - Luton Airport,' responded Lorraine Chase, when asked in a television commercial if she had wafted in from paradise. In the Seventies, Bedfordshire's airport was a muddle of huts on a hilltop near the M1. Since then a fair amount of building and image-tweaking has gone on; it now looks like a DIY superstore, handles 60,000 passengers a week and describes itself as 'London Luton Airport'. But despite its pretensions, the airport is irrevocably suburban, matching the rest of the trading estate on which it is plonked and expunging any residual glamour there might still be in air travel.

Many a holiday begins at Luton, but sometimes a depressing amount of time is spent awaiting a flight: last weekend the longest delay was five hours on a British Air Ferries flight to Venice, followed by four hours for a Monarch flight to Larnaca. If your departure is delayed, this guide helps you to see the best in Beds; if you want to plan ahead, flight information is on 0582 405100.

AIRPORT FACILITIES

Luton's terminal is a gloomy place in which to be confined for any length of time. Nourishment is provided only by the Chiltern Buffet, the Hatters Bar, and a branch of Little Chef. Shopping is limited: Sweet Sensation sells confectionery by the quarter-

pound, The Bookstore purveys Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer by the hundredweight, and Sun & Co supplies everything for a package holiday from swimwear to Alka Seltzer.

Fortunately, the airport's location on the edge of town makes it easy to escape. The Luton Flyer bus runs between the airport and the station four times an hour and takes eight minutes and costs pounds 2.50 return; before leaving the terminal, however, check with the airline's handling agent.

THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Eating and Drinking: turn left at the roundabout just outside the airport to find a chip shop and Chinese takeaway. A little further on is the Wyvern pub, but a much nicer hostelry lies in the opposite direction: the White Horse, in the village of Tea Green, a brisk half- hour stroll from the airport. The signposts peter out - just head straight on to find a pleasant country pub with a beer garden.

Luton itself has some excellent Asian restaurants, such as the Jitlada (Thai) on Wellington Street, the Sundo (Cantonese) on Guildford Street, and numerous Indian places.

Shopping: in the middle of Luton, George Street and the Arndale Centre contain all the usual retail suspects. Unusual shops are hard to find, although Soul Sense on Stuart Street has a good range of black music (but no copies of 'Luton Airport' by Cats UK, which reached number 22 in the charts in 1979). The Relate shop on George Street also sells records - old 78s at pounds 1 each - and, interestingly for a charity working to solve marital problems, a second-hand size 10 wedding dress for pounds 30. Close to the airport is the Retail Park, a massive mall featuring Comet, B & Q and Halfords.

Fresh Air: Stockwood Country Park (0582 38714) is a pounds 5 taxi ride from the airport. It is not much to look at - windswept and scruffy - but has plenty of amenities for the passenger without a plane. Adults can try the 18-hole golf course, while children enjoy a playground stacked with swings and things. A series of gardens traces the history of horticulture between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Mossman Collection contains old horse-drawn vehicles (there is a charge for entry to this collection).

Best of all is the Crafts Museum, a well-presented selection of traditional trades enhanced by some lovely old photographs. It depicts life when the locals were blacksmiths and weavers rather than fitters and stewardesses. The museum explains that the 'broadcasting fiddle' was not a sharp practice by television crews, but an agricultural device to make sure seeds were widely spread. The Crafts Museum is free, but closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. At weekends you can ride around the park in a horse-drawn carriage (adults pounds 1, children 50p), or learn to drive one for a fiver.

Stately Home: Luton Hoo (0582 22955) is an Edwardian mansion set in a lovely estate which insulates it from the factories and motorways. The grounds are delightful - they were laid out by Capability Brown, who indulged himself by damming the river Lea to create two lakes. Scenes from Never Say Never Again were shot here, and it must be said that the staff display a James Bond-like distrust of strangers. On show inside the house is the intriguing Wernher Collection, the eclectic gatherings of Sir Julius Wernher and his descendants. Its highlights are Tsarist treasures, including exquisite Faberge jewellery. Admission to house and garden is pounds 4.30 adult ( pounds 1.85 for garden only), pounds 1.75 child (60p); concessions for students and senior citizens. Closed Mondays.

Wild Bedfordshire: the road to Whipsnade begins by plodding through what seems to be a gigantic light-engineering complex. Beyond Dunstable it follows the course of the Icknield Way, possibly the oldest road in Britain. This climbs up to the Downs (ideal for kite-flying), with lovely views across the Chilterns, then dips down to a wooded vale. In a realignment similar to the airport's adding 'London' to its title, Whipsnade (0582 872171) is no longer a zoo - it has become a wild animal park. The change of name reflects the fact that the creatures have 600 acres to enjoy.

Children are particularly keen on the Elephants at Work display and the BP Bear Trail. Close by is the Old Hunter's Lodge, a pub with a good restaurant attached, and a Tree Cathedral for those who prefer arboreal wonders to animal magic. Admission is pounds 6.95 per adult, pounds 4.95 per child, plus pounds 6 if you take the car in. Under- threes go free.

Entertainment: Luton's Cannon cinema has three screens; ring 0582 22537 for films and times. Lethal Weapon 3 is on this week. You can gamble at the Quicksilver video arcade in the town centre. St George's Theatre is showing only films for five weeks - call 0582 21628 for details.

Sport: Luton Town (0582 411622) play First Division soccer at Kenilworth Road. The Hatters' first home match is next Saturday against Bristol City, but check about buying a ticket; although the plastic pitch has reverted to grass, the club's membership scheme persists.

Comments