The diary of an accidental tourist

High prices. Bad food. Awful weather. Even worse queues. Can Britain's leading tourist attractions really be as bad as the critics claim? To find out, Robert Chalmers travelled the country looking for a good time. But what did he discover?
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The Independent Travel

FRIDAY, 9.30AM

FRIDAY, 9.30AM

It is a very British scene - so British that I can't help wondering what a foreigner would make of it. In this church hall in north London, a group of toddlers and their parents, who arrived expecting to go on the playgroup's annual day trip to the seaside, have just been told that the outing has been cancelled because the bus has not arrived. Outside, there is a steady drizzle. The children are carrying bags containing buckets and spades; one is clutching a yellow plastic mould in the shape of an octopus. The younger ones, one or two of whom have never seen the sea, greet the news with indifference. The older children, including my own three-year-old Jamie, are instantly placated by the promise of an outing to a play centre in a converted warehouse behind a Tesco store on the North Circular.

But it isn't the reaction of the children that a foreigner might notice: it's the adults. They greet the news not, as you might expect, with anger or disappointment, but with looks of undisguised relief. As glances are exchanged, I notice that this mood, in turn, is giving way to another. A kind of tranquil joy it is not easy to describe precisely, but it might help to imagine a gang of criminals who have just been acquitted of a bullion robbery they committed, or a party of dental phobics who have arrived at the surgery to discover that their dentist has sold up, or died. It is the look of men and women who believed they were going to have to spend the day in Southend, and have just learned they won't have to.

SATURDAY, 11AM

To make up for Southend, I'm driving Jamie down to Margate, whose amusement park Dreamlands is listed in the recently published Which? Guide to Tourist Attractions as one of the most popular British destinations. As well as praising facilities such as Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Hampton Court and Chester Zoo, the guide gives damning assessments of the poorest, notably Buckingham Palace (which has just opened for the summer), condemned for being sterile and expensive.

When we reach Margate, we walk down the promenade under a sullen grey sky. I can see a sign which lists various pleasurable activities, all prohibited: No Sandcastles, No Music, No Food or Drink, No Fun, and so on. We enter a small, fenced-off area of beach where there is a bouncy castle and rides for small children. The owners are helpful, and the charge of 50p per ride is not extortionate by British standards. The cloud is thickening; there is one other toddler here, and her parents' expressions suggest that, by this evening, their BT Friends and Family numbers will have been altered to include Victoria Wine and the Samaritans. Jamie boards a tiny roundabout and sits on a wooden pig which, being close to the centre of the ride, is safely under the cover of the overhead canopy.

Twenty minutes later, the downpour arrives. As we are fleeing the beach, there is an exchange between the other couple, who have decided to stay by the rides. The woman declines an umbrella in a phrase which has become fixed as my most enduring memory from Margate: "It's all right Steve - I'll sit on the pig."

We retreat to Dreamlands amusement park. There, suddenly, something wholly unexpected happens: the sun comes out. I approach Dreamlands ticket booth, which is staffed by a morose man in his late twenties. A sign in the window reads: "Dave, very lonely, 27, seeks companion." "Who is Dave?" I ask him. "I am not allowed to say," he replies. I take Jamie down to the beach, where we end up playing football: it is warm, not too crowded, and fun.

SATURDAY, 4PM

On the way home, we stop at the Kent seaside town of Whitstable, and have tea in Peg's Pantry. Peg's cooking is excellent, though her spelling can be a little erratic: last time I was here there was a blackboard outside reading, "Tuesday: Theme Night - Gangsters and their Moles". (Who can explain the powerful attraction between such ruthless men of violence and these modest burrowing rodents?) "What do you think of Margate?" I ask Jamie, who has never, to my memory, expressed approval with any word other than "good". "Margate," he says solemnly, "is amazing."

SUNDAY, 11.30AM

We are in the Natural History Museum in London, where Jamie is very taken with the dinosaurs, especially a working model of two of the creatures eating another, which over-threes seem to find tacky. The entrance fee is £7.50; the exit from the dinosaurs faces a stall where crudely fashioned plastic models of the creatures go for the unprehistoric price of £4.99. In the café, two sandwiches, an orange juice, and a cup of tea cost £7.95. Paper napkins are considered too precious to put out on display - you have to ask for them - and there are wooden sticks instead of teaspoons.

MONDAY, 2PM

Entering the Millennium Dome (£20 adult, children under five free) takes me back to the first time I walked into the breathtaking Guggenheim museum at Bilbao. There, the effortless grace of the structure and the daring of the exhibits instantly captivates visitors, whatever they think of art. The Dome looks like the Guggenheim might have looked if its artistic direction had been handed over, as a job share, to Chris Evans and Burger King.

The Play Zone is particularly oppressive, and overrun with schoolchildren. The queue at the Body Zone looks prohibitive. But Jamie is captivated by the overcrowded Timekeepers attraction, a circular area surrounded by raised galleries, where children fire foam balls at each other. Here in the main building, flip philosophy comes at you from all sides. As we left Timekeepers, a sound system was broadcasting the message: "Fresh air is wonderful - fill your lungs with it! Breathe it in! The best thing is - it's free!" Ah yes, I thought, as we walked away, what a fine thing air is. It's terrific stuff to breathe, of course, and such a welcome accessory for our companions, the birds.

If some enemy had been allowed to impose a symbol on Tony Blair - something that would stay with him like a witch's curse, encapsulating his shortcomings - they could hardly have improved on the Dome. Near one exit there is a display of written quotations from thinkers including Plato and David Ginola. Sadly this is one of the few non-interactive areas, so that visitors are not invited to add a quotation of their own. I would have gone for a passage from Norman Mailer's report for the Mail on Sunday during the 1983 general election. "Michael Foot had a cogent point of view at least," Mailer wrote. "It was that we are not here in the world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways of fashionable progress. No, we are here to provide for those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and more crippled than ourselves. Thatis a politician's only certain purpose on earth. The rich and powerful will look after themselves - they always do."

WEDNESDAY, 2PM

Jamie left this morning to spend a few days in the warmer, and more affordable, surroundings of his grandmother's village in Italy. As he is touching down in Pisa, I am outside Earth Centre in Doncaster, which was partly financed by National Lottery funds. A sign says, "Annual Closure".

WEDNESDAY, 3PM

The signposting to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television is almost over-thorough, as if Bradford can't wait for you to see it, because it knows how much you will love it. And Bradford isn't wrong. Children seem delighted by the wide range of entertainment on the top floor, and especially the camera obscura. The museum is free (though there is a charge for the cinema) and, as well as the excellent café, there is an area where you can eat your own sandwiches inside the building. I buy a ticket for the 3-D demonstration film in the I-Max cinema, which turns out to be as unforgettable an experience as the first time I heard stereo sound.

WEDNESDAY, 9PM

I have driven across the moors to Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters. Here, you can order a lunch called the Full Brontë, and ride home in a Brontë Taxi to the Brontë Hotel. I go for dinner at the Brontë Balti House, where you can eat very well for under £5. The restaurant's name, the Bangladeshi owner says, gives him an edge over his rival, the Haworth Tandoori. He has just served a large party of Japanese, who no doubt left under the impression that the tubercular sisters' overheated imaginations were fired by Kingfisher beer and prawn madras.

THURSDAY, 10AM

The Brontë Parsonage itself (entrance £4.50) has shunned commercialism; it is packed, though, with a party of dyspeptic-looking Japanese. I follow a couple of them into the Haworth chemist's. This has survived since the time of the Brontës, and is one of the few shops that has resisted adding Brontë to its name - surprisingly, because most of its early business must have been generated by the Brontë sisters, as they trudged endlessly back and forth from the Parsonage, purchasing cough mixture and new handkerchiefs. I set off for Morecambe, Lancashire, home of the Texas Tornado, one of the best surviving British wooden rollercoasters.

THURSDAY, 2PM

Driving along the front at Morecambe, I get my first, intoxicating glimpse of the Tornado. It seems to be wobbling more than usual in the wind, though. A second glance reveals the cause of the movement - a team of builders are demolishing it with JCBs. Rumour says the site will be redeveloped as a supermarket.

THURSDAY, 7PM

At the top of Blackpool Tower (adult ticket £10, including obligatory charge for the circus) there is now a five-foot square section of toughened glass set in the floor. As you look down through it, there is nothing between you and the street 500ft below. Edith, a 72-year-old, has come from Oldham with her friend. They step on to the glass panel, and begin jumping up and down and beating at it with their walking sticks. "We always do this," Edith tells me. "They say it can take an elephant."

FRIDAY, 9AM

"Everybody loves Blackpool," a woman told me last night. "The posh ones love slumming it, and the common ones just love it." The resort's facilities reflect its diverse public: if you can't afford the Blackpool Hilton, there are hotels with rooms at £8 a night. That price would seem reasonable anywhere in Europe, not least here, at the Roadchef services on the M1 at Watford Gap, where one egg on toast, a small fruit juice, a cup of tea, a coffee and a scone cost me £8.19. The service station is traditionally the venue of choice for a corrupt football manager to bribe another with a suitcase full of banknotes. If things go on like this, they'll probably only have to buy the drinks.

FRIDAY, 12.15PM

There is a 40-minute queue to get into the London Dungeon (adults £9.95, child under 14 £6.50) - ample time to read the mean signs which warn parents that, if a child becomes distressed and has to leave, no refund will be offered. Once inside, a guide dressed as a gaoler demonstrates weapons of torture, "which," he tells our group, "we are going to use on you". They include implements for penis amputation, a process he describes in some detail.

A boy of 10, who is next to me, whispers to his father that he wants to leave. "Yeah," sneers the guide, as he sees the pair making for the exit, "get him out before he vomits." "It was too much for him," his father says. He looks, and sounds, like a real victim now. "Don't use him as an excuse," the guide responds.

It probably didn't help that on Sunday, after the Natural History Museum, I spent the afternoon in Maidstone, at the artist Ralph Steadman's garden party in aid of the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture, where certain guests had suffered precisely the kind of fate described by the Dungeon guides. (Steadman's style has been apparently imitated by the Dungeon's publicists.) Across town at Madame Tussaud's, similarly horrific themes are treated with far greater imagination and flair. The problem with the London Dungeon is that its shoddy yet graphic presentations focus on the brutality of the acts of torture themselves, so that it would be no real surprise to come across a display of contemporary British leg-irons. Before I leave, another two visitors in our group have retired hurt, and a young woman passes out.

FRIDAY, 2.30PM

I stop for lunch at the nearby Tate Modern. The top floor café has a half-hour queue. Once seated, I am served within two minutes of placing my order, with a small piece of haddock with chips (£7.99). The chips, with their tough, rounded edges, give every indication of being frozen, though the waiter says he believes they are fresh.

SATURDAY, 12.30PM

It is true that the eyes of the young woman from Somerset, whose fiancé is helping her into her miner's helmet, betray a slight hint of unease; just the beginnings of the thought that, if he did have to bring her to some secluded country location, she might have preferred somewhere more subtly beguiling than the down shaft at the Big Pit mining museum at Blaenafon, Gwent.

But she's here now - we all are - in this group of 10, and it's too late to retreat with dignity. As the pit cage arrives at the surface we watch a previous group, who have just toured the mine, emerge looking subdued. "I know that look," an elderly Irishman whispers to me. "It's claustrophobic shock." Big Pit, which closed 20 years ago, reopened as a museum in 1983. It isn't the deepest of coal mines (the down shaft is 300 feet) but that's of little comfort when our engaging guide Antony Williams asks us to turn our lights out for two minutes underground. We stand, slightly hunched, in the darkness - the kind that means you can't see your hand in front of your face - and there is a sense of real unease, quite different from the effects of the kitsch half-light in the London Dungeon. In many ways, Big Pit is the polar opposite of the Dungeon: good value, with an excellent educational brochure, friendly staff, and worth a second visit.

Blaenafon, like Bradford, felt like an enjoyable exception, in a week whose lowest points were the Dome and the London Dungeon. Two problems have constantly recurred: the high prices and the queuing, both at, and between, destinations. It's wrong of me I know, but my enduring memory of the Tate Modern isn't the impudent wit of Marcel Duchamp, but the fact that fish and chips, a cup of tea and a drink of water cost more than £12. Still a bargain compared to the café on the waterfront between the London Aquarium and the London Eye, where one tea bag in a small pot cost £2.50.

SUNDAY, 6PM

At Stanstead, I pick up Jamie and Emma, my wife, who reminds me that, even at altitude, the feeling of impending bankruptcy never quite recedes. On the flight back from Pisa with Ryan Air, Jamie had a small bacon roll, for which the airline charges £5. This news revives my own memories of Ryan Air's Cÿtes de Gascogne (£3 per quarter bottle), an emetic vintage whose label says "Vin de Pays", a phrase which non-French speakers might presume to mean "For External Use Only".

Later this year, I tell Jamie, as we are edging towards London in another traffic jam in the rain, we could go somewhere else; to another country. Somewhere, I'm thinking, where fish and chips don't cost four times the hourly minimum wage; somewhere where early July doesn't feel like late October. Where would he like to go? "I want," says Jamie - he pauses, and sucks at a carton of orange juice, before he delivers what, to me at least, have become three of the most terrifying syllables in the English language: "more Margate."

* From the Mail on Sunday Review

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