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Family days exploring London for free!

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The Step Outside Blog

As anyone who looks at our books will be aware, we love London and are passionate about helping other people to enjoy our city, through cost-free family days out.

 

A good few people have suggested that we write a blog about London things that have caught our attention, captured our hearts or made us think - or all of the above - so here it is.

We hope you enjoy it!

By Francesca Fenn, Jun 20 2019 12:02PM

For our 6th Little Museum in London we’re going to the Euston Road, just a little East from Madame Tussaud’s, to the Royal Academy of Music. Within this venerable institution, which for many years has been a cradle of learning for some of the world’s finest musicians, lies their small museum, stacked over three floors, with each storey having its own theme. Let’s start on the first floor.


Here we are, in the Strings Gallery, where there are beautiful and rare stringed instruments with just the right amount of information for each. Sometimes there are spaces, as I’m delighted to say that these instruments are lent out for special concerts, so they are still played and loved. There are violins by Stradivari and Amati, and there is a guitar from 1780 that looks rather like a lute. There are exquisite scale models of instruments, and ukuleles you can have a play on, complete with music if needed or wanted. The College’s string workshop is within the gallery, and has a glass wall. It is very special to be able to watch the luthiers at work, making and repairing stringed instruments.


Up on the second floor is the piano gallery. The story of the keyboard begins here with a virginal from 1620, and there are a number of wonderful instruments tracing the development of the piano over the next 300 years. Some instruments have a bewildering array of pedals and arrangements to get desired effects. My favourite, present on two of the pianos, was a series of louvre slats, which open when the appropriate pedal is depressed, letting out much more sound. One of the best things about this gallery is that there is a skilled attendant there, who will demonstrate the instruments for you if you ask – which we did – it was brilliant!

There are also exhibits showing how the mechanism of a piano works, and how pianos are built to be both beautiful and be strong. Did you know that a grand piano has to withstand nine tonnes of tension from the strings? I had no idea!


Back down on the ground floor are cases with artefacts and souvenirs from the inception of the Academy in 1822 to its work today. There’s a glorious tin box for a top hat, and letters and scores from a number of illustrious composers and performers, plus a case about all female orchestras from the early 20th century, when women were not permitted to play in professional orchestras. No matter how high their standard, they were seen only as ‘novelty acts’. Hrmph!


This lovely little museum is free, and open Mon – Fri 11.30am – 5.30pm, Sat: Noon – 4.0pm

Nearest tube: Baker Street or Regent’s Park.

www.ram.ac.uk/museum



A guitar by John Preston, made in about 1780
A guitar by John Preston, made in about 1780
These exquisite models by Harold Steafel can all be played!
These exquisite models by Harold Steafel can all be played!
The fabulous top hat box!
The fabulous top hat box!

By Francesca Fenn, Jun 4 2019 07:09PM

The small museum we’re visiting today is the Guildhall Art Gallery. The Guildhall itself is well known –it stands at the end of King Street in the City of London, in the Guildhall courtyard. It is a delicate medieval building, and one of only a few to escape the Great Fire of 1666. You can tour Guildhall, the scene of many a Lord Mayor’s banquet, and home to Gog and Magog, 3 metre giants who are traditional guardians of the City of London. But that’s for another blog – it’s the art gallery’s turn today!


Guildhall Art Gallery stands to the right of Guildhall, on the courtyard. Opened in 1885 to display both Victorian paintings and paintings of London, the original building was destroyed in the Blitz, as were some of the works of art, although I’m pleased to say that many more were kept safely hidden away throughout the conflict. Construction of the current gallery started in the 1980s, but took longer than anticipated because in digging foundations, London’s Roman amphitheatre was discovered! It was excavated, and part of it is incorporated into the new building, which was finally opened in 1999.


So now the gallery offers three main areas to enjoy. Firstly, as mentioned above, there is the Roman amphitheatre, deep down in the bowels of the building. Mock-up figures and sound effects give an idea of what it was like to go to an event there, and whilst it is a wee bit dated, it still gives a great sense of the ancient origins of London. The outline of the rest of the amphitheatre is traced with a black line outside on the courtyard.


The second area is down in the undercroft, which houses a fabulous collection of paintings of London, both historic and contemporary. Some areas have hardly changed, and it is very satisfying to see buildings and streets we know and love as they were hundreds of years ago. I also love some of the very modern work which gives a great sense of the atmosphere of London. There are more works in the collection than there is space to display them, so paintings are rotated. It is worth revisiting at intervals of a few months.


Upstairs is the display of Victorian Art, the third part of the gallery. Guildhall Art Gallery is particularly rich in this genre, and the space is filled with superb and delightful paintings. Two of my favourites are the pair of pictures by Sir John Evert Millais entitled ‘My First Sermon’ and ‘My Second Sermon’. Spot the difference! But there are many others to delight both eye and intellect.


If you’d like to make your visit to Guildhall Art Gallery a part of a whole day of cost-free exploration of the City of London, London’s Splendid Square Mile is just what you need! I’m delighted to say that adults seem to be using this book as much as families, and are loving its itinerary. We hope you will too. Take a look and see here.


Guildhall Art Gallery is open seven days a week: Monday to Saturday 10.00am – 5.00pm, Sundays 12 noon to 4.00pm. Admission is free, except for special exhibitions from time to time. (A temporary exhibition entitled ‘Architecture of London’ is opening as I write this – a must see for me!) There is an excellent free booklet available near the entrance entitled 'Guildhall Galleries - where London Began',


We are so lucky to have this wealth of small museums dotted around our capital - let's enjoy them!

Millais' My First  sermon & My Second Sermon. Can you guess which is which?
Millais' My First sermon & My Second Sermon. Can you guess which is which?

By Francesca Fenn, May 14 2019 04:08PM

The next smaller London museum I’ve revisited, and also one of my favourites, is the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road. It is indeed just that – Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection of objects of interest and it is a fantastic place - and entry is free!


The collection is there ‘for the incurably curious’. Housed in a spectacular building (with a wonderful café) it holds a changing series of exhibitions about the body and health, and a permanent gallery of star items from Sir Henry’s immense collection. This includes personal items such as Florence Nightingale’s slippers, Napoleon’s toothbrush and Charles Darwin’s walking stick! There is so much interesting stuff to see here, but my favourite space, perhaps one of my favourite rooms in London, is the Reading Room. It is beautiful and it has comfy sofas and floor cushions. It is saturated in amazing things, from a strait jacket you can try on to Beethoven’s death mask.


Some parts of the collection are explicitly sexual, or have human remains, so it is recommended that general viewing should be for over 14s. But there is a superb Young Explorers’ Guide and Young Explorers’ Kit (both free) for 5-10 year olds which takes them to age-appropriate exhibits.


At the moment and until September, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, a smallish exhibition about the psychology of conjuring, is on the ground floor. Videos of tricks, accoutrements of the stars (Tommy Cooper’s hat, Houdini’s handcuffs etc etc) and occasional live shows all feature and it’s an interesting and enjoyable show.


Like most smaller museums, the Wellcome Collection is closed on Mondays. It is near both Euston and Euston Square stations and is an absolute treat, but don’t tell everyone – one of its charms is that it is not horribly crowded!

wellcomecollection.org



The beautiful reading room!
The beautiful reading room!
Free guides for younger visitors
Free guides for younger visitors
Houdini's cufflinks
Houdini's cufflinks
Beethoven's death mask
Beethoven's death mask
Margie in a straitjacket!
Margie in a straitjacket!

By Francesca Fenn, Apr 30 2019 01:42PM

If you are out and about in Westminster, and want a nice space to rest your legs and add extra interest to your day, then immediately to the West of the Houses of Parliament,is a garden abutting the river Thames. Victoria Tower Gardes are not very big, and to be fair there are not many flowers there, but it is a welcome space with some excellent landmarks that make it well worth a visit.


As you enter the gardens, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst greets you. She was, of course, a suffragette leader, and at the moment her statue is surrounded by purple and white tulips, which, with their green leaves, make up the suffragette colours of violet, green and white.


Moving into the gardens you cannot miss the Burghers of Calais, a larger-than-life group statue by August Rodin. This masterpiece is well worth spending a bit of time with, to enjoy the fantastic skills of Rodin, as well as the story it depicts:

In 1347, Calais had been surrounded for a year by English soldiers under King Edward III. Six leading citizens of Calais, the Burghers, offered to die if Edward spared the rest of the town's people. Edward's wife, Queen Philippa, heard about the Burgher's offer and asked if they could also be spared if the town surrendered. Edward agreed and all the people of Calais were allowed to leave. Hurrah!


Further down the gardens is a magnificent neo-gothic fountain, which was built to honour the politicians who passed a bill to end slavery. It had fallen into disrepair, but was renovated in 2007 to celebrate the bicentenary of end of the slave trade. Sadly it is no longer an active fountain, so the spitting lions don’t spit any more!

At the far end is a new and rather splendid playground the Horseferry Playground. It is small but perfectly formed!

And if you want to make this rather nice spot part of a day out, you could do worse than spend a day on our London Lion Hunt, which includes this garden and LOADS of lions around Westminster, Whitehall and beyond.

Happy hunting!



The Burghers of Calais, by Auguste Rodin
The Burghers of Calais, by Auguste Rodin
The glorious Buxton Memorial
The glorious Buxton Memorial
the playground near Parliament!
the playground near Parliament!

By Francesca Fenn, Apr 14 2019 08:05PM

BY MARGIE SKINNER


My attention was caught by a recent article about a cat and her litter of kittens discovered underneath the escalators at Moorgate station. They are now safely in the hands of the RSPCA; I wonder if their names will reflect their birthplace!


There is something fascinating about animals making their homes in the heart of urban London. When I was last at Southwark Cathedral I noticed cat bowls at one end of the south aisle, not far from the memorial to victims of the Marchioness disaster. A friendly staff member explained all about their famous resident cat ‘Doorkins Magnificat’, so named by the vergers who fed her. This stray ‘adopted’ the Cathedral in 2008, appearing between Christmas and New Year, and deciding to stay. She has become part of Cathedral life, and published her first book in 2017 (giving a tour of the Cathedral and describing her typical week) and has a whole range of eponymous merchandise.


At the other end of the food chain are the peregrine falcons sometimes seen nesting atop the chimney at the Tate Modern. After a visit to the gallery last autumn we were drawn to a crowd huddling round telescopes outside. These were set up to give viewers the treat of observing the birds in their lofty nest. Actually, there would be little chance of Doorkins or his kind catching a peregrine; the fastest living creatures they can reach speeds of 240 mph when in a dive!


Other surprising avian London residents are the parakeets which, as well as in many London suburbs, have a bright and vocal presence in Kensington Gardens. A great draw for tourists they are extremely tame as I discovered when re-walking our book ‘Kensington Gardens and Beyond’.


Our next book will be all about the world coming to London, but we should remember that the animal world makes a home here too!


By Francesca Fenn, Apr 2 2019 02:06PM

The British Library cannot be classed as a 'Little Museum of London'. However, it’s ‘Treasures’ gallery is an absolute gem, and it is not very large. It is very well worth searching out, so I wanted to include it in this series.


The Treasures gallery, or to give it its full name The Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery offers a glimpse at some of the finest, rarest, oldest and most important items held by the Library. This gallery is a little cooler and darker than the surrounding rooms, as many of the display items are fragile. But don’t let that put you off. Tog up and enter, and you will see wonderful things wherever you turn!

The Magna Carta, 800 years old, and the document on which much of our common law is based, rubs shoulders with the first folio of Shakespeare’s works, published only seven years after his death. The words to ‘Yesterday’, scribbled on the back of a children’s birthday card by Paul McCartney shares space with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, written in his own hand, and Handel’s Messiah, again in his own hand. Exquisite illuminated manuscripts, including the famous Lindisfarne Gospels are here, as is Charles’ Darwin’s letter, written when the penny dropped regarding the origin of species, and Galileo’s observations on sun spots. There books and manuscripts from ancient times to bang-up-to-date science and literature and, maps and objects too.

I could go on listing the many wonders in the gallery, but it is far better that you go and see them all for yourself. We are not allowed to take photos inside the gallery, but the rest of the public spaces in the library are worth a wander, especially the fabulous King’s Library in its glass case in the centre of the atrium, containing 65,000 books from the 18th century and before. And there’s a decent café!

Open daily, entrance is free.

Nearest stations: Kings Cross St Pancras, Euston and Euston Square.

www.bl.uk



A wonderfully appropriate seat in the  atrium.
A wonderfully appropriate seat in the atrium.
The dramatic archetecture of the atrium is very impressive
The dramatic archetecture of the atrium is very impressive
The Kings' Library - or a small part of it...
The Kings' Library - or a small part of it...

By Francesca Fenn, Mar 18 2019 05:04PM

Our second ‘Little Museum of London’ is the Ragged School Museum, which sits near the southern end of Mile End Park, on the Regent’s Canal. A stroll through the park from Mile End Station takes you to a 19th century building that looks like a warehouse, (and indeed that was its original purpose, serving the canal), set amongst modern flats. Across its façade is written ‘Ragged School Museum’. Inside is the museum itself, which tells the story of the poor of London’s East End in the late 19th and early 20th century, and of this Ragged School in particular. Upstairs there are Victorian classrooms, and when we visited they were full of children busy writing on slates as they experienced a Victorian lesson. Downstairs there are desks, dressing up opportunities, information boards and artefacts, and fascinating photographs of London’s East End at this time. In the basement there is a Victorian kitchen. The museum is small, but fascinating, and there are always volunteers on hand to tell you pretty much anything you want to know, and to answer any questions.

So, what was a ragged school? In the East End of London in the 1860s, very poor families were often unable to find the penny per child per week that local schools charged. Thomas Barnardo arrived in London from Ireland in 1866 as a medical student, training for Christian missionary work. But he quickly realised his work should be in London amongst the poor. He founded this and other local schools to feed and clothe poor children, and to teach and train them for suitable trades and positions as they grew up. This particular school was opened in 1877.

After the school closed in 1908 the buildings were used, and abused, and were threatened with demolition. In response to this threat, some local heroes set up the Ragged School Museum Trust to save the building and create the museum, which opened in 1990.

Ragged School is a delightful and interesting spot, manned by helpful volunteers. It is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays between 2.00 & 5.00pm, and on the first Sunday of each month you can experience a Victorian lesson for yourself. Entrance is free and donations are welcome.

www.raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk



The Ragged School Museum, Mile End.
The Ragged School Museum, Mile End.
A lesson in progress. No child was beaten while we were watching!
A lesson in progress. No child was beaten while we were watching!
Ragged School furniture
Ragged School furniture

By Francesca Fenn, Mar 4 2019 11:00AM

Winter hibernation is over, and I’m back to share some nice spots in London with you.

One of London’s special treasures is the multitude of small museums scattered throughout the city. There are hundreds, and they cover almost every conceivable subject, from gardens to sewing machines, from a sewage pumping station to a fan museum.

Some are in prominent locations, whilst others are hidden away in alleys or courtyards. Some are open every day, whilst others only open for a few hours each month. It is now my pleasure to share some of these wonderful treasure houses with you, today and in the coming weeks.

First up is the marvellous Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, hidden deep in University College, London. This gem is definitely hidden away, but well worth seeking out. From Euston Square Station, head south and turn left along Torrington Place. Then turn left up Malet Place. Look for the Museum entrance on the left, up some twisty stairs and bingo! You are there! The staff are friendly, welcoming and helpful and entrance is free.

The Petrie Museum isn’t filled with spectacular statues and rows of mummies, but you will find a treasure trove of domestic objects, beautiful fragments and much more.

For example, there is an exquisite bead net dancing dress from about 2400BC. It is so cleverly constructed and so detailed – beautiful, and a little saucy! Even more ancient is the oldest linen garment in the world. It is a linen shirt which was used and left behind by a workman over 5,000 years ago. I found this mind-boggling!

There are, toys, combs, models, beads, pots, hieroglyphs – a real treasure trove to wander round and enjoy.

When I visited there was a small exhibition about ancient Egyptian musical instruments. There were copies of percussion instruments and a 3D print of pan pipes which were found in a tomb – you can play them all!


My favourite exhibits are the portraits in encaustic wax from the tops of coffins. These life-sized paintings show vital and lively people staring at you across the millennia – they are spellbinding.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology is in Malet Place, UCL. It is open Tuesday – Saturday 13.00 – 17.00, Note that it is closed from April 17-22nd.

www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/petrie-museum



Opium measures. A not-so-new problem...
Opium measures. A not-so-new problem...
One of the haunting portrait from Hawara
One of the haunting portrait from Hawara
The oldest cloth garment in the world!
The oldest cloth garment in the world!

By Francesca Fenn, Nov 23 2018 09:40AM

Not far from last week’s ‘Nice Spot’, nestled to the West the Palace of Westminster, and running alongside the river, are the Victoria Tower Gardens. These quiet Gardens are a great place to stop and rest on a day out. Towards the far end of the gardens is an extravagant neo-gothic edifice with a beautiful, decorated roof. This is the Buxton Memorial Fountain, and although the lion heads that adorn it no longer spout water, the fountain itself still graces the gardens.

Who was Buxton, and why was this memorial built? Charles Buxton, who commissioned the fountain in 1865, did so to remember and honour his father Thomas Buxton, who along with William Wilberforce and others campaigned for laws to abolish slavery. It was erected in Parliament Square and stayed there until 1948. It was re-erected at its present site nine years later. For a long time, the fountain was looking pretty sorry for itself, but as part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of abolition of the slave trade in 2007, it was restored to its original splendour.

So there it sits, a slightly ethereal monument to a very down to earth and very important achievement! While you are in the gardens, look out for the statue of Emeline Pankhurst near the entrance, honouring her and the women who won all women the right to vote.


Nearest tube – Westminster. Circle, District and Jubilee lines.



Meet the Buxton Lions and many more on the London Lion Hunt!
Meet the Buxton Lions and many more on the London Lion Hunt!

By Francesca Fenn, Nov 19 2018 11:17AM

By Margie Skinner


I had an explore around the new Coal Drops Yard development by King Cross Station, just round from Granary Square. It is rather exciting seeing the huge Victorian brick viaducts brought to new use. Obviously the name speaks for itself, but what exactly happened here in the past?

With the emergence of rail transport in the early 1800s London and its commercial life changed forever. The journey to London with goods from the north took hours, whereas by the waterways it had taken weeks. Whatever London needed, be it food, furniture or fuel arrived at Kings Cross Station. And most important of these arrivals was coal, the essential power source for Victorian London; and Coal Drops Yard was where it was all stored. Long drops were built in three storeys; trains entered on the upper level and the coal dropped from a hole in the middle level for sorting and grading, after which it was shovelled into sacks at ground level, for onward transportation.

After decades where this redundant area has been used in film sets and as rave venues, the current development brings innovative shops and restaurants to this canalside setting. There is clearly a lot of thought going into the planted areas which for me brought to mind New York’s High Line. It was fascinating too to see the Grade II listed cast iron gasholder guide frames now converted to apartments and penthouses. Don’t mind if I do!

I visited on a cold but sunny November day and the light played atmospherically across the unusual historic buildings. Definitely an area worth exploring.


Nearest Station: Kings Cross St Pancras.



Thomas Heatherwick's beautiful 'kissing' roof over the Yard
Thomas Heatherwick's beautiful 'kissing' roof over the Yard
Sprauncy apartments in the old gasometer.
Sprauncy apartments in the old gasometer.
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