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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, Apr 14 2019 08:05PM


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.


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.


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.


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.

By Francesca Fenn, Nov 15 2018 08:32PM

On Victoria Embankment, next to the river and facing the London Eye is a memorial to pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain.This absorbing and moving sculpture was created by Paul Day, and was erected in 2005. It depicts different sights and ev ents from the Battle of Britain, and a list of almost 3,000 pilots from 14 Allied countries who took part in the battle.

It is a singular shape, which simply invites you to walk around it, and to spend time having a good look at it. This is a very clever piece of design, because the shape is dictated by its location - it is built around air vents from the Underground, which date back to the days when steam trains ran on the District line!

I often take a detour when I'm passing near, to enjoy this fine sculpture and to remember how fortunate we are that these brave men did so much to protect our country.

Nearest station: Westminster, Jubilee, Circle and District lines.

By Francesca Fenn, Nov 8 2018 09:45AM

Near Trafalgar Square, behind St Martin in the Fields and opposite Charing Cross Station is a statue of a man in a granite coffin. He is leaning out of the coffin, looking relaxed and chatty, and he is smoking. He is Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), an Irish poet, aplaywright and master of wit. Maggi Hambling's statue of him was unveiled in 1998, nearly 100 years after his death.

The coffin is inscribed with one of Wilde's most famous quotes; '"We are all in the gutter, but some of us

are looking at the stars." If you look carefully you can see stars inside his head.The shape of the statue invites us to sit on the coffin and have a chat! The statue has been quite contraversial, disliked by critics, but loved by the public. The other point of contraversy is that Wilde is smoking. His cigar is regularly stolen, maybe by souvenir hunters, or maybe by people who disapprove of him smoking - probably a bit of both!

Do stop and say 'hello' to Oscar Wilde if you are passing his way.

Nearest station; Charing Cross, also Embankment, Leicester Square.

PS. London's streets, squares and buildings are littered with statues old and new, great and small. If you fancy exploring more of them, and getting into Westminster Abbey free of charge, a day with 'If Statues Could Talk' is perfect for you!

By Francesca Fenn, Nov 1 2018 04:29PM

Leake Street runs for 300metres beneath the platforms of Waterloo Station. Until the closure of the Waterloo terminus of Eurostar it was a road tunnel, but since then it has been for use only by pedestrians. For a while it was derelict, and probably only one type of leak was taken there (!), but in 2008 Banksy held a Cans Festival (love that name!) there. Graffiti artists filled the tunnel, and since then its walls and ceiling have been covered with an ever-changing array of graffiti. It is spectacular and a lot of fun, and you can often see graffiti artists at work there. It's a chance to appreciate just how skillful graffiti can be!

The storage areas under the arches along the tunnel are gradually opening as bars and clubs and this once derelict and neglected tunnel is now a great place to see a different side of London life.

Nearest station - Waterloo.

By Francesca Fenn, Oct 25 2018 01:12PM

Hay's Galleria is on the South Bank, between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. Originally it was Hay's tea Wharf, where 80% of the UK's tea and other dry goods were unloaded. After the dock ceased trading, the wharf was left to fall into disrepair, but in 1987 the buildings were rescued and restored and the spectacular glass roof was added. Now the Galleria is an elegant shopping mall.

For me, the star item in the Galleria isthe wonderful kinetic sculpture 'The Navigators' by David Kemp. Placed slap-bang in the middle of the atrium, this beautiful and slightly strange ship has an assortment of moving and water-squirting parts which operate intermittently - sometimes nothing happens for a minute, but it's always worth waiting to see what happens next.

Nearest station: London Bridge.

A small admireroft The Navigators
A small admireroft The Navigators
The Navigators by David Kemp.
The Navigators by David Kemp.
Hay's Wharf c1910. Thanks to National Maritime Museum, London for use of th
Hay's Wharf c1910. Thanks to National Maritime Museum, London for use of th
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