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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, 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

By Francesca Fenn, Oct 17 2018 01:15PM

Have you been to the Saatchi Gallery in the Kings Road, Chelsea? For ten years now it has been housed in a splendid historic building, the Duke of York's Headquarters, near Sloane Square Station.

The aim of the Saatchi Gallery is to showcase young and unknown artists, so you never know what you might see on display.. Some works are deeply impressive, or very interesting. Others may leave you wondering why they are there! Some artists may be launched from the gallery into the world of international dealers and exhibitions, while others may never be heard of again. It is always worth taking a few minutes to stroll around if you are passing. And there is, of course, an excellent cafe/restaurant if you want to splash out.

Here are a few photos of exhibits from our last visit there in August.

Nearest station; Sloane Square, District & Circle Line.

'Confection' by Francesca Dimattio, 2015
'Confection' by Francesca Dimattio, 2015
'All Possible Experiences' by Kirstine Roepstrorff, 2018
'All Possible Experiences' by Kirstine Roepstrorff, 2018
'Through the Generations' by Tom Anholt, 2017
'Through the Generations' by Tom Anholt, 2017

By Francesca Fenn, Oct 11 2018 08:45AM

In 2002, terrorists detonated a bomb in a busy nightclub in Bali, killing 202 people. Just near the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at the bottom of Clive Steps, is a memorial to the victims, twenty seven of whom were British, The simple but moving sculpture by Gary Breeze and Martin Cook was unveiled on the fourth anniversary of the bombing. It is a granite sphere measuring 1.5 metres in diameter, with 202 doves carved into it. The names of all the victims are engraved on the wall behind. The memorial looks out across Horse Guards Road to St James' Park.

It is included in our guide 'If Statues Could Talk', which will also get you free family entry to Westminster Abbey! (normally £40 for 2 adults & 1 child, plus £9 per additional child).

Nearest tube: Westminster on Circle, District and Jubilee lines

By Francesca Fenn, Oct 5 2018 11:36AM

Southwark Bridge crosses the River Thames half way between Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and London Bridge. As you walk under the bridge, on the south bank, there is a series of five slate engravings by local sculptor Richard Kindersley, showing scenes from the old Frost Fairs that were held on the Thames when it froze over. The poem that accompanies them is based on contemporary descriptions of what went on.

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,

That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore

The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats

Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats

Here you may see beef roasted on the spit

And for your money you may taste a bit

There you may print your name, tho cannot write

Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight

And lay it by that ages yet to come

May see what things upon the ice were done

The last two lines have now come to pass!

The nearest stations are Borough or London Bridge, but the walk from London Bridge is pleasanter as it takes you along the river.

This London treasure is featured in our Step Outside guide book Down by the Thames.

By Francesca Fenn, Aug 1 2018 07:31AM

I really enjoy looking up as well as around when I visit London. The array of buildings which jostle for space in the centre, tracing the capital’s dynamic history, intrigue me. Thinking about it, I realise this fascination has been with me all my life – perhaps because my father was an architect.

I just about remember the arrival of the GPO Tower (now the BT tower) in the 1960s, reminiscent of something in a Thunderbirds episode, and the face of modern London. In the ‘70s Tower 42 (originally the Nat West Tower), sleek and ground-breaking in its design, dominated the City. The ‘80s saw the massive developments in Docklands, transforming the face of this mainly derelict part of East London. The centrepiece was and is no 1 Canada Square, more popularly known as Canary Wharf. I love the quirky Gherkin, at 30 St Mary Axe, which I watched being built from my office, and which graced the City skyline early in the new millennium. And of course, since 2012 The Shard’s elegant finger has pointed to the sky from London Bridge station. I’ve enjoyed watching London’s skyline evolve through my lifetime, contributing to our city’s hundreds of years of growth and development.

However, in my opinion, London has got a bit carried away with the Big Building thing just recently. I am disturbed and perturbed by the way in which steel and glass are being shipped in at a rate of knots and slung up into the sky in weird, and not always very wonderful ways. Even The Gherkin is overwhelmed by the new builds – an assortment of oddly shaped lumps which dwarf the existing buildings. The Walkie Talkie redeems itself a little with the Sky Garden (free to visit, but book, at skygarden.london), but I personally think it is too big and lumpy for our tiny, Medieval street pattern.

Any city on earth can build big, new shiny stuff. But London’s historic buildings are unique. Its wealth of buildings and churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren are, for me, the jewel in the crown of London’s architecture. I expect I’ll be blogging about them soon.

In the meantime that adage from the old children’s programme Finders Keepers rings true – ‘Look high, look low, look everywhere!’ London’s buildings are so rich and varied, and looking above the modern shop fronts reveals a rich and varied assortment of facades and detail. Our wonderful city’s history can be seen everywhere, and I for one never tire of wandering, looking and thinking about it all. If you can get out and about a bit in London this summer, I hope you enjoy it too!

No 1 Canada Square, at the heart of Canary Wharf
No 1 Canada Square, at the heart of Canary Wharf
The Shard, scraping the sky!
The Shard, scraping the sky!
Glass & Steel...
Glass & Steel...
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