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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, May 27 2015 07:42AM

By Margie Skinner

Last Wednesday I went with my daughter to see Peter Pan at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. I hadn’t been to this theatre for years and it was nice to be back in such a magical place, to see a magical play!

Although the day had been chilly a cheerful evening sun tickled us with warmth as we left Baker street tube and walked past (in my opinion) a rather tacky looking Madame Tussauds towards Regent’s Park. It really was a beautiful evening as we entered the park’s Inner circle and we strolled companionably, marvelling at how London can change from chaotic to peaceful in just a 5 minute walk.

On arrival at the theatre we partook of a delicious Regents park burger meal and I had my first Pimms of the summer, whilst sitting in the sun people-watching, and anticipating the evening ahead.

This theatre was founded in 1932, by Sydney Carroll and Robert Atkins, initially as a temporary structure for the showing of a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was such a success that the following year a full season of theatre was launched, and the life of Britain’s oldest professional permanent outdoor theatre had begun. Now a registered charity, the theatre attracts over 140,000 people for each year’s 16 week season. There is just something enchanting about being around a stage in the middle of the park, completely uncovered (save for the tiered auditorium with its very long theatre bar).

This production sets the story in a WWI Field hospital, which cleverly morphs into the Darling’s nursery as the military nurse becomes Wendy. As Neverland transforms into no man’s land there are clever parallels between Peter Pan and The Lost Boys, and those men, and many boys who were lost in the Great War.

Peter Pan, and indeed his creator J M Barrie are fascinating characters. In our book 'STEP OUTSIDE Kensington Gardens and Beyond' we visit Peter's statue in another of London’s wonderful green spaces. So if you are thinking of visiting open air theatre in London this year then I would recommend this production, and if you precede it with a visit to Kensington with our book, then you could have an absolutely Peter Pan-tastic day!!



Peter Pan 2015 The opening set
Peter Pan 2015 The opening set
Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens
Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens

By Francesca Fenn, May 20 2015 02:04PM

By Margie Skinner

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of doing an Urban Curiosity Walkshop with Clare Barry

We met at London Bridge station in appallingly British weather; rain, cold, more rain, more cold, and so on. That didn’t dampen our spirits as our small group marched defiantly around, with plenty of stops to focus and observe, stretch our imaginations a little and look for the extraordinary, tucked in amongst the ordinary. With little pointers and encouragements the treats of the area unfolded before our eyes (and minds).

We saw the lovely Pocket Park at Greenwood Theatre, and the funky colouring of the Bermondsey Fashion and Textile Museum . I really liked the elegant grandeur of the Guinness Trust Building in Snowsfield and Arthur’s Mission, funded by The Ragged School, which still stands opposite. These, I discovered, date from 1897 and the former is amongst other Trust built tenement blocks erected as part of the Victorian philanthropist effort to provide housing for those with meagre means, who had moved into the area.

The area is rich with history; we went to the site of the old leather market and wool exchange, and spent a little time imagining what the sights sounds and smells would once have been.

Bermondsey Leather Market.—This great leather, or rather hide market, lies in Weston-street, ten minutes’ walk from the Surrey side of London-bridge. The neighbourhood in which it stands is devoted entirely to thinners and tanners, and the air reeks with evil smells. The population is peculiar, and it is a sight at twelve o’clock to see the men pouring out from all the works. Their clothes are marked with many stains; their trousers are dis-coloured by tan; some have apron and gaiters of raw hide; an about them all seems to hang a scent of blood.’

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

As London patterns are a theme with Step Outside Guides at the moment (don’t forget our competition!) I noticed them everywhere I looked. By the time we reached St Thomas’ hospital we were all rather soggy, but still able to appreciate the beauty of the architecture and green courtyards.

There were many more prize snippets, including a great ghost sign for Thomson Brothers Ltd in Bermondsey Street, (I can feel a ghost signs blog coming on) but I don’t want to reveal all for those of you who may do the walk. Talking about her walkshops our guide says ‘Did you know that inspirare means to inhale in Latin? Think about it.’

I can’t wait to re-walk the area – ideally in the sunshine, inhaling London as I go!

Photographs courtesy of Clare Barry.

‘Clare writes about creativity and human connection in a digital world and London in the real one. She leads Urban Curiosity Walkshops in her native city which she designed to help urbanites reframe their digital life and get more creative in their real life. ‘

Funky colouring at the Bermondsey Fashion and Textile Museum
Funky colouring at the Bermondsey Fashion and Textile Museum
Snake Tanneries sign
Snake Tanneries sign
The Thompson Paper ghost sign
The Thompson Paper ghost sign

By Francesca Fenn, May 14 2015 02:04PM

Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed a glass and wood and metal sausage making its appearance in front of the HSBC and Barclays Towers near Canary Wharf in the heart of London's Docklands. It is large, intriguing and clearly visible across the water from the Poplar – Canary Wharf stretch of the DLR. Only recently did I find out that it is the Canary Wharf Crossrail station that has been taking shape before our very eyes.

I was delighted to learn that it is now open to the public, (though the trains won’t run until 2018) and since I was nearby for a meeting last week, I decided to take a detour to have a look inside the shiny sausage. As an investigator of free things in London for families, I couldn’t wait to have a nose round.

Entry to the station is very space-age, through a tunnelled bridge over West India dock. Once inside there are several floors of shops and restaurants, which aren’t all open yet, and way down on Floor -3, deep under the dock itself, are the Crossrail platforms. But the star of the show is at the top, not the bottom of the building. An escalator or lift from the tunnel bridge entrance takes you to the roof garden. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I stepped off the top of the escalator into the garden. Well, I was blown away! The garden is much bigger than I expected – almost a park - and attractively laid out with windy paths, trees and lots of planting, including tomatoes and beans. I was pleased to see how many of the plants there are growing in my own garden! The struts holding the glass roof are wooden, and perhaps because it is new, the smell of fresh wood was very noticeable as I arrived. Lovely! The central part of the garden has no roof, so there is a good circulation of air.

The garden isn’t crowded, and seems very laid back. Although there are a few security people around, there is none of the advance booking and airport style security required by the Walkie Talkie to visit their Sky Garden. My only criticism is that there aren’t many seats, so it may not work for workers or visitors wanting to relax and eat their sandwiches, but it is well worth a visit and I’d recommend anyone to go and have a walk through if they find themselves in Docklands. It’s a bit of a bonus that the garden has opened up for us to enjoy so far in advance of the station starting operations.

If you do visit there, or anywhere else in London, in the next couple of weeks, you will also have the opportunity to see and take photos of patterns that catch your eye. Send them in to our London Pattern photo competition for the chance to win a box of Step Outside goodies, including Guides a back pack and more. So get snapping, and get sending; we're looking forward to hearing from you!

The space-age tunnel entrance to the station
The space-age tunnel entrance to the station

By Francesca Fenn, Apr 29 2015 09:00AM

You may have noticed that we have been posting photos of ‘London Patterns’ on both Facebook and Twitter. I have had a lot of fun trawling through the acres of London photos I’ve taken with my trusty camera over the last few years, picking out patterns to share with you all.

And now it’s your chance!

Have you spotted any London patterns as you’ve been out and about? Or perhaps you haven’t noticed them before. Well, now is your chance!

We are holding a COMPETITION! From now until the end of May, send us your favourite photos of ‘London Patterns’. You can tweet them to @StepOutsideLDN, send them to our Facebook page, Step Outside Guides, to our website using the contact page, or email us at info@stepoutsideguides.com.


On 1st June we will pick two winners and send each of them a box of Step Outside goodies. One prize is for anyone, and the other is for children under 12. So get exploring, get snapping and send your London Patterns to us.

Here are a few things you could look for. There are all different sorts of patterns, for example –

1) Large scale design, like the South Bank tables – there is something satisfying about the regular repetition of a unit – windows in a large building, even the pattern of bog standard bricks.

2) The orderliness of perspective! The vanishing point of an image is a touch magical, and there are many great photos and paintings that employ this effect. My more modest example here is the photo of Boris Bikes.

3) Things that are intrinsically decorative, like the roof Margie started the whole thing off with, or the Buxton Memorial. London is awash with a huge variety of decorative effects on its buildings and they delight the eye on any walkabout in the capital.

4) The juxtaposition of colours. Many of London’s buildings are either grey or glass, and areas of bright colour light up their surroundings in a wonderful way, like the pictures below the subway at Tower Hill.

5) The transformational effect of sunlight adds a whole new dimension to a scene – Green dock comes alive with bright sunlight and deep shadows contrasting each other.

Our rules are;

The photos must be taken by you. Please don’t take any from the Internet, as this can lead to all sorts of trouble!

In sending in the photos, you grant us permission to use them on our social media channels.

If you are a professional photographer, please let us know.

Good luck and enjoy!

Tables laid out on the terrace of the South Bank Centre
Tables laid out on the terrace of the South Bank Centre
Boris Bikes!
Boris Bikes!
The Buxton Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens
The Buxton Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens
Painting that livens up the subway at Tower Hill
Painting that livens up the subway at Tower Hill
Green Dock, in Thames Barrier Park
Green Dock, in Thames Barrier Park

By Francesca Fenn, Apr 22 2015 09:00AM

By Margie Skinner

Does anyone else play the tube station name game when they travel into London as a group? It is a family tradition for us; no journey into the big smoke is complete without taking it in turns to give clues. ‘Animal, make of car, show’ donates Oxford Circus, ‘midlands town, shape’ is of course Leicester Square, and so on, with increasing degrees of obtuseness as the game goes on.

For those like me who used to do a daily commute (or indeed still do) these names become familiar and engrained, and each takes on a different image/mood in the mind. But the real reasons behind the names, and the stories associated with them are both diverse and fascinating.

Charing Cross is mentioned in our book ‘IF STATUES COULD TALK’. The small village of Charing was situated here, the word deriving from old English meaning ‘a bend’ – as it was on a bend in the Thames. And the cross? As we explain in our book ‘Way back in 1290, Kind Edward 1’s beloved wife Eleanor died in Lincolnshire. The king marked each nightly resting place along the route to London with a cross. This was the final one….’

It is strange to think that Moorgate was so named because there was a gate cut into the city wall, as long ago as the 15th century, leading to the moorland outside the City Walls. Many other stations are named after gates, or bridges, or terms connected with the river or woodland: Highgate – self-evident, Holborn – a ‘born’ being a river through a hollow valley, Knightsbridge – literally a bridge controlled by knights. It amuses me that at Clapham Common there was once a wood known as ‘Cloppaham’, derived from ‘clap’ meaning hill, and ‘ham’ meaning home. And Common, meaning….Common.. . Neasden is from old English ‘naess’ – nose , and ‘dun’ – hill; basically because of a hill in the area shaped like a nose! Now not a lot of people know that. Or should I say ‘Nose’ that.

Some stations are named after people who lived there: Gloucester Road was near the home of the Duchess of Gloucester, even in 1858 it was still known as ‘Hog Moore Lane’; not as appealing somehow. And Holland Park was named after the Earl of Holland who lived nearby.

Lancaster Gate was so named because a young lady called the Duchess of Lancaster lived there. She later became someone rather important….Queen Victoria no less!

And Piccadilly Circus? From the street Piccadilly which is named after a frilled collar or ‘piccadil’! Roger Baker was a local tailor who made his fortune by making these highly fashionable accessories in the 17th century and he worked in this area.

Station names are an extensive subject, so I will leave it there for now; something to think about next time you are confronted with an Underground map! And if you are interested in learning more, I’d recommend the following books.

What’s in a Name?: Origins of Station Names on the London Underground by Cyril M Harris

London By Tube: A History of Underground Station Names by David Revill

Charing Cross, just outside the station
Charing Cross, just outside the station

By Francesca Fenn, Apr 8 2015 09:00AM

Well, weren’t we lucky to be blessed with a beautiful, sunny Bank Holiday on Easter Monday! Having whetted my own appetite with the info about Hampstead Heath and Kenwood House I wrote up for our website last week, Mr S O and I decided to visit ourselves – we hadn’t been there for ages.

Public transport provided its usual Bank Holiday challenge, but we went via a different route, which was interesting in itself, giving an almost constant view of the London skyline as our two carriage train crept around the North of London to Hampstead Heath station.

A quick bit of history; Hampstead Heath was first recorded in the reign of Ethelred the Unready (love that name!) in 986, way before William the Conqueror landed on our shores. The Heath was acquired for public ownership in stages through the 19th century and since 1989 has been maintained by the Corporation of the City of London Corporation. Today it is as delightful as ever, with a variety of ponds and pools, some of which are open to swimmers, ancient woodland, open heathland (of course!) and a wealth of sports facilities.

One of the highlights is Kenwood House, managed by English Heritage and open free of charge to the public. It is a lovely house in its own right, and houses a spectacular collection of paintings, including works by Reynolds, Gainsborough and a number of other top-notch artists – there is even a Vermeer! The room attendants are very helpful and friendly, the paintings are very accessible and there was a very well run children’s trail which loads of families were enjoying.

We ate the Step Outside way, and had brought our own picnic which, when we saw the queues for the café, we realised was a very good idea. What could be nicer than people-watching (and there were loads of people!) in a beautiful open space in the sunshine?

Later we strolled across the Heath, down Parliament Hill and then walked through some lovely streets to Regent’s Park. Then through Regent’s Park to a well earned pint on the Euston Road before getting a train home.

So many of our days out, and so much of my research for Step Outside Guides, is based in central London. It was salutary to be reminded that there are very lovely places just outside the centre. And as we passed Madame Tussaud’s on our way to the station, and found that it costs over £100 for a family to enter, I felt proud of our little guides, which give great days out that don’t cost a bean!

The library in Kenwood House
The library in Kenwood House
Our lunch time view
Our lunch time view
Primrose Hill
Primrose Hill

By Francesca Fenn, Mar 19 2015 05:38PM

By Margie Skinner

Windows can be opened, washing is re-acquainting itself with the line in the garden and it will not be long before we are promised the ‘hottest summer ever’. To be shortly followed by more moderate reports predicting the ‘hottest summer since last year’!

Where better to Step Outside and take a deep, rejuvenating sniff of spring than in London’s bloomtabulous parks? A quick dredge of my childhood memories, filed under ‘London Parks’, instantly results in many reminiscences.

I can clearly recall the giddy excitement of rolling down the hill at Greenwich Park, and realising halfway down that the slope is longer and steeper than you remember, and that the doughnut wolfed down earlier probably wasn’t a good idea.

Spotting deer in Richmond Park and having to remind yourself that this really is London, so exotic did it seem, and I can easily bring to mind the throbbing pain in my thumb resulting from an attempt to feed a large swan in St James’ Park with a very small crumb of bread! (And yes I know now that you shouldn’t feed them bread, but this was the early 70’s).

One of my first romantic dates with a boyfriend (now a husband) was in Hyde Park; it turned quickly to farce when the deckchair he was sitting on collapsed without warning, but with huge comic effect. One of my earliest ever memories is the seemingly endless trek on little legs through Regents Park towards the tantalizing reward of London Zoo (because Dad had found the cheapest place to park which was several miles away), and the even worse trek back again at the end of a long hot day - summers were always hot ‘back then!’

Of course one of our favourite parks here at Step Outside Guides is the stunning Kensington Gardens, and we are very proud of our most recent publication ‘Kensington Gardens and Beyond’. Our guide shows explorers, both young and old, that there is far more to this glorious oasis and its neighbour Hyde Park than might seem immediately obvious. Spring is the perfect time to go and experience the plethora of daffodils against a most perfect backdrop of a glistening Serpentine. And Hermione will be happy to guide you!

So here’s to spring and making the most of the amazing open spaces almost on our door step. Have fun making memories!

Rolling down the hill at Greenwich
Rolling down the hill at Greenwich
Princess Diana playground in Kensington Gardens
Princess Diana playground in Kensington Gardens

By Francesca Fenn, Mar 11 2015 11:00AM

I think this is the most important blog I’ve written. I' hope you will read and share.

It is not a new observation that London is a cluster of many villages. Historically this is true, and although they merge in to each other now, different areas retain their character and identity. This is one of London’s priceless riches, one of the attributes that make it utterly unique.

In researching Step Outside Guides, I am lucky to be spend hours and hours walking in London – in the grand places, but also in back streets, alleys, unobtrusive lanes and squares, finding delights to share with you wherever I go. London is saturated in history and it is corny but true that every building and every street has a story.

London is also a dynamic city, and is continually changing. A skyline survey, no matter when it is taken, will reveal groups of cranes, and a changing profile as buildings are demolished or built. Some new buildings we like, some we don’t but it is a part of life here. It is also true that when a new building is erected, it has to be in place of something else. Often this doesn’t matter. The post-blitz, cheap and nasty buildings of the 1960s have almost all been replaced with sleek and elegant successors, and the turnover of newer buildings is quite high.

But sometimes, getting rid of the old to make way for the new matters very much. And when lovely old buildings are demolished, it is almost always a short-sighted mistake, made for short-term profit. In the 1970s there was a huge fight to save old Covent Garden Market, threatened with demolition. Imaginative planning and restoration meant that the market opened as a new area for small shops, and is now one of London’s most popular hubs for visitors from near and far.

Similarly, Sir John Betjeman famously spearheaded a campaign to save the fabulous station and hotel at St Pancras, which is now fully restored and the pride of our railway system.

Well, there is another fight to save another lovely part of London underway right now, the threat to which I find quite horrifying. Norton Folgate is an area immediately to the East of the City of London, part of Spitalfields and saturated in history. It is a conservation area, and includes listed buildings. The villain in this piece, British Land, proposes to beat the area into submission, dwarfing the lovely four storey frontages (the buildings themselves will be ripped out) with office blocks immediately behind which will be between nine and thirteen storeys high. So there is the ridiculous possibility of great, modern office blocks with historic frontages stuck on the first four storeys.

The Save Norton Folgate Campaign is working hard to stop this happening. Dan Cruikshank, a protester 40 years ago when British Land last tried to demolish parts of Spitalfields, has made a short video explaining the situation; you can see it here http://t.co/qeXDrEiQhA . If you don’t have time to watch it all, starting at 5.00 minutes will tell you what is happening now, and the campaign’s alternative proposal. As you know, we don’t ask much of you in our blogs but this week I am pleading with you to go to spitalfieldslife.com/2015/02/08/save-norton-folgate and scroll down to the bottom, where there is guidance on sending an email objecting to the development to the planning and building department of Tower Hamlets council. You don’t have to be a resident to object.

If, like us, you love London, please help to protect its gentler parts. And look out for a new Step Outside Guide which will be visiting this area, amongst several others, publishing in 2016.

Old Norton Folgate. Thanks to Gentle Author.
Old Norton Folgate. Thanks to Gentle Author.
Part of Norton Folgate now. Thanks to Gentle Author.
Part of Norton Folgate now. Thanks to Gentle Author.

By Francesca Fenn, Mar 4 2015 03:21PM


This Step Outside lady does not actually live in London, but in a not so distant land called ‘Hertfordshire’. There is considerably less light pollution here and last night’s clear weather offered us wonderful views of sparkling Venus and Jupiter, both very visible at the moment.

It got me thinking about central London’s sky at night and its ubiquitous Canary Wharf tower. I really can’t imagine London without that distinctive shape and its blinking beacon, so I thought I would find out a bit more about it!

The tower itself – official name One Canada Square – is 235 metres (771 ft) tall with 50 stories. So not as tall as The Shard, but a bit taller than the Heron Tower. One Canada Square is used as office space for approximately 9,000 people, but sadly is not open to the general public. It has 3,960 windows and 4,388 steps, although you could take one of the 32 lifts instead. The lift goes from the ground floor to the 50th floor in just 40 seconds. The pyramid which tops the building weighs 11 tons and is 39.6 metres tall (130 ft).

And that light, which has made itself such a feature of the London skyline? It flashes 40 times a minute, 57,600 times a day.

So not quite a star, but a bright beacon for London’s loveliness. So don’t forget to give it a nod if you are Stepping Out at night in the capital.

By Francesca Fenn, Feb 26 2015 08:23AM

We have two exciting news items about Step Outside Guides today..

First of all, anyone who has visited our website recently will notice that it has undergone a transformation, and is now designed to reflect the style of the books, and is even more stylish and user-friendly.

A special new area is under ‘The Guides’. It is called ‘Meet the Animals’, and you can read a little about each of our lovely animals, and see some pictures there. We hope you will want to take a look around the site, and we welcome feedback. A thousand thanks to Charlotte Tizzard for her splendid work!

When you visit our website, you will not be able to miss the announcement on the Home page about our other ‘New Thing’, which is launching next Monday, March 2nd. The London Adventure Box is Step Outside’s latest venture. Each beautiful box contains everything you need for a Step Outside day for a birthday treat with friends!

Each box contains these goodies for each child:

• A Step Outside Guide

• A Step Outside backpack

• A special pencil or pen

• A Step Outside badge

• A tube map

• An identity sticker.

And in each Box we'll also send you:

• An extra Step Outside Guide for the grown-up(s)

• A disposable camera

• A special Step Outside card for the birthday boy or girl

• A set of colouring pens or pencils

• Invitations for the day

Choose which book you want to use, let us know how many children will be going and whose treat it is, and we’ll do the rest! Within a couple of days your London Adventure Box will be delivered to your doorstep.

The London Adventure Box costs £12 per head, but until the end of the Easter Holidays, that is April 20th, we are making them available at our introductory price of £10 per head. If your child’s birthday isn’t for a while, you can always buy early while it’s on offer, and have your London Adventure Box ready for the big day!

Have a great week, and happy stepping outside!

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