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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, 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...

By Francesca Fenn, Jul 20 2018 05:03PM

Should you happen to stand outside the Royal Albert Hall, and face Kensington Gardens, you will see an immense, ornate and sparkling edifice. This is one of the most spectacular monuments in London, and was built under the command of Queen Victoria in memory of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, who died when he was only 42. It is the Albert Memorial.

Whenever I see the Memorial, it looks faintly ridiculous to me. It is so huge, (over 50 metres high), so highly decorated and so complicated, just having the vision and nerve to design and erect such a structure is mind-boggling. In fact, it shows Prince Albert’s many interests and achievements, and every single detail has a meaning. The cross and angels at the top represent Albert’s Christian faith. The spectacular triangles of golden mosaic on the canopy, which rests on enormous granite pillars, represent the arts of poetry, painting, architecture and sculpture. And beneath the canopy is the Prince himself, shining and golden, holding a book of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Beneath him is a frieze of artists, poets and so on – 169 of them! On the four corners above the frieze are statues representing four great industries, and the statues at the base of the steps represent the four continents where Britain had parts of her Empire.

And if, as a Brit and a Londoner, I feel slightly embarrassed by this historic and historical display of power and might, I remind myself that I’ve been to the Albert Memorial with a number of friends from abroad, and they are, without fail, completely bowled over by it – especially if the sun is shining!

The Albert Memorial is in Kensington Gardens, one of the Royal Parks. It is a wonderful place to explore, and if you’d like to spend a day discovering its many delights (and even more about the Memorial), then you’re in luck because our Step Outside Guide book, Kensington Gardens and Beyond, does just that. It has stickers and everything! It is one of the series of guide books we’ve written to enable families to enjoy cost free days exploring London. It’s available from our website or from bookshops for a measly £5. We wish you a very happy summer holidays, and hope that you will have the chance to Step Outside in London!

The Albert Memorial peeping through the trees of Kensington Gardens
The Albert Memorial peeping through the trees of Kensington Gardens
The Man Himself!
The Man Himself!

By Francesca Fenn, May 16 2017 04:03PM

This is a big week for the Step Outside Team. We are awaiting delivery of the second edition of The London Treasure Trail. It has its own ISBN and everything! So why have we expended blood,sweat, tears and dosh to write a second edition? Well, The London Treasure Trail, our first book and the one which brought Step Outside Guides to the world, is five years old! And in that time changes have taken place which would not matter in the slightest to most wanderers in London, but which happened to be significant to Step Outsiders.

For example. We were mortified a year or so back to receive slightly peeved feedback from a user of The London Treasure Trail who had got off the bus at Kensington High Street station and followed Tembo’s instructions, only to find that he was going in completely the wrong direction! I hotfooted it to Kensington and sure enough, Transport for London have moved the bus stop from one side of the station entrance to the other – only a few metres, but completely thwarting Tembo’s instruction to walk past the station entrance. Pah.

And then Tembo was moved to John Watkins Plaza, a few metres along Portugal Street, when his original home fell prey to developers.

We painstakingly attached ‘A message from Baby Tembo’ with the amendments into every copy of The London Treasure Trail. But enough is enough, and we decided a whole new edition was needed.

It has also given us the opportunity to refresh the layout and check all the information is up to date, and we are over the moon with Sam’s fabulous new page headings and his other new artwork, including the cover.

We love books. We love writing and using books. And anyone who has used a Step Outside Guide on the ground will agree that our relaxed, companionable days out are perfectly suited to paper. We love the opportunity they give to pore over the illustrations and silly facts and observations which we so enjoy writing.

So, as long as people keep buying Step Outside Guides we will keep writing and publishing them - and you can continue enjoying and exploring our wonderful city with London’s friendliest guide books!

The new edition of The London Treasure Trail
The new edition of The London Treasure Trail

By Francesca Fenn, Jan 26 2017 02:36PM

Those of you who know our guides will know that the real stars of each day are the animal statues who live on the route, and who come to life to show you round their ‘patch’.

Our seventh and latest guide, London’s Splendid Square Mile is populated by two little mice, who reside on the side of a wall in Philpot Lane. We named the mice Cam ‘n’ Bert (squeaks of laughter), and Sam performed his customary and marvellous animal magic, and brought them to life. In the book they scamper around the beautiful model of Old London Bridge in St Magnus Martyr Church, impersonate guildsmen in all their finery and parachute down from an ejector seat. The book explains why!

London’s Splendid Square Mile was launched last summer and Cam ‘n’ Bert were quite rightly the stars. Everything looked set for our readers to have a fun day in the City, including finding the mice and their big lump of cheese on the wall in Philpot Lane.

Passing down Philpot Lane a few weeks later, I was horrified to see that Cam ‘n’ Bert were concealed by scaffolding and tarpaulins! I enquired at the coffee shop below as to how long the work would be in progress, and was told until September. There seemed little we could do, so we hunkered down to grin & bear it. Come September, October, November - the building was still covered, and a notice of development had appeared. This was going to be a long job. How would our readers know where Cam ‘n’ Bert live?

Emergency action was called for. I emailed the developers – they must have thought I was bonkers - seeking their permission to put up a sign showing where Cam ‘n’ Bert are. They very kindly agreed (well, I did send them a book…). We measured up a window space that would be noticeable but not in anybody’s way, and got a sign made up.

One very cold afternoon in December I arrived in Philpot Lane with string, scissors, the sign – all the things one usually carts about the City. I strung the sign and found my next challenge. I couldn’t reach the scaffolding pole we’d planned to use. I tried balancing on the edge of a brick. I tried standing on tippy tippy tippy toes – I could almost reach – I tried chucking the string over the pole – all to no avail. Mr Sod seemed very busy writing laws for our mice. And then, da daaah - a white knight, in the shape of an Aussie tourist, passed by and asked if he could help (he had a very small girlfriend, who had noticed my height-related difficulties). I, of course, said yes, and he fastened the top of the sign with ease. I very happily presented them with a copy of the guide, with a suitably effusive message of thanks, and the job was done!

So, the milk (or cheese) of human kindness has prevailed with both the developers and my tourist!

If you venture out to discover London’s Splendid Square Mile just now you may not see Cam and Bert, but you will see a splendid picture of them, and will know where they are hiding. And there is plenty more to see and discover, all laid out in the book for you.

One final note. The development itself includes a lovely building just round the corner on Eastcheap, which has been empty for quite a while. It will be good to see it looking splendid again. And it will be good to see Cam & Bert again!

Our thanks to Thackeray Estates for their kind permission to erect our sign.

By Francesca Fenn, Jan 17 2017 04:55PM

Hello! This is our first blog in a long time. We never meant to stop – but you know how it is – you miss a week cos you’re on holiday, then another cos that week was busy… and somehow the delightful habit of writing and musing on different bits of London life is lost. But it’s a new year, complete with resolutions, and we have been driven to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, by a particular exhibition in one of the City churches. Our photos in no way do justice to the pictures, but they give you a taste.

St Stephen Walbrook is one of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches. It sits on Walbrook, just behind Mansion House and very near Bank Station. It is an interesting and beautiful church in its own right, and it often hosts exhibitions and concerts. The current exhibition is there just until the end of this week (Jan 20th) and it is both moving and very special.

Artist Hannah Rose Thomas is 24 years old, is extremely talented, and she has a special place in her heart for refugees. (hannahrosethomas.com) Throughout her degree course in art and Arabic she sold her work to finance humanitarian work in some of the world’s hardest trouble spots, and she is still working with and visiting a number of camps now.

The exhibition of her work is small, and has two main themes. The first shows her own portraits of people living in refugee camps in Jordan, and in ‘The Jungle’ in Calais. These are beautiful and intimate, with the pain in the eyes of the refugees movingly depicted. The dignity of these people, who have suffered so much is striking and the faces are worth taking time to gaze into in depth.

The second theme comes from Hannah’s visit to Jordan in 2015, when she organised an art project for Syrian children living in the camps. You can read more about this on her website. The childish drawings are of events that no child should have to witness and they are sobering: planes, tanks, guns, blood, ambulances and bodies lying on the ground are scattered around the normal looking homes. Then there are large murals, created by the children and Hannah working together,and were are a real lesson to me about the resilience of the human spirit. There are two murals from Jordan. One is a dark, abstract chaos of the children’s war experiences. But the children didn’t want to stop there. They wanted to paint memories from home, and the second mural, bright, vibrant and beautiful, is the result. It hangs beside the one of war memories . In enabling children to visually articulate their memories and hopes, perhaps Hannah has helped to keep their humanity alive in the most terrible circumstances.

We are so fortunate that our children can draw trips to the park, or to the seaside, or to London, as their 'event'. Let's all enjoy that freedom.

To see Hannah's refugee portraits, go to hannahrosethomas.com/portfolio-1

Or should you be in the City this week, we recommend popping in to St Stephen’s to see these very special pictures.

By Francesca Fenn, Sep 23 2015 05:37PM

London’s buildings are a rich and diverse mixture of old, new, immense, tiny, high, low, sacred, secular…. The list of comparisons could go on and on. As anyone who reads our blog regularly will know, we, along with millions of others, find the rich diversity of this great city infinitely fascinating.

“Open Sesame” is the famous magical phrase used to gain access to secret treasures in One Thousand and One Nights. Here in London we have our own magic word. “Open House” is not such a romantic phrase, but the jewels it reveals are just as wonderful as Aladdin’s cave of treasure.

Last weekend Open House London 2015 got underway. This fantastic annual architectural feast takes place on the third weekend of September each year. Hundreds of London’s buildings open their doors to the public, free of charge. Every London borough participates, so you can look around interesting buildings in your locality, or go up to the centre of London to explore the interior of some of London’s most famous, most interesting and most mysterious buildings. Hardened enthusiasts buy the catalogue as soon as it appears and immediately book the ‘superstar’ buildings, most of which have to be booked beforehand because they are so popular.

But if, like me, you are a little less organised, you can roll up on the day and there are still hundreds of buildings inviting you to take a look. Some have guided tours, others just let you wander. Some are often open to the public, for others this is the only chance you will get to see inside.

The beautiful weather at the weekend meant that there were many people to be seen strolling around with the bright green catalogue in their hand, deciding which buildings to investigate. Some of the buildings had queues, although there were many that we could walk straight in to.

We stayed within the square mile of The City this year, mainly because there are buildings which are very relevant to our next book. We had a great time poking our noses in to churches, guild halls (as well as Guildhall) and offices, enjoying views from, as well as of, the inside.

What a brilliant idea Open House London is. What an enjoyable way to Step Outside in London. Next September you will have a chance to explore Open House London for the 24th time. But in the meantime, you can still explore London’s environment, inside and out, with Step Outside’s fabulous guidebooks to cost-free family days in London. So don’t wait another year – get exploring with a Step Outside Guide!

And our next book? Step Outside Guide number seven is publishing in Spring 2016 and we feel so impatient to share it with you all. It’s shaping up nicely, with all the delights you have come to expect from our little books, so follow us on Facebook or Twitter and we’ll keep you up to date.

Fabulous Guildhall from  Guildhall Yard
Fabulous Guildhall from Guildhall Yard
St Lawrence Jewry
St Lawrence Jewry

By Francesca Fenn, Aug 26 2015 02:16PM

This summer I have been to Narnia. I’ve been there plenty of times in the past, and I hope I’ll be able to keep going there for many years to come. For anyone who doesn’t know where Narnia is, it is a magical land in the famous children’s book by C S Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Narnia is a whole country located at the back of a big, old wardrobe in a big old house in the country.

The four children in the book have a whole series of adventures in Narnia. They have a whole life there, lived in real time and they learn a lot, yet when they step back through the wardrobe in to our world, nothing has changed, no time seems to have passed – everything is just as it was and only they have experienced the passing of time.

Okay, okay, I haven’t physically been to Narnia. But I have, like many of you, been on holiday this summer, and been completely absorbed in my surroundings. It doesn’t really matter where the holiday is, or how long it. But that sense of taking yourself, or being taken, out of your normal surroundings enjoying new experiences and then arriving home to find everything is exactly the same is very Narnian. The only indication you have been away is post on the doormat, an awful lot of emails and a garden gone wild.

I love days out and I love holidays, and I also love being able to enjoy memories of fun, excitement, relaxation or adventure. And I enjoy coming home to find my head has cleared and my batteries are recharged.

The feedback we have been receiving here at Step Outside Guides this summer indicates that our little books do indeed refresh, recharge, and delight the families and groups that use them on a day out. And whilst you may not find a witch or a wardrobe, there are plenty of lions just waiting to meet you! So we hope that with what is left of the summer, any of you in or near London will be able to enjoy a day in Narnian London with a Step Outside Guide book and one of our rather magical animals – even a lion!

The door of the British Museum
The door of the British Museum
Chinese lions in Chinatown
Chinese lions in Chinatown
Our own lion William on a bus tour!
Our own lion William on a bus tour!
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