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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, 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!

By Francesca Fenn, Aug 13 2015 02:04PM

We are aware that everyone who uses any Step Outside Guide appreciates the brilliant quality of the production of our books. This is entirely due to Margie's expertise in this area, learned through an illustrious career in publishing. Here are some great stories about her early days in the field:

By Margie Skinner

I started my career in publishing working for Macdonald & Co publishers based in London, EC1. Unfortunately the company name led to the common misapprehension that my job was serving burgers! In reality I was a secretary in the production department. I won’t tell you quite how long ago this was, but here are some clues……

Maxwell House was not only the eponymous name of the building I worked in (more of that in a minute), but also the coffee of choice. A ‘cappuccino’ was an exotic name bandied about by those recently back from Italy. There were no computers, but I felt chuffed that I had an electric typewriter! I also worked for a lady who had, it seemed, OCD when it came to letter presentation; I did a lot of re-typing! Fax was new, so much communication was by telex. This involved tedious hours queuing to feed a metal monster with a carefully nursed long paper strip peppered with holes.

And talking of monsters, the company was owned by a shy and retiring chap called Robert Maxwell. We would see him often, standing by his lift waiting to be whisked up to his penthouse office. There was one other lift in the building which served the hundreds of other staff! Maxwell anecdotes are legendary, but I was close to the source. One morning he sacked everyone in the company for threatening strike action – a decision delivered by letter onto our desks. But after a (presumably good) lunch there was another letter re-instating us! He accosted someone who had the audacity to smoke outside his office, asking him how much he earned a month and on hearing the reply whisked out a chequebook, writing the man a cheque for said amount and sending him off with ‘I never want to see you here again’. I don’t know if anyone ever told him that the man was not in fact an employee, but was a visiting printing rep who pocketed the cheque and was quite happy to never be seen there again!

Maxwell House was a short walk from Liverpool St Station, on the corner of Worship Street and Apold Street. To reach it from the station I would walk down a narrow dark alley, long since swallowed up by the new station design called, ironically, ‘Sun Street Passage’. The area has now changed beyond all recognition – and some might say that I have too – but I have fond memories of my time there. It was an interesting start to my journey in publishing; and instilled in me a resolution that I would never become a megalomaniac publishing magnate. So you are safe!

By Francesca Fenn, Jul 3 2015 07:53AM

As I write about memories of museums in London, I realise how significant it was that I went to them over and over again. To become familiar with such fantastic places was a huge privilege which I have always taken for granted, and it is only now that I am pondering on the whole experience, that I appreciate how lucky I was. Thanks Mum and Dad!

So, my last blog about museums is about the fabulous Science Museum. I loved going to the Science Museum! I loved the great hall with its huge engines and machines, and I especially loved watching the machines which were operating . I still love Victorian industrial machinery; the elegance in the design and pleasure in making working objects beautiful is something we have largely lost, and we are the poorer for it.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the Museum. Once we’d admired these magnificent beasts, we’d set off to explore. There were aeroplanes suspended high in the roof, space rockets and even a piece of moon rock. This was not in the least colourful or dramatic, but the knowledge it had been collected from the moon and brought back to earth made it awe- inspiring. There was floor after floor displaying everything scientific, from an old farm milking machine (complete with dummies working it) to models of ships through the ages – floor after floor of models, machines and demonstrations. There was a Foucault Pendulum suspended from the roof to the bottom of the central stairwell, which demonstrated the rotation of the earth. (I never really understood it, but I was impressed!). Once a day there was a high voltage demonstration, emitting a great flash and crash. Of course we never wanted to miss that.

My two top favourite galleries were the Children’s Gallery and the Coal Mine. The coal mine was in the basement, and was a mock-up of a real mine. The details have fuzzed with time, but the coal trucks, the rails and the safety door are still vivid, and the whole sense of adventure in entering the dark ‘mine’, and following the passage, has stayed with me. In reality, the coal mine probably wasn’t very large, but it seemed so at the time, and was always a highlight of our visit.

The Children’s Gallery was also in the basement and was an area devoted to introducing scientific concepts to children. Less ergonomic and colourful than the Launchpad of today, it still provided loads of fun with things to pull, push, press and generally fiddle with. It was very pleasing to be able to lift a ton – albeit very slowly – through the gift of gearing! There was sound frequency booth where we could test our audible frequency range – and where, more importantly, we could also make ‘alien’ sounds.

The Science Museum has changed considerably, as have both scientific progress and museum presentation. It is more colourful, more ‘user-friendly’ and more crowded. But it is still a fantastic experience, it is still free and it is still a wonderful place for children – and adults - to encounter all sorts of science in all sorts of ways.

And of course, for children - and adults - to encounter all sorts of London in all sorts of ways, you need a set of Step Outside Guides!

By Francesca Fenn, Jun 17 2015 10:59AM

I wonder whether any of you who are reading this went to the South Ken museums when you were children (apart from my sister – hello Cathy!) If you did, we’d love to hear any of your special memories. The Natural History Museum was definitely one of the top two days out for us. I’ll tell you about the other one next week, but today, it’s all about the NHM. It is strange how much and so little has changed there, so my tenses may flow between past and present – please excuse!

We visited the museum regularly, (see last week's blog for more about that) and although we’d often explore new galleries, there was a nucleus of rooms we always wanted to drop in on. There was, and is, the vast and beautiful Central Hall, with the huge diplodocus skeleton at its centre. I remember following the tail with my eyes, wondering if it ever really quite ended.

My favourite place of all was the hall with the full sized model of a blue whale. I thought it was real,

(though stuffed, of course…) and never tired of seeing it. It was mind-bogglingly immense, and dwarfed the elephants and giraffes around it. Being told this creature lived on tiny animals that it filtered out of the water seemed unbelievable - how could there be anything left after a creature this size had eaten all she needed?.

Another special object was a large glass case containing a tree branch inhabited with hundreds of tiny stuffed birds. I thought it was so beautiful, and loved looking at the hundreds of jewel-coloured birds. On a recent visit I was delighted to see that it’s still on display, in the same traditional case.

The next obligatory stop-off was the immense cross-section of a sequoia tree trunk, with historical events marked on its rings. The tree was 1,300 years old when it was felled, so there were many world events signed, stretching back way past 1066! That trunk is still there too.

Apart from the dramatic main staircase at one end, there seemed to be an infinite number of corridors and rooms leading off the Central Hall, taking us to more dinosaurs, insects, stuffed animals and birds of every kind, including a dodo. I sensed the tragedy of this endearing bird’s extinction from my first encounter with him (or her) and harboured a deep hope that more would be found somewhere. There were plant and mineral galleries too, though they never had quite the same allure for us as the animals.

Today many of the rooms and halls have been revamped and there are newer extensions too, including the spectacular Darwin Centre. The outside of the museum was cleaned and repaired some time ago, and all the years of soot and grime were removed, revealing the lovely stonework and ornamentation. It is a beautiful building. But as I said earlier, much is still the same. Most importantly, the museum is still absolutely bursting at the seams with exhibits and specimens. The Diplodocus is still in the Central Hall, the blue whale still dominates his great room, and the museum is a fascinating mixture of cutting-edge science, historical perspective and old-fashioned museum cases. It is still a world centre of research and authority for natural history, and it is still a fantastic place to spend a day.

The only note of caution I can give about a visit here is that today the museum is almost a victim of its own success. Queueing to get in is almost inevitable, particularly in the school holidays, and if you want to see the dinosaurs (and most people do) be prepared to get there early, or to queue for a long time. However, there are far more facilities for eating and shopping, and more loos and cloakrooms than in my youth. And, wonderfully, it is still free to visit. So this summer, why don’t you go and meet the dinosaurs, and see some of the museum’s 20 million other specimens?

Monkeys climbing columns in the Central Hall
Monkeys climbing columns in the Central Hall
The Main Entrance - without a queue!
The Main Entrance - without a queue!
The Central Hall
The Central Hall
A detail from the beautiful exterior
A detail from the beautiful exterior

By Francesca Fenn, Jun 10 2015 09:00AM

In my recent blog for mykidsy.com I mentioned that my love of London was probably engendered by our day trips there in the school holidays. This has set me a-thinking about those days out, and the special and particular memories that I have of them. Some things are just the same as they were then, and some are very different. Over our next blogs, I’m going to share some of those memories with you!

When I was in infant and junior school, at some point every school holiday my mum would pack up a picnic (all tupperward and plastic bags, the dreaded wet flannel in another plastic bag) and with her four children would set off for the station. Tickets from Seven Kings to South Kensington were 5/- (25p) for adults and 2/6d (12 1/2p) for children between 3 and 14 years. We had to buy tickets to a particular station – there were no travel zones or travel cards – and as you can see, children were charged half fare. Still, a day out for 12/6d was not bad value!

At South Kensington Station, the first delight was The Tunnel, complete with echoes, posters and buskers. The Tunnel is a Victorian subway which connects the station directly to the museums, with exits at various stages along it, depending which museum you are visiting. These days I much prefer walking above ground, but then we wouldn’t hear of it!

There are three main museums at South Kensington, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert museum (the V&A), all glorious Victorian buildings. Today they are shown at their very best, but in my childhood they were black and grimy – I had no idea that the Natural History Museum is such a beautiful building! But back to my memories. There were always vans parked at the entrances to the museums, selling both icecreams and hotdogs at outrageous prices – we were never allowed anything from them, despite our pleading and nagging.

My parents always encouraged research and learning, and occasionally we would take objects or curiosities to the museums with us, and go to the information desk. We’d be seen by an expert in the relevant field and we were unfailingly given polite and patient explanations from curators, researchers or whoever was on hand.

When we got to a certain age – I think about nine – we were allowed to go off on our own, or with a sibling, within the museum, meeting up at a set place and time. I can’t imagine many parents would be comfortable doing that now, but we loved it.

I’ll be musing on what we saw, did and enjoyed in each museum in another blog, but lunch was always the same. In fine weather our picnic was eaten either in the grounds of the Natural History Museum, or in the quadrangle of the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) across the road. This featured a huge Buddah, now removed, where, fascinatingly for us, Buddhists would occasionally come to meditate while we chomped on our sandwiches. I don’t remember much about the V&A, other than the quadrangle. (This is rather odd, as today I think this is my favourite museum!) I seem to remember the museums had ‘school rooms’ where we could eat our sandwiches in winter – they were underground, windowless and smelled of old packed lunches and I didn’t like them at all!

The great museums of London were, and still are, are a rich resource and a wonderful asset. I think we are so privileged to have such ready access to these world-class institutions.. We don’t take our Step Outside Guides into the South Kensington museums for two reasons. First, the museums are each a day out in themselves, and second, they all have excellent family information, guides and activities. Perhaps one day we’ll write a Step Inside guide for each of them! In the meantime, whether you are stepping outside with one of our guides, or stepping inside a museum or gallery, make sure you enjoy London and all the amazing things it has to offer!

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