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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, Jun 20 2019 12:02PM

For our 6th Little Museum in London we’re going to the Euston Road, just a little East from Madame Tussaud’s, to the Royal Academy of Music. Within this venerable institution, which for many years has been a cradle of learning for some of the world’s finest musicians, lies their small museum, stacked over three floors, with each storey having its own theme. Let’s start on the first floor.

Here we are, in the Strings Gallery, where there are beautiful and rare stringed instruments with just the right amount of information for each. Sometimes there are spaces, as I’m delighted to say that these instruments are lent out for special concerts, so they are still played and loved. There are violins by Stradivari and Amati, and there is a guitar from 1780 that looks rather like a lute. There are exquisite scale models of instruments, and ukuleles you can have a play on, complete with music if needed or wanted. The College’s string workshop is within the gallery, and has a glass wall. It is very special to be able to watch the luthiers at work, making and repairing stringed instruments.

Up on the second floor is the piano gallery. The story of the keyboard begins here with a virginal from 1620, and there are a number of wonderful instruments tracing the development of the piano over the next 300 years. Some instruments have a bewildering array of pedals and arrangements to get desired effects. My favourite, present on two of the pianos, was a series of louvre slats, which open when the appropriate pedal is depressed, letting out much more sound. One of the best things about this gallery is that there is a skilled attendant there, who will demonstrate the instruments for you if you ask – which we did – it was brilliant!

There are also exhibits showing how the mechanism of a piano works, and how pianos are built to be both beautiful and be strong. Did you know that a grand piano has to withstand nine tonnes of tension from the strings? I had no idea!

Back down on the ground floor are cases with artefacts and souvenirs from the inception of the Academy in 1822 to its work today. There’s a glorious tin box for a top hat, and letters and scores from a number of illustrious composers and performers, plus a case about all female orchestras from the early 20th century, when women were not permitted to play in professional orchestras. No matter how high their standard, they were seen only as ‘novelty acts’. Hrmph!

This lovely little museum is free, and open Mon – Fri 11.30am – 5.30pm, Sat: Noon – 4.0pm

Nearest tube: Baker Street or Regent’s Park.


A guitar by John Preston, made in about 1780
A guitar by John Preston, made in about 1780
These exquisite models by Harold Steafel can all be played!
These exquisite models by Harold Steafel can all be played!
The fabulous top hat box!
The fabulous top hat box!

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, 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, 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.

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