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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, 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.

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