I am very pleased to feature the book and blog of a retired London Taxi driver, David. He drove one of the iconic black cabs in London, and has written about his experiences.
His new book is called ‘Pootling Around London’.
Here is an extract, about the difficult process of learning the ‘Knowledge’ to become a London cabbie.
“A flatulent camel
List 1: Run 11 Timber Pond Road SE16 to Grocers Hall Court EC2
“Close the door and sit down.” It was 7th May 1991 and 56 days since I had attended the Induction Interview, my first time at the Carriage Office since being accepted on The Knowledge.
At that time we had listened to a short speech on what journey we were about to undertake and had been given the ‘List of Questions’ – known by anyone who visited this fortress-like building as ‘The Blue Book’ even though it had a pink cover.
A lot had happened since that first visit. We had been assigned to complete 5 lists, learning 90 runs, locating, and remembering, the many places of interest at each end of those routes. Except that for me, my father had died and I’d driven down to Dorset to support my Mother on numerous occasions.
“I’ll have your card. Now, do you have anyone in your family who is a cabbie?” Mr Lippiat seemed a fairly agreeable fellow, who clearly was putting me at my ease.
“Take me from Prince of Wales Theatre to Prince of Wales Drive.” I was like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, my brain refused to do anything except to keep me breathing.
“Well, how about Kings Cross Station to -——“, I stumbled out of his office not understanding, let alone remembering anything else. At least I remembered to make another appointment for an inquisition known by all as an Appearance on my way out.
“Who did you get, and what was asked?” A group of Knowledge boys were standing outside the building interrogating students as they came out of the building, in an effort to be forewarned of the possible questions.
“Mr Lippiat, but I can only remember the first question”, was my reply.
“Mr Lippiat, he’s a real gent, wait until you get Ormes”, my inquisitor warned me. What had I taken on? If that was easy how traumatic is this going to get, and looking at my card I realised that I had now to learn lists six to ten, finish the first five and was due back here at 11.30 on Tuesday 2nd July prompt.
I could hardly wait!
Timber Pond Road? This curious name comes from Middle English and the days of wooden ships, meaning a place where imported timber was stored and seasoned. Not that I know it, but during this run, I’m passing close to High Timber Street which similarly served the same purpose in the 13th century.
There seemed to be a dearth of points at this bend of the River, the curiously named Bacon’s College seems the only one point worth seeking out. Soon I’m riding down a street named after Britain’s greatest engineer – Brunel, but little else takes my interest. Until that is, I glance at my map and discover that one of the world’s most famous pubs is less than half-a-mile distant. The Mayflower in Rotherhithe Street has piqued my interest for this is where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America.
It was 5th August 1620 near a pub appropriately called The Shippe, where now the Mayflower stands that a group of separatists who found themselves persecuted after breaking away from the Church of England set sail to Plymouth via Southampton and bound for what was to become Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts, the first European settlers in America.
Surely, when I get American tourists wanting a tour in a genuine London taxi, they will want to visit the embarkation point of their ancestors.
The Mayflower looks the genuine article, plenty of dark wood, its seating arranged in a series of small snugs, and a view of the Thames from the terrace. But, there is a problem, which I’ll not divulge to my tourists. It is that the Shippe was rebuilt as the Spread Eagle in 1780 and only renamed as the Mayflower in 1957, but being economical with the truth, surely, is the raison d’être of an entertaining tour guide.
It’s a long ride along Jamaica Road, presumably named from the nearby docks and the country of origin whose produce is landed and stored in the wharves. Turning left into Tanner Street that has an etymology far more interesting. As the industrial expansion took hold, some manufacturing was deemed too noisy, dusty or smelly to be retained within the Square Mile. Tanner Street, Morocco Street and Leathermarket Street give an indication this area saw the tanning of animal hides, a process which involved the liberal application of urine. Even during the plague in the 17th century, obnoxious smells were deemed beneficial to preventing the spread of the miasma and this little area for a short time proved to be a popular place to reside.
I turned into Tooley Street and the site of London’s largest conflagration in the 19th century. Taking two weeks to die down it would ultimately lead to the formation of the London Fire Brigade when insurance companies refused to supply pumps to protect their insured premises.
Crossing London Bridge I’m unaware that High Timber Street is just upstream from here and once served the same purpose as the area where I started this run. It’s onwards to the beating heart of mercantile London, today this junction is now a shadow of its former self, as all vehicles are now banned including cabs.
On the right is the Royal Exchange, its construction necessitated in the demolition of the curiously named St. Benet Fink. Mr Fink had restored a Wren church facing this junction and for his trouble was apparently canonised. Continuing into Poultry, like many streets here, Milk Street, Bread Street, it gives its name to the daily necessities of life where once they were sold, and in the midst of this old market area is our destination, Grocers Hall Court.
Its history dates back to the 14th century, the Company of Grocers is one of the Great Twelve Livery Companies. It was said to have been the first in order of preference until Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation. Following the Good Queen Bess’s enthroning, a procession wended its way through the City with the Grocers’ camel preceding Her Majesty. Unsurprisingly the animal started emitting smells, much to the disgust of the Queen, who just happened to be the Honorary Master of the Mercers Company, and she promptly promoted the Mercers to the top spot where it remains to this day.
Having survived almost unscathed from the Blitz, which had destroyed a fifth of the City, they managed to destroy the Grocers Livery Hall in 1965, when a light bulb was left beneath an oak lintel below the grand staircase. The conflagration necessitated a new hall being constructed in this present site.
Contrary to popular belief learning the Blue Book Runs is not just about going out on a moped and learning the current list of 320 runs. Any fool can learn by rote a series of roads, take Manor House to Gibson Square, it is spoken by many almost as a mantra. The list is only designed as a guide to what you are expected to learn and at an Appearance you are unlikely (and lucky enough) to be asked a Blue Book run.
Learning the Blue Book Runs is all about ¼ mile areas at the beginning and end of the runs, as well as the run itself. This process is more commonly known as the Dumb-Bell effect.
Understanding how alternative points of interest, roads and road restrictions within these ¼ mile radius areas relate to the Blue Book Runs is the basic foundation of learning the Knowledge of London. You will not acquire a sufficient Knowledge simply by either using a computer or a map, you will only gain the necessary Knowledge by actually travelling the ¼ mile radius areas and runs.
Runs are undertaken using this criteria: (1) learn the area and points within a ¼ mile radius of the Blue Book start point; (2) learn how to link these points up with the run; (3) learn the run itself; (4) learn the area and points within a ¼ mile radius of the Blue Book end point; and (5) learn how to link these points up with the run.”
Here is a link to David’s blog. http://www.cabbieblog.com/
And here is a link where you can read more of the book.