We all know of the knowledgeable and experienced cab drivers of London, equipped with years of training and ‘The Knowledge’ course under their belt. We are pleased to feature genuine London hack, Robert Lordan, who can share his experiences and provide a glimpse into a day in the life of an English cabbie. Robert shares stories accumulated while on the job, as well as his vast knowledge of the city of London in the interview below and also on his amazing blog, View From the Mirror: A Taxi Driver’s London. Be sure to check out his site to learn more about the differences in training, culture and regulation of the taxi industry in England compared to the United States.
You mention that driving a cab is not your first profession. Can you tell us a little bit about your first career path and how life led you to becoming a cabbie?
After leaving school and working for some time as a warehouseman, I attended university where I studied English Literature. After this, I went on to train as a secondary school teacher (in the UK that means working with kids aged 11-16). Although I enjoyed working in education, I found the experience way too stressful, not to mention the copious amounts of paperwork involved.
Consequently, I left my chosen career… and fell into unemployment. Unable to find work, it was my father who suggested that I apply for the training course to become a London cabbie, as he had several friends who worked as taxi drivers and knew it was a worthwhile profession to get into.
It is funny the paths life leads us down. What is your favorite aspect about being a cab driver?
That’s a difficult one to answer because there are so many aspects I enjoy! I suppose the primary one is being self-employed; having the flexibility to work whichever days and hours you want, in whatever part of the city you wish.
It is so great you enjoy so many aspects of your job, but do you enjoy the people you encounter? You say your favorite type of passengers are those who enjoy chatting. Can you tell us about your favorite experience with a passenger?
One recent experience does come to mind though: at St Pancras International railway station (where trains travelling from Paris arrive), I picked up a lovely family from Cambodia who were on vacation in Europe. The family was all smiles; amongst the friendliest people I’ve ever met. The father in particular spoke fluent English and we had a good chat.
Although we didn’t speak about it in depth, I was well aware that the parents were old enough to have suffered under Pol Pot’s horrific regime in the 1970s.
As well as paying me with a nice tip, the father handed me a gift; a Cambodian banknote, telling me that if I ever decided to visit his beautiful country, that would pay for the taxi journey from the airport into the center of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. I do hope to go there one day, but I will not be using the note- I will keep it forever as a beautiful reminder of how truly kind and wonderful people can be.
What an amazing story. I’m sure you have many other touching experiences; was there a specific moment or event like this that led you to blogging? When did you begin blogging about your thoughts and experiences on the job?
I first began blogging in 2011. My family had been suggesting that I set up a site detailing my experiences. This was boosted by a very specific moment when a passenger who worked in publishing encouraged me to do the same.
She also recommended that I get involved in social media, suggesting that it may one day help lead to a book deal… I’ve still got my fingers crossed!
How exciting, we will cross our fingers for you as well! …You are our first cab driver from London to be featured on our Newsroom, thanks! What makes London such a great city in your opinion?
What makes London such a great city is that it embodies history and tradition whilst embracing progression and modern trends. I’m also very proud of the amazing array of art, film, music and literature which London has bestowed upon the world.
Speaking of the vast history of London – the city’s cab drivers must participate in and pass ‘The Knowledge’ training course; can you explain this process?
‘The Knowledge of London’ as it’s fully known is by far the most intense thing I’ve ever undertaken….
Thanks to its long history, London’s roads are a chaotic mess.
Some are Roman in origin, others Viking or Victorian. They twist, they turn, they veer off in directions you don’t want them to. In more recent years, the authorities have turned many of London’s road systems into complex one-way systems; labyrinths where even the most experienced, sat-nav armed drivers can become hopelessly lost.
In view of this, those at the top believe it’s a good idea for aspiring London cabbies to actually learn the roads upon which they plan to ply for hire. This means studying every single road, street and alley that lies within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross (the official center of London, just beside Trafalgar Square).
You have to commit the names of these roads (of which there are over 20,000) and any one-ways or other restrictions to memory. You are also required to memorize the places of interest on these roads- and there are thousands of them… hotels, pubs, restaurants, shops, museums, parks, railway stations, police stations, fire stations, hospitals, statues, courts, prisons, places of worship, theaters…. It goes on.
There is a system in place to help you learn this… the ‘Blue Book’; a list of 320 routes (or ‘runs’ as they are known in the trade). Each run links two specific points (for example, the first- and most famous- is Manor House tube station to Islington’s Gibson Square). You must study everything within a quarter of a mile of each start and end point- road names, road restrictions, places of interest and so on. You must then plot the most direct route between the two places, drive it and commit it to memory- this means reciting the roads and directions for every run, every day at home (rather like a child learning there times tables).
Most Knowledge students learn the streets by driving around on a moped- if you are in London, you can spot them as they have a clipboard (often stuffed with notes) attached to the handlebars.
Whilst learning, you must also of course be tested. This involves a series of one-on-one verbal exams called ‘appearances’ which take place in the HQ of Transport for London. The examiners themselves are veteran cabbies who, in many cases, are former police officers and hence very stern indeed.
Appearances are terrifying… rather like a job interview.
For each one, you are asked up to five questions; any two random points in London. I remember my very first question- I was asked “Grafton Square to the Caesar Hotel.” That means I had to say where the two locations were (Grafton Square is off of a road called ‘Old Town’ in Clapham, South London and the Caesar Hotel is on Queen’s Gardens, Paddington). Once the examiner is satisfied you know where the locations are, you must verbally describe the most direct route you’d take between the two, naming every road and turn (“Leave Grafton Square by Old Town, forward North Street, forward Silverthorne Road, left Broughton Street, right Queenstown Road etc etc)…
You have to keep attending such examinations every few weeks until it is decided you are good enough. At first you are seen every 56 days, then every 28 days, then every 21 days. Altogether, the training took me 4 and half years- which is the average for most candidates- and I had to undergo 27 verbal exams.
If you wish to learn more, I’ve given an in depth description of the experience on my website.
Wow, that sounds like an extremely intense process. What are your thoughts on this requirement to become a taxi driver, is it beneficial or overkill?
If it wasn’t for ‘The Knowledge’, then I wouldn’t have even considered being a taxi driver in London. By completing such an intensive course, I feel I’ve gained a career for life; I’ve become part of the city and, thanks to the intense training, the city has become part of me.
All London cabbies are deeply proud of their achievement in learning London inside out.
The course is totally beneficial; London is etched upon our brains. Whilst driving in the city center we don’t have to rely upon maps or navigational aids; we know where we are going. This is crucial in a city such as London- a person hops, quickly states their destination and we can head off in a flash, instinctively dodging traffic and road works as we do so.
That is very impressive, perhaps this philosophy should be adopted in major cities in the US….Your blog contains many historical references, have you always been interested in history or was this a result of “The Knowledge’ training?
History has always fascinated me but studying the Knowledge really did take it to a whole new level!
When you explore London in such depth, you discover a fascinating past and a lot of hidden history. The Knowledge also encourages you to teach yourself as much as possible… I guess that it’s an obsession you can never really shake off.
What does the future look like for you? Are you planning on continuing to drive, and blog?
I’ll certainly keep on driving, it’s providing me with a fascinating life.
As well being part of an amazing city and meeting great people from all over the world, being a London cabbie has led to me appearing on radio (in Australia and on our own BBC), writing magazine articles and even appearing in a documentary on Japanese television… and of course I get to do lovely interviews like this!
Being self-employed and with the spare time I have waiting on ranks, I can also pursue my other passion which is writing. My main area of interest is of course London history and trivia, but I am also currently working on a children’s novel.
Thanks for reading!
A big thank you to the talented Robert Lordan, London cab driver and View From the Mirror blogger; for his willingness to participate in this interview. We greatly appreciate your time, effort and support. Be sure to check out Robert’s blog for more information and stories about his experiences as a London cabbie.