The knowledge: insights from four London cabbies

Posted at 1:30 pm, December 9, 2013 in Secret London, Transport

They might have internal satnavs, but what do London’s cabbies really know about the city? From good fish suppers to bad loo breaks and worse passengers, four of London’s finest share what they’ve learned on the job. Interviews by Eddy Frankel.

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Terry, 49. Cabbie for 22 years. Lives in Hillingdon.

‘Cabbies need two things. The first is a safe place to park. If you’ve got your money bag on you, you’re a target. If you leave it behind, your cab’s a target.’

‘The second thing is toilet breaks. And it’s not easy. Pubs, restaurants, hotels – none of them want you in there. I challenge you to go in the main door of a hotel and get to the toilet! You’ve no chance. There’s the “iron lung” on Horseferry Road – that’s what we call the toilet there – but it’s full of winos. You’ll find a turd on the floor.’

‘I’ll tell you some good places to go round there. Astral Gate is run by a Maltese guy called Tony. It’s a piccolo café with good pasta. Then there’s the Regency Café which is like stepping back in time. It’s got atmosphere, you know?’

‘Café Maya, opposite Mount Pleasant post office, is a good caff. Bacon sarnie and a mug of tea for £3. The Wonder Café out in Hillingdon as well. Though you come out smelling like a chef’s jockstrap.’

‘I don’t mind a chat while I’m working. In the past you used to be able to have a conversation, but these days 85 percent of customers use their ride in the cab to get on the phone or use their laptop. It’s dead time to them.’

‘I do taxi tours too, showing people London’s secret gems. Like Berry Bros & Rudd. It’s a wine shop on St James’s Street which has two acres of storage underground – it’s incredible.’

‘The drivers themselves have histories. You get people who used to work on the docks or on Fleet Street. So much of London’s past is hidden.’

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Andrew, 43. Cabbie for 11 years. Lives in Stoke Newington.

‘Every day I see London’s history and I love it. It’s a 100-mile-an-hour city, and people just don’t take the time to stop and look. There are places like Clissold Park – the church there was designed by George Gilbert Scott. He also did the Albert Memorial, as well as the Midland Grand Hotel [now the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel] which is one of my favourites in London.’

‘Americans still love Diana. That’s why I take them to Kensington Palace. Then it’s on to Hyde Park to tell them about the Great Exhibition of 1851.’

Charles and Di

‘Stoke Newington is blessed with Turkish restaurants. It’s where I live, and there’s one every 100 metres on the High Road. Cema, on Church Street, is fantastic. For Sunday roast, head to the Rose & Crown on Albion Road[pictured]. There’s no music, no pool tables – just a good meal for a good price, because the last thing you want to do on Sunday after working late on a Saturday is cook.’

‘St Katharine Docks out east are beautiful. It’s where they stored all the ivory that came into London. Three million elephants died for that apparently – it’s quite sad. The place gives you an idea of how London looked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wapping, next door, is great for that too, with its cobbled roads. Plus, it’s the site of London’s first police force, the Marine Police Force [or Thames River Police].’

‘You seen that Banksy piece? The one that says “I love London”? Well, that’s how I feel.’

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Alan, 59. Cabbie for 38 years. Lives in Surrey

‘I first drove a cab when I was 21. My dad was a cab driver before me. London has changed so dramatically over that time. You only do The Knowledge once, but things are forever changing.’

‘Masters Super Fish in Waterloo is a cabbie place. It can be really noisy, and the talk is all work-related. I just want half an hour away to recharge the batteries. So when it all gets a bit much, a bit hectic, I go to the Embassy on St Anne’s Road in Notting Hill. It’s family-run, a proper caff with great chicken curries.’

‘Rules restaurant in Maiden Lane is a real English dining experience. It dates back to the mid-1800s. If you’re looking for proper pubs in London, there’s The Anchor on Bankside – very quaint, very olde England –and The George on Borough High Street. They’re old-fashioned alehouses.’

‘Cab driving has become more multicultural and open. It’s a great thing. Marie White sadly just passed away. She was the first lady London cab driver back in 1978.’

‘The greatest aspect of being a cabbie is the total freedom. Your home and family life come first. My wife and I go to the lovely Petersham Hotel [pictured] in Richmond sometimes. You can get an afternoon tea, and the views over the river are beautiful.’

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Lucy, 32. Cabbie for 2 years. Lives in Kent.

‘We’re a brotherhood, us lot. We look out for each other. You should hear some of the nicknames we’ve got. There’s Little Legs, Pat the Hat, Frankie Goes to Cricklewood… Me, I get called Lady Penelope, because I drive a pink cab.’

‘Here’s a recommendation for you: Claridge’s. Just make sure you get a corner seat. In the Reading Rooms, not Gordon Ramsay’s – it’s too stuffy. Don’t look at me like that; cabbies go to Claridge’s! I like to be taken there on dates. After all, I’m trying to meet the cabbie of my dreams.’

‘The best Italian is Il Bordello on Wapping High Street. Then there’s Gym’s Kitchen out in Leyton – they do the best lamb chops in London bar none.’

‘The bagel shops on Brick Lane are very tight with the ketchup. I have to bring my own. If you’re after good fish and chips, there’s the Hi-Tide on Barkingside High Street or The Britannia on Grove Road in Mile End. They don’t do

kebabs or anything like that. That’s the sign of a good chippy.’

‘The thing about cabbies is they spend so much time in their cabs. Loads of us have kettles in the front. My mate’s got a telly and a fridge. For £50 a night, you can rent it out! He’s got a blow-up bed and all.’

‘McDonald’s has got it sewn up. Cabbies don’t like to park up, which is why we use drive-throughs all the time. The one at Billingsgate Market is the best one, trust me.’

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‘There are some customers you need to avoid. If they’re abusive or have sick or blood down their shirts, that’s too much. Sometimes, if it’s a flute [whistle and flute – suit], you gotta watch out. But normally they’re just looking for a strip club. I take them down White’s in Aldgate or Metropolis on Cambridge Heath Road.’

Want more hot gossip from the ranks? Check out our taxi tales.
Portraits Ed Marshall

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