This piece is in the 2013 Time Out London Visitor’s Guide.
Richard Cudlip isn’t one of a kind, he’s one of 22,000 kinds, and London couldn’t function without them. Cudlip is a black cab driver, a licensed taxi driver who spends his days inside one of the world’s most recognisable vehicles and carries in his head the navigational secrets of the city. ‘I put the light on as soon as I leave my road,’ he says. ‘This morning I picked up a job in Balham that took me to Charterhouse Street. That was a nice start to the day.’
By the time we meet for a mid-morning tea in Borough, Cudlip has been to King’s Cross, Soho, Pimlico and Vauxhall, criss-crossing the city in the service of London. ‘Unless you’ve heard through the grapevine about somewhere being busy, you always think about heading for the stations,’ he explains. ‘And now, with Twitter, you have a good idea of where the customers are.’
Twitter hadn’t been invented in 2003 when Cudlip began doing the Knowledge, the gruelling test that every cabbie has to pass before they can drive the black cab. ‘I was working for Ernst & Young and I hated it,’ he explains. ‘My wife suggested I do the Knowledge. I’d wanted to do it in my early 20s, but I wouldn’t have had had the discipline. It’s the last thing you want to do at that age, driving round London on a bike, revising.’
Doing the Knowledge means learning by heart 320 ‘runs’, or trips from one London destination to another, being able to name all the principle roads and landmarks on the way – which amounts to 250,000 streets and 20,000 places of interest. This can easily take four years and sometimes as many as six. ‘The first run is Manor House to Gibson Square, that’s the one you always remember,’ says Cudlip, whose wife is now doing the Knowledge herself.
‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘It was the right kind of challenge. I got to visit all these bits of London I’d never been to. Those 320 runs give you the framework. It covers every postcode in a six-mile radius and gives you a route, in broad terms, around London, from one side to another.’
Cudlip now takes to the streets five days a week. The sort of things that would annoy most people –sitting in London traffic for hours– do not bother him, which is probably why he became a cabbie in the first place. What he enjoys is the freedom and flexibility. If he works a couple of long days, he can take a day off. If things aren’t working out, or he hits his financial target earlier than expected, he can turn off the light and head home. The choice is his.
‘Different drivers work different ways,’ he explains. ‘Some don’t do stations, they’d rather drive around. Others stick to hotels. Some just do airports, which is a very different way of working. You can wait four hours in the feeder park (the holding area for cabs) without knowing what sort of job you will get. You have to pay £6 to work Heathrow, just to cover the cost of the feeder park.’
Cudlip’s perfect day is made up of ‘lots of short journeys. That’s the absolute ideal. If you get a fiver including tip for taking somebody round the corner, it’s perfect. When somebody gets in, I might not know the building they want, but I can work it out close enough so I can make an instant decision about how to get there without having to programme a satnav.’
And even with the Knowledge firmly imprinted in his brain he’s always learning. ‘I love going out every day and seeing a new bit of London,’ says Cudlip. ‘I spent most of my life in London and thought I knew it, but now I know I had no idea.’
All that study and still half of them drive you into the middle of nowhere and say “err…which way would you usually go from here, mate?”
I’ve had the opposite. I used to get a cab back to Kennington from the Albert Hall quite frequently. I was taken by stupid routes so many times, I reached the point of telling the driver my preferred route right at the start. Some were fine about this (as one said, I lose money if my route’s less good than his, so he didn’t care), but others saw it as a gross slur on their professionalism and got in a strop. But it wouldn’t have happened in the first place if all cabies actually knew what they were doing…
There’s a story about my eccentric gggfr John Boustead employing a coachman who had previously driven a (hansom) cab. He must have been one of those who worked stations because he only know how to get from one place to another in London if he started from Victoria station. So all journeys had to be via this location. It was the sort of thing his employer must have tolerated with amusement.