Even in these days of satellite navigation, to obtain a license to drive one of London’s famous black taxis, you have to complete the world’s most demanding training course for taxi drivers, known simply as ‘the Knowledge.’ This in-depth study of London takes on average a grueling three years to complete, which is just about how long it took me.
‘The Knowledge’ was initiated way back in 1865, and in many ways has changed little since. Though an incredibly tough exam to get through (on average, only a quarter of total applicants do), it does ensure that London taxi drivers have an intimate and unparalleled knowledge of their city.
In all, some 25,000 streets in central London are covered and in addition to learning the street names, you have to learn thousands of ‘points’ such as public buildings, hotels, theatres, embassies, restaurants, historic buildings, hospitals, etc. And if that’s not enough of a challenge, you have to be able to recite from memory 320 routes or ‘runs’ made up of several or more roads. These are called the ‘Blue Book Runs’ and form the basis of most taxi journeys through London. After passing an initial written exam, you are then continually tested in one-to-one interviews called ‘appearances’ with very strict examiners. And boy, are they strict. You are only allowed to attend the appearances if you were wearing a suit and arrived well groomed!
When you have passed all your appearances, you are awarded the coveted green badge. Phew.
Would-be cabbies, known as Knowledge boys – or increasingly girls these days – usually follow the routes around London on a motor scooter and can often be identified by a clipboard fixed to the handlebars showing the roads and the ‘points’ to be learned that day. I always did my Knowledge very early in the morning, when the streets were still quiet, sometimes on a bike and sometimes in a car accompanied by my mother, who also loved learning about all of London nooks and crannies!
After years of study, you begin to think it’s never all going to sink in, but I had been told there was a Eureka moment when it all comes together and finally it happened to me. I had the ‘Knowledge’.
There is evidence that the Knowledge can increase the brain’s hippocampus, which is the area of the brain used for spatial memory and navigation. They say it’s larger in London taxi drivers than in the general population.
I don’t know about that, but I’ve lived in London all my life and like many locals, had never taken the time to really get to know the city. It was while I was doing the knowledge that I really fell in love with London. After I earned the right to become a London ‘cabbie’, I went on to study for a taxi tour guide’s certificate, and now like nothing better than showing visitors around this wonderful city.