Becoming a London taxi driver requires a clean bill of health, a driving licence and no criminal record. They're the easy bits. The really tricky part, the highest hurdle for any taxi certification anywhere in the world, is The Knowledge. A London black cab driver is expected to know every street within six miles of Charing Cross and every point of interest too, and to be able to recite the quickest route from any one to any other. 320 different routes are specified in the Blue Book, each of which has to be committed to memory, in both directions, and any of which could appear in the test you need to pass at the end. It's a ridiculously complicated requirement, but it produces the best informed cabbies on the planet.
Stage 1: Receive a copy of the Blue Book, then head out onto the streets, carefully tracing each of the 320 routes and exploring the area within a 1/4 mile radius around each start and end point. Stage 1a: An unmarked self-assessment, after you've done the first 80 routes, to check how you're getting on. Stage 2: A written examination in two parts, checking whether you've learned all the routes and know all the points of interest. Stage 3: A series of one-to-one interviews, known as Appearances, in which the examiner picks four routes and asks you to give details of the quickest journeys between two points of interest. Stage 4: Another set of Appearances, this time linking more than one route together. Stage 5: Another set of Appearances, this time potentially linking anywhere to anywhere. Stage 6: A final Appearance, spreading the net wider to 25 suburban routes covering the whole of Outer London.
If you pass all that, you get to be a cabbie. But when Stage 1 takes most successful applicants somewhere between two and five years to learn, including thousands of miles chugging around the capital on a moped checking everything out, it's not a job everyone could do. In fact I'd argue most people would struggle to deal with just the first route, let alone the other 319. So let's see.
TfL have made the Blue Book available via an FoI request, making it possible for anyone to scrutinise the requirements for themselves. All the runs are set out in Annex B, separated into 20 lists of 16. They're sequential, so route 2 begins somewhere near the end of route 1, and so on, making the chain slightly easier to follow. And route 1 begins in Hackney and heads south to Islington. Let's hop on a virtual moped and check it out. [map]
THE KNOWLEDGE - List 1 Route 1 Manor House Station, N4 to Gibson Square, N1
The lists in the Blue Book may have changed over the years, but the first route has always been Manor House to Gibson Square. No specific route is given, only the endpoints, so your first job is to determine the fastest route. It pays to get it right, else you're about to commit a substandard chain to memory, and that would be a ghastly waste of time. Thankfully it's OK to talk to other candidates while you learn, indeed it's recommended, and a whole industry has built up around committing the Knowledge to heart. This link, for example, is to one company's sample checklist for the first six routes, concentrating on exploring the areas around the start and endpoints.
MANOR HOUSE STATION
The powers that be have been slightly kind to you on the first run, because a goodly proportion of the area around Manor House station is parkland, specifically Finsbury Park. But you'll still be expected to trawl the surrounding streets to track down potential destinations like the Transport and General Workers' Union Central Office and the Costello Palace Hotel, and this is where an awful lot of the legwork goes in. Minor outlets like the Diamond Kebab shop are not required.
Leave on the left:GREEN LANES
Manor House station has many exits, but there is a specific point of departure, namely the taxi rank on Woodberry Down. I went looking for it on Woodberry Grove instead, which is an easy mistake to make, but not exactly encouraging at the start of the process. 'Leaving on the left' takes you to Green Lanes, North London's cosmopolitan highway, here in one of its less commercial stretches. The John Scott Health Centre is one of those locations you should be jotting down, but not the Castle Climbing Centre, because that's outside the initial quarter mile radius.
I thought I knew London well but Brownswood Road is new on me, a broad residential thoroughfare with wiggles cutting west towards Arsenal country. Potential cabbies ought to be particularly interested in the sealed-off streets, noting that Digby Crescent, Wilberforce Road and Finsbury Park Road are gated at the southern end, which is something you could easily get caught out on when listing at interview.
Crossing here into Islington, what follows is a rather pleasant shopping street, a mix of independent stores and cafes, but without the overbearing snootiness that gentrification often brings. The atmosphere changes somewhat if the Gunners are playing at home, with a number of popular hostelries spread out along the road's length (so perhaps aim your cab elsewhere at these times).
Forward:HIGHBURY PARK Forward:HIGHBURY GROVE
Here's where the Knowledge gets tough. Nobody walking or driving down this road would have noticed its name has changed, but you have to be aware that this has happened, and know where. What's more it happens again further to the south, switching imperceptibly from Highbury Park to Highbury Grove. The area around Highbury Barn is top of the shop, aspirationally. And look at all those sideroads leading off, you're going to need to explore all of those too, but not before List 17 Route 7.
Right:ST. PAUL’S ROAD
After Highbury's elevated charm, the northern edge of Canonbury is a little more commercial. The pubs are probably worth a mention in your jottings... turn right at The Alwyne Castle, then on to the Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar.
In good news, you don't have to commit to memory the correct path around every roundabout you encounter. This isn't a driving test, it's a memory test, so knowing the best route is more important than knowing the right manoeuvres. Those studying the Knowledge use the word 'Comply' in this situation, before heading out the other side.
Leave byUPPER STREET
'Leave by' is also a lot easier than having to remember to 'take the second exit'. Here the route has reached somewhere more familiar, namely Upper Street, but at the Highbury & Islington end rather than near Angel. Here I spotted my seventh taxi of the journey. There's a lot of them around when you start to look, around 21000 in total operating in London at the last count.
Right:ISLINGTON PARK STREET
Enough of the mainstream, it's time to head into the backstreets. Taxi drivers need to know all the sideroads and cut-throughs, and also the prohibited turns that discredit the perfect line drawn on a map.
Well this is nice. We're now amidst the fine terraces on the edge of Barnsbury, in homes that could be split up into flats but appear to be still mostly family homes. Precisely the kind of homes that'd flag down a taxi too, so the Knowledge people know what they're doing directing you down here.
It doesn't matter that you'll only be in Barnsbury Street for thirty metres, you still need to commit its name to memory.
Oh very nice. A Belgravia-like square, elongated into a long thin rectangle, with a well-maintained public garden at its heart. Again it doesn't take long to drive through, but oh to have the means to live here.
Another almost-pointless namecheck, Milner Place is home to a mere ten families before the road changes name again. But any of these families might one day hire a taxi, and the London cabbie prides themselves on knowing everywhere.
GIBSON SQUARE - Facing
And finally, here we are in Gibson Square. This is another characterfully desirable address, another loop of Georgian terraces surrounding another landscaped garden. This one has a Victoria line airshaft at the centre, suitably camouflaged, and a short cross-Islington rat-run at the bottom with many a taxi driver passing through. I wonder if the drivers remember this as the end of their very first memorised route every time they drive by.
That's not the end of it, of course, because now it's time to explore the area within a quarter mile of Gibson Square. There's quite a lot here, what with Upper Street close by, including the Almeida Theatre, the Islington Tap and the Screen on the Green. Any of these could be the point of interest your examiner throws at you in lieu of Gibson Square, hence it's crucial to nose around and check the area out. Then there's committing all this to memory, of course. I wonder how good you'd be at remembering the correct list of street names and instructions I've listed above? You'd also need to know them backwards, which I think on this first route is a simple reversal, but one-way streets elsewhere often mean learning something completely new.
I'm never going to be a cabbie, it's all too much for me, but I have to say I enjoyed following the route. Walking the whole thing took about an hour, and led me through some interesting and sometimes unfamiliar streets. I'd almost be tempted to walk the other 319 some day, just to get to know London better, if only that wasn't some pointless Herculanean task. But much respect to those who learn them all to make a living, so that when you flag one down they can still weave you through the streets of London via the most efficient route. Your average Uber driver brings none of this skill to their job, just a willingness to drive and a satnav as a prop. You might get a cheaper price using an app instead of a black cab, but The Knowledge is surely priceless.