Taxi Noir: The Knowledge
Last time I promised to say more about the training that prospective London taxi drivers have to go through: the Knowledge of London. Right, fasten yourself in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. First off, it’s useful to point out that around seven out of ten applicants never complete the required course of exams. That figure is roughly the same as when I started it in 1985. The whole thing takes about three years if you see it through, and as anyone in the trade knows, “you can’t fail the Knowledge, you can only give it up.”
The process hasn’t changed much over the years. You have a medical, agree to a criminal record check (both of which you have to pay for); then pay a bit more to start the Knowledge. You are issued with a booklet of specified routes called the “Blue Book”. No-one knows why it’s called the blue book, as I don’t think it was ever coloured blue. In my day it was pink. Nowadays it’s in a more modern Transport for London (TfL) multi-coloured style.
There are 320 routes listed in the booklet, and you have to learn them all inside out (there were 468 in my day, but they were modernised some years ago when TfL took over taxi licensing from the Metropolitan Police). Routes are known as “Runs”. All the Runs are within six miles of Charing Cross – which for our purposes is the centre of London. The countryside doesn’t start for about twenty miles, and the six-mile limit takes in gritty inner-London districts such as East Acton, Harlesden, South Tottenham, Stratford, Lewisham and Tooting: areas full of busy junctions, and complex one-way systems that need to be internalised.
Run number 1 is Manor House Station to Gibson Square. This is a simple run from Haringey in North London to one of the smartest squares in one of North London’s smartest districts, Islington.
Where it all starts: Manor House Station
You don’t just need to know all the roads on the route, but all the roads within a quarter of a mile around the starting and finishing points. You also need to learn every important building. These are known as “Points of Interest”. There aren’t many interesting Points up at the busy windswept road junction around Manor House Station, but the area around Gibson Square is full of pubs, restaurants, and a few theatres and churches. Everywhere a cab passenger might ask you for needs to be learnt. You need to learn them all at the outset because you’re unlikely to be asked the Run as written when you come to be examined. You’ll usually be asked the Run starting and finishing in a nearby street, or at a Point of Interest. The examiners would never ask you something simple like Piccadilly Circus, but rather a nearby statue of a bloke on a horse that you’d driven past every day but had never noticed. In practice, the 320 Runs often bear little resemblance to the ones you’ve committed to memory, so you pretty much have to learn everything within six miles of Charing Cross.
You have to learn all the Runs backwards too, as the examiners sometimes reverse them to catch you out with one-way systems. They don’t tell you how to drive a particular Run, you have to work that out for yourself. These days you can find this out on the web.
Many “Knowledge Boys/Girls” subscribe to a Knowledge school. They attend classes, or just sit and draw lengths of string across a huge map and test each other; not just on the Blue Book of prescribed Runs, but Runs that have recently been asked by examiners. Everything is logged, then endlessly “Called Over”. Many people prefer to call over Runs with a partner, so joining a Knowledge school is useful. Representatives from the Knowledge schools gather around the door at TfLs Taxi and Private Hire department at 230 Blackfriars Road and ask exiting candidates what Runs they were asked, and whether they “Dropped” any Points. That information is on websites in minutes and everything is dissected with forensic detail in school and on Knowledge website forums.
You are known as a Knowledge Boy or Girl whatever your age. You’ll see a fair few women cab drivers in London. Women were disgracefully held back in the distant past, but they were taken seriously by the time I started the Knowledge in 1985. Most people learn the Knowledge by riding around London on a moped. A few people do it in a car, though a car isn’t manoeuvrable enough to study one way systems or search out important buildings. A car is more expensive to run too (when I started the Knowledge I didn’t have a car licence). The occasional Knowledge Boy does it on a cycle as in Victorian times.
After learning the Runs, you can apply for the “Map Test”. This is a written exam taken at 230 Blackfriars Road, just over the river from the City – London’s financial district. You have to identify Points of Interest on a map. It’s not an easy exam and some people fail at this first hurdle (you can keep sitting the test until you pass). If you succeed you continue practising your Runs and Points until you’ve confident enough to be grilled one to one by an examiner.
Next time I tell you what happens when you start to be examined on what you’ve learned…