Have you ever been driven through London in the back of a black cab? If you’re attending the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show with us next year, it’s an opportunity to flag one of these four-wheeled legends down and let it take you for a spin…
But hold on - “legends? Seriously? Isn’t that the kind of thing a local tourist board might say, but a local would roll their eyes at? After all, there are tens of millions of taxis around the world. What’s really so different about these, apart from some overwrought-sounding marketing hype?
The answer is: well, nothing really. Mechanically speaking, London’s 21,000-ish black cabs (more formally hackney cabs) aren’t much different to the other 27,000 taxis operating on London’s streets, or indeed those you’d find anywhere else in the world.
But that’s looking in the wrong place for what makes them special…
No - what makes them truly incredible.
33-year old Everton Thomas, a bus driver from Woolwich in southeast London, is sitting in a cramped, ugly office decorated with maps of the city.
There are maps on the walls, maps on shelves, and a big paper map spread out on the angled desk opposite him. This map is pointing away from him so he can’t see it, even if he tried. It’s for the benefit of the person at the other side of the room, who also has a map open on their iPad.
But if Everton sneaks a look at any of the other maps, he goes back to being a bus driver - a job he’s desperate to leave. He’s hoping a better life awaits him and his family if he can keep his eyes fixed straight ahead, and not let his nervousness cloud his brain. He really, really needs to think clearly right now.
In a sense, this is a job interview - but it’s also one of the hardest memory tests in the world.
The examiner says: “Everton, where’s the London Edition Hotel?”
This question, and the following ones like it, requires him to remember specific locations from London’s roughly 100,000 landmarks. He has to know where these places are - and he has to know how to get there from anywhere else.
“OK - how about Battersea Reach?”
“Uh…that’s on…Juniper Drive?”
“Correct. Now tell me the quickest way from London Edition to Battersea Reach.”
Now Everton has to instantly assemble and recite this route from memory, taking into account everything that might divert the flow of traffic along the way. A 5.9 mile section of the roughly 25,000 streets that run across London, rattled off the top of his head without hesitation.
(It probably doesn’t help that the broadcaster Channel 4 are there as well, filming a documentary about him - which is how I know that all this happened.)
This kind of urban problem solving is generally what the famous London black cab drivers do in their heads, in the time between you telling them where you want to go and then walking round the back of the cab, clambering in and settling into your seat. This is what they have to do, in that amount of time. That’s the requirement to get the certification that lets them use one of these iconic London taxis - and it’s been the requirement since 1865, over a century and a half of street-building ago.
This test was tough to start with, but what it’s evolved into is an astounding feat of memory and spatial judgment under pressure.
The exam is called The Knowledge - and these days, Everton teaches it, in the school he set up a year after he successfully passed the Knowledge himself in 2017. Most students take four or five years of study to get good enough to pass The Knowledge - or they drop out, or get disqualified (there’s a 70% fail rate). But the ones that pass go on to drive those special cabs and earn anything from £15,000 to £30,000 more per year than any of London’s bus drivers. It’s a powerful incentive.
But - how? How can you learn the names and locations of tens of thousands of landmarks and the 25,000 major & minor roads across London? How can you even do that?
Here’s an excerpt taken from a document that students of the Knowledge are given in their first year of study. It’s called the Blue Book, and it covers 320 routes across London, a kind of skeleton that everything else hangs on, or maybe a spatial vocabulary that students can use to make up all the other routes they’ll eventually have to learn:
“Each of the 320 runs has a start and finish point.
Firstly, using maps, work out the most direct route between the start and finish points.
When you get to a start point you must first learn the area within a 1/4 mile (400m) radius of that point and make a note of the places of interest/important features you see.
You need to learn the roads that join the places you find to the route. Take time and trouble to do this, it is important.
When travelling along the route take note of any important features you see (Features are not only points of interest, but also include one-way streets, prohibited turns, etc).
At the end of the run you must investigate the area within a ¼ mile (400m) radius of the finish point for places of interest and important features.
Learning the area around the start and finish points of all 320 runs will ensure that you comprehensively cover the area within the six-mile radius of Charing Cross and build up a good working knowledge.
Remember that because of one-way streets, no right turns, etc., the forward and reverse routes may be different. You will need to know both directions.
You will not acquire sufficient knowledge simply by studying a map; you will only gain the necessary knowledge by travelling the routes.
Remember that London is an ever-changing city and ‘Knowledge of London’ candidates must continually maintain and update their knowledge.
While you are learning the runs you will need to regularly test yourself by calling over with your partner and practice answering questions in the manner required for one-to-one interviews with a Knowledge of London Examiner.”
OK, well, there’s a frustrating number of times they use the word “learn” there. How do you learn? I guess they’ve left it vague because everyone learns a little differently - but generally, we use the technique we learned at school: rote learning. We force ourselves through the same material again and again - or rather, we’re forced to force ourselves through it - and eventually it’s just burned into our mind whether we like it or not, like a square peg hammered splinteringly into a round hole.
Unfortunately, rote learning is deeply flawed. It’s part of a body of early scholarly thought that viewed the human brain as a fairly simply constructed ultra-rational computer. I mean, all our actual computers use rote learning, and the reason is that they have the ability to do the same things billions or trillions of times without getting bored.
But we get bored. Even when we’re trying to focus, as at school, if something is presented to us in a dull way, it just won’t stick. As any good student knows - and any experienced world traveller, used to exploring the streets of a city long enough to get a spatial “feel” for where everything is - it’s not just about showing up in a place again and again. It’s also about finding those different details and experiences that combine to reinforce your sense of the place.
This is also what Everton Thomas did - and everyone else who has passed The Knowledge. It’s all about the relationship of specific roads to the things in, on and around them that makes them stick in the cab driver’s memory. Memorising the landmarks makes it easier to remember the roads, and vice versa.
(Advanced students of The Knowledge are even encouraged to read into the history of the regions of London they’re trying to memorise - and they’re told, quite emphatically, that they need to personally experience the route from as many angles as possible, building up a three-dimensional image in their minds that they can mentally traverse when working out a route.)
In a sense, black cab drivers are being taught how to explore - that curiosity-powered, wonder-filled skill that will gradually reveal a place to you and sink it deep into your memory for good.
If that sounds a bit too theoretical, here’s a neat trick to kickstart the whole process. It’s adapted from the work of Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno, who is most famous for the work he did on improving Toyota’s production line system in the middle of the 20th Century.
Simply put, you ask yourself “why is this place interesting?” five times in a row - and each time you have to try to come up with a better answer than the last time.
This means you’ll have to look harder, and make more connections in your mind - and by the fifth answer, I reckon you’ll have a good feeling for your surroundings.
Give it a try!
Join Wheel & Anchor for a vibrant adventure that will take you to Paris in the Springtime to see her classic French Gardens, to Orléans and the Loire Valley along the Route des Iris for more stunning colours, and culminate in London for the Chelsea Flower Show, the world's top floral and gardening exhibition! All the details here.