(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).
Some people think I must be a Knowledge genius because I used to be an examiner. I assure you that my knowledge of London is nothing special. As new roads are opened and (mostly) closed every week it’s a devil of a job to keep up with developments. I often use Knowledge website forums to keep on top of things. However much cab drivers think they keep up to date, Knowledge students are well ahead. While we were learning the new two-way system in Marylebone at our own pace, Knowledge students had already posted detailed maps of the affected area on forums and were discussing the matter furiously – and before their examiners caught up.
I never got to grips with some areas of London. I studied all the crescents of Notting Hill over thirty years ago, but still can’t remember them all. I also had problems with all those dead ends and roads running at funny angles in Pimlico. I’m sure I learnt them properly at the time, but the geography never stuck.
I know enough to get me out of trouble in these inner-London districts, but the outlying areas can still cause anxiety. For instance I dread getting a job to South-East London or the Far East. Anywhere past Canary Wharf sends the anxiety levels rocketing. Some time ago I took some people out to that scary industrial no-man’s land on the south side of the Blackwall Tunnel. I don’t know whether Tunnel Avenue is classed as East Greenwich, North Greenwich or Blackwall, but it’s not somewhere I learned on the Knowledge and it’s not somewhere I’d been to before. Anything involving the Blackwall Tunnel is fraught with anxiety. I once got into all kinds of bother when I missed the turn off to a hospital in Woolwich. Is the drop-off for the O2 Arena really at the bus stand?
East London is a mystery because I never go there: I’ve no idea if you can still use Abbotts Road, or if you can still drive the Devons Road route through Bow. Roads such as Devas Street and Twelvetrees Crescent remain in my consciousness from the Knowledge thirty years ago, but I don’t know if they still exist, or have any strategic use (and where’s Stepney Green gone? The last time I tried to get into it, I couldn’t find it.
You’d think I’d be comfortable with Stratford as the mighty West Ham play there. The truth is I rarely go to football now, and I can quite easily get lost walking from the Olympic Stadium to Stratford Station (I haven’t even attempted Hackney Wick Station). In the cab, I’ve found my way to Westfield and back a few times, but I recently had an anxious drive out to Stratford with some account customers. They were going to a meeting at a place called East Bay. If that means nothing to you, you’re in good company. I always thought it was a bit fanciful calling the area “Stratford City” but It’s another world up there, with smooth roads, bus routes, everything. I’m still not sure how I found my way to the M1 afterwards to go home. I don’t think I could replicate the route again.
Like a proper cab driver I spend my working day listening to talk radio. Some weeks ago, Robert Elms started a discussion about Lower Robert Street on his Notes & Queries phone-in. Robert jokingly said that cabbies used this road to show off. Not so: it’s actually a useful connect between the Strand area to the Embankment. I wasn’t aware of it on the Knowledge in the 80s, possibly because there were no website forums. I learnt it as an examiner about seven years ago. I read about it on a Knowledge web forum (only the vain examiners read Knowledge forums; usually to read what the students are saying about us). I drove down the road in order to see that it actually existed, then a little later on an account customer heading for the City from John Adam Street asked me to use it.
Cab drivers phoned Robert Elms to inform him that Lower Robert Street is known as The Batcave. The Batcave is the only remaining street of its type in the area. In 1772 a complex of twenty-four grand houses was built. Named the Adelphi, the development was built on a slope down to the Thames. Under the houses were vaulted arches and underground streets, of which one was named Lower Robert Street – Charles Dickens even mentions the area in David Copperfield in 1850. As you can imagine, the subterranean arches became a den of crime and debauchery. There’s said to be a ghost; that of Poor Jenny, a murdered prostitute who lived and worked in The Batcave. The Batcave is now wisely closed between midnight and 7am. It’s a creepy place: more a narrow tunnel than a conventional street. One cab driver phoned in to say that when he drove through there his passengers started screaming because they thought they were being kidnapped!
Anyway, the Knowledge Boys on the forums know all about The Batcave. A great source of further information is Taxi contributor, Robert Lordan, whose View from the Mirror website will tell you everything you want to know, complete with lots of brilliant photos. For the ultimate experience though, try driving it yourself! The Knowledge Boys tell me it still exists.