I just arrived back from a trip to the land of my birth where I visited family and friends. I spent a few days traveling around central London playing at being a “lady who lunches,” meeting old friends at various delightful locations.
London is indeed a great city. It is vibrant and full of wonderful restaurants, shopping and architecture and is steeped in history. So what’s wrong with it? The main thing is simply trying to move around with the other 8 million people who live in greater London — plus the other million or so who commute in every day, plus the tourists.
The most popular method of getting around is the London Underground, nicknamed “the Tube.” It is generally the fastest way to travel within the city but is at times a distinctly unpleasant experience.
During rush hour, one is often standing with no seats available, crammed up against fellow travelers (some of whom are less than fragrant), enduring delays on crowded platforms and on non-air-conditioned train carriages in tunnels with no view.
Thankfully these days, the frequent bomb scares that we had from the Irish Republican Army in the 1980s and ‘90s are no longer a regular feature, although sadly terrorism is still with us. Do I sound a bit negative about the Tube? Yes — it comes from years of the daily grind of riding it to work into central London.
So my modus operandi now is to take an over ground train from the country into London, and then treat myself to a taxi — and by that I mean one of the iconic black cabs of London (which are as famous as their yellow New York counterparts).
Introduced in 1947, the London black cab is one of England’s internationally renowned icons. According to www.londonblackcabs.net, all black cabs were initially designed to be tall enough to accommodate anybody wearing a bowler hat, which was essential outdoor dress for men when the familiar style of today’s black cabs were introduced soon after the end of the second World War.
The first cab in London was the hackney coach in the 17th century. The name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse. It literally means “ambling nag.” In 1625, there were as few as 20 available for hire, operating out of individual inns.
In 1636, the owner of four hackney coaches lined them up on the Strand (a major street in London) outside the Maypole Inn, and the first cab rank was born. A standard tariff was established for various parts of London, and his drivers wore a uniform, so they would be easily recognizable. Today, “Hackney carriage” is still the official term used to describe London’s black cabs.
After the English Civil War, in 1654 Oliver Cromwell set up the Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages by Act of Parliament, and cab driving became a profession. This makes the London licensed cab trade the oldest regulated public transport system in the world.
All black cab drivers in London must pass “The Knowledge,” a rigorous test that involves memorizing 320 routes, 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks within a six-mile radius around Charing Cross in Westminster (always considered the central point for measuring distances from London).
The traditional London “cabbie” is notoriously friendly, extroverted, opinionated, chatty and usually asks “Where to, love?” (if you are female) or “Where to, mate?” (if you are male). Taxis can be found at ranks usually outside stations and hotels or by hailing one with an outstretched hand if their yellow light on the roof of the cab is illuminated.
One of the best things about traveling by taxi as opposed to the Tube is being able to see the sights and sounds and all that makes London great. When I was in London last week and traveling to lunch at the Goring Hotel (made famous by the Middleton family taking it over on the eve of Princess Catherine’s wedding to Prince William), I looked out from the back of the taxi in which I was traveling and was lucky enough to glimpse Queen Elizabeth II heading for an official function in the back of one of the royal cars with police out riders.
She was leaving her official London residence, Buckingham Palace, which is a building of rare beauty. Originally built in 1705 as a townhouse for the Duke of Buckingham (hence the name), the palace has since been extended (according to www.royal.gov.uk) to include 775 rooms, 1,514 doors, 760 windows and 40,000 light bulbs. The building is more than 800,000 square feet and has its own post code.
You can always tell when the Queen is home as the official flag, known as the Royal Standard, flies at full mast on top of the palace when she is in residence. Try seeing any of that when you are four floors underground, stuck in a hot train car!
Author Anna Quindlen says that “London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present.” I agree, and believe that the back of an iconic black London cab is a great way to see it.
God Bless America!
Lesley grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.