I’ve mentioned it before – one of my favorite things about traveling is the people I get to meet. I’ve had the privilege to encounter some fascinating people over the years, but some of my all-time favorites have been London’s renowned cabbies.
Back in November, I took a trip to London with one of my best friends. I was excited to be back in a city I love so much, and we had an incredible time. (I will definitely be recapping some of the highlights in a few upcoming blog posts, so stay tuned!) But easily one of the best parts of our trip was our cabbies.
While we were in the city, we mostly got around by foot or by Tube. But on Black Friday (it turns out that’s also a thing in the UK), we wound up temporarily stuck at the King’s Cross Tube station. For the record, I was 100% fine with this, as it is home to Platform 9 3/4.
There was a suspected terror incident/shooting happening a few stops away at Oxford Circus. Thankfully, it turned out to be a false alarm and no one sustained any significant injuries, despite the chaotic stampede of people fleeing the area. For about an hour, those near Oxford Circus were sheltering in place, there were a lot of rumors swirling, and our friends back home were frantically trying to reach us. The panic seemed to be pretty well contained; if we hadn’t had our cell phones on us, we never would have known anything was happening; we were perfectly safe at King’s Cross and everyone around us was calmly going about their business.
Nonetheless, we decided it would be simplest to head back to our hotel, assure everyone at home that we were fine, and then figure out where to have dinner. So, we hailed a cab.
Our cab driver was lovely (every cabbie we had was lovely!) and despite the sudden influx of cabs on the roads, he made every effort to get us back to Kensington in a timely fashion, apologizing all the while for the traffic, as though it could be helped. Since we had some extra time in the cab with him, we decided to take advantage of it. He asked if we were “on holiday” and wanted us to clarify the purpose of Thanksgiving; we discussed university vs. college vs. trade school (which we all agreed was a vastly undervalued option, thanks Mike Rowe!); and we learned all about his family. It was a great conversation.
The best part, though, was when he told us about “The Knowledge” – the infamous test that London cabbies have to pass before becoming an official driver. It’s so incredibly difficult that over 70% of participants never get to the final exam, and it takes the average person 5 years of full-time study to complete.
London cabbies are genuinely the best cabbies in the world, and they have to be able to recite from memory the quickest way to get a person from point A to point B, without missing a street name or turn. This means that they commit to memory all of London’s 25,000 streets, landmarks, and ever-changing hotels, restaurants, and stores.
Our cabbie recommended to us a TV segment called The Knowledge: The World’s Toughest Taxi Test. I watched it on the plane ride back and would seriously encourage you to track it down and watch it yourself. It’s about 45 minutes and is the perfect combination of fascinating, humbling, and inspiring.
I was blown away by the cabbies’ backgrounds and stories; their complete and utter determination to see their hard work in studying for The Knowledge pay off; but most of all, their deep conviction that hard work is good for the soul. Blimey, does the world need more people like that!!!
If I ever ran a company, I’d start by hiring London cabbies.
Both with our King’s Cross cabbie, and with the other cabbies we met on our trip, two topics kept cropping up in our conversations.
The first was just how much technology is changing the world. Companies like Uber are hiring drivers at rates that vastly outpace the cabbies, and technology in general is drastically altering the way we interact, from pressing a button to order a coffee instead of getting to know our local barista, to doctors video-conferencing diagnoses in third-world areas that otherwise may never receive medical attention. The point being: technology is powerful; use it wisely, and don’t let it use you.
The second, and perhaps more important point (something also underscored in The Knowledge TV segment), is that London cabbies are more than just drivers, and being a cabbie is more than just a job. There is a huge amount of pride (as there should be!) in completing The Knowledge and driving as an official cabbie. There is a camaraderie amongst colleagues – evidenced by the group of cabbies stuck in the bumper-to-bumper Oxford Circus incident traffic, who rolled down their windows and passed news back-and-forth the old-fashioned way.
They are part of one of the world’s most elite professions. They have an intense love for their remarkable city. They turned out to be excellent unintentional tour guides, easily the best story-tellers we encountered, and a wonderful window into a career built on sheer determination, perseverance, and grit – traits that I sometimes worry are much more in jeopardy than London’s taxi trade.
All of this is to say: please, please, please, support a cabbie if you ever go to London! Watch the TV segment the next time you need some motivation. Be willing to start a conversation with a stranger in a strange place; you never know what you can learn, or who might teach it to you.
And look out for the day that London’s cabbies decide to retire . . . they could run the world, and they’d take the quickest route to do it.
*Main image via Pixabay