Wednesday, 17 August 2011

London Through the Eyes of a Cab Driver

Samuel Johnson once said that “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” This quote resonates with many people who have had the fortune to visit or live in this magnificent city and it has come to mean a lot to me this year.  In 2011, I have discovered that there is no end to the wonder, history and excitement that London has to offer.

In my last post, I mentioned that Stephen and I went on a London sightseeing tour with London black taxi driver and tour guide Graham Greenglass.

Graham Greenglass London Cab Tours

Graham picked us up from Waterloo station and can in fact pick you up from any location in London.  He has been a taxi driver for about ten-and-a-half years and began giving tours about nine years ago. 

Did you know that in order to become a London taxicab driver, you have to pass a test known as The Knowledge?  This is an in-depth knowledge of the routes and attractions in London and takes about three years to learn.  Taxicabs drivers need to make snap decisions within a split second, without looking at a map, and they need to navigate anywhere within a six mile area of the centre of London. But, wait, we’re not quite there yet…

St James’s Square

St James Square

Once we’d finished learning 5 things we did not know about St James's London, we drove around St James’s with its private art galleries, exclusive gentlemen’s clubs and royally appointed merchants.  The building above is one of the few original late-Georgian buildings around St James’s Square and was the home of Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament in 1919.

The Centre of London

Statue of Charles I Trafalgar

We then exited St James’s via Pall Mall and were at the centre of London.  Prior to our tour, I had no idea where the centre of London was but apparently many people think it is Trafalgar Square or Nelson’s Column. The dead centre of London is in fact located at the statue of Charles I, pictured above.  Trafalgar Square is a couple of metres to the left of this photo.

Horse Guards Building

Horse Guards Clock Tower

If you round the statue of Charles I and turn left down Whitehall, you will arrive at the Horse Guards building which is guarded by the Household Cavalry and is one of the number one locations that tourists visit when they come to London.  For this exercise, you are going to have to click on the photo above and take a look at the clock.

I bet you don’t know what the black mark at the number II is for!  That commemorates the time at which Charles I was executed: 2pm on 30 January, 1649.  He had lost the English Civil War and was marched from St James’s Palace, through Horse Guards Parade and brought to the balcony of the Banqueting House where he was beheaded.

If you look at the photo below, you can see the Banqueting House which was built by Inigo Jones in 1622.  It is the last remaining vestige of the Palace of Whitehall which was otherwise completely destroyed by fire in 1698.

The balcony is just peeking out on the right hand side of the photo, but we weren’t able to go around the front and take a photo (because the taxi cab was parked in the middle of the street!)

Horse Guards and Inigo Jones Banqueting House Whitehall

The Palace of Westminster

Last Remaining Portion of Westminster Palace

The Palace of Whitehall wasn’t the only building in London that burnt down, and in fact, Graham began to play a game of “It Burnt Down!” with us.  He would ask us what we thought happened to a building, palace or street, and we would reply, “it burnt down”.

You’re probably familiar with the exquisite perpendicular gothic styling of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament which is also known as the Palace of Westminster.  But did you know that this is the new palace?  The original medieval palace complex burnt down in 1834 and the low-lying building in the photograph above is all that remains of the original Palace of Westminster.  This building is facing Parliament Square and Big Ben is to the left of the photo.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

On the day of our London Cab Tour, I learned three things about Westminster Abbey that I honestly did not know before.  The first is that Westminster Abbey, like so many buildings in England, was never finished.  Can you guess what is missing?  Well, there is no spire on Westminster Abbey, although there have been plans in the past to erect one.

The second bit of information that I learned is that some, but not all parts of the abbey are genuine Gothic.  In the photo above, the windows in the left background are Gothic but two western towers were only built between 1722 and 1745 and is therefore of the Gothic Revival style. 

I’m almost embarrassed to admit this last point.  Let’s just agree that I am possibly the world’s least observant person and this is why I try so hard to take note of the world around me and blog about it.  So although I did not know this, I am sure all of you did.  So, did you know that Westminster Abbey has a cruciform ground plan, meaning that it is built in the shape of a cross, and that it is east-facing?

The Crimean War Memorial

Crimeon War Memorial and The Sanctuary Westminster

You might wonder why I didn’t name this section after the gorgeous Bath stone faced building depicted above.  The reason for that is that although it is quite beautiful, it apparently isn’t anything special but is an office building.  The prestigious Westminster School lies behind it though and that is the Westminster School Crimean War Memorial on the left (not to be confused with the Crimean War Memorial at Waterloo Place).

After four years in London, it seems I am no closer to knowing but a fraction about this wonderful city.  I would certainly recommend contacting Graham from London Cab Tours and going on a tour with him.  As Stephen said after our excursion, “the amount of knowledge that Graham had, you could spend a week with him and you wouldn’t even touch the surface”.

I have two more surprises from the taxi cab tour, but those will have to wait for next time!

23 Comments:

Josep 17 August 2011 21:16  

A cab tour - that's a great idea. Cab drivers in touristic cities are not always nice guys who give you some information about the streets or the buildings you see. I'll add this tour to my long list of things to do while visiting London, which is something I want to do some day.

Self Sagacity 17 August 2011 22:31  

This is great. I always thought the cab drivers are so amazing. At times I don't even know the correct name, and have to describe. They can pick-it up just fine.

li 17 August 2011 23:08  

Fascinating, as usual! And having a "personal tour guide" is a great asset - you can get a lot of specific answers and info (not to mention the fun social aspect) that you don't get in large group tours.

Katherina 18 August 2011 00:26  

So ascinatin! Tis post really makes me look forwad to discovering London, I can't wait!

Ashwathy 18 August 2011 11:05  

OMG!! That's like a treasure-trove of info at one go!! Like, whoa!!

I sure wish I had taken the cab tour while I had been there in London!

rainfield61 18 August 2011 12:55  

It is so good to read about a peaceful London right now.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day 18 August 2011 21:40  

I've often thought it would be great to do The Knowledge, just for the sake of it. I didn't think it included quite so much information as you've give though. I thought it was more just how to get from A to B. I look forward to more of the tour - it sounds fascinating.

London Caller 19 August 2011 00:43  

I love exploring little lanes, abbey ways hidden behind the main streets in London. :)

Just got back from a wee break in France.

Kathy Amen 19 August 2011 03:39  

Love the stories and the pix!

Spiderdama 20 August 2011 19:32  

Oh, your pics and post is wonderful.. makes me wanna drive a taxi around there yeh. Definitely I will soon have to visit London.

Hope you have a great weekend!:-)

Sarah @ ExPat Bride 20 August 2011 20:57  

I heard that the cab drivers can be seen riding around the city on bikes with maps during their training. I LOVE those cabs, wish I could buy one!

Emm 21 August 2011 11:55  

@ Josep: I would certainly recommend this personalised tour, especially if there is a group of you. I think you will find that registered taxi drivers in London are quite honest - they have to be as their reputation depends on it.

@ Self Sagacity: Definitely! They'd have to be skilled to pick up the drunken ramblings of Londoners!

@ Li: Definitely. I felt able to ask anything and Graham even mentioned how nice it was to have passengers that know quite a bit about London already. It makes a difference from generic tours.

@ Katherina: Well, please feel free to contact me if you'd like a tour guide!

@ Ashwathy: Hee hee. I must admit that I enjoyed doing this post!

@ Rainfield: Yes, it is nice to be back to normal

@ Sheila: Oh definitely, Graham had to register to become a tour guide and he has a history degree too so the knowledge that he has fars exceeds "The Knowledge".

@ London Calling: Me too. In fact, I am itching for another secret London walk.

@ Kathy: Thank you! Is it making you London sick?

@ Spiderdama: Just remember to let me know when you do come -we can have coffee.

@ Sarah: Yes they can! We tried so hard to get a photo of one of them but did not manage to.

Kiki aka Victoria 21 August 2011 17:44  

Wow...what a super cool post!! FAB Emm...you always bring the unique edge to things..gorgeous photos...I always enjoy my tours thorugh you eyes!! Awesome!!

and PS; thankyou for sharing such a touching story with me..hugs..very deep heart-touching words!Here's to your beautiful friend!!
Victoria

William K Wallace 21 August 2011 20:14  

Amazing amount of information, facts and trivia covered in this article. London's past is endless.

There is a little plaque on the gound beside the Statue of Charles I that amongst other things states that all 'mileages from London are measured from the site of the orginal cross'.

Ola 22 August 2011 10:19  

a cab "knowlegde" text sounds very serious:) 3 years learining is almost like university studies!
nice tour-I have never been there yet and I hope that "yet" is a good word here:)

Melizza 22 August 2011 12:49  

What a fabulous idea! My friends are coming for a visit soon so maybe I can get them to go on this with me. I love tours and this one will offer a lot of history that I can geek out over.

Lauren Axelrod 22 August 2011 16:27  

I finally knew something about English history or rather architecture that you didn't. Horray! Yes, I did know about the Westminster layout. lol

Trotter 22 August 2011 23:51  

Hi Emm! What a tour!! I know what I'll do the next time I've some free hours at Heathrow... ;)

The present post at Blogtrotter Two shows two wonders in Corsica: the views from Le Goeland Hotel room 15 and the Bocche di Bonifacio! Enjoy and have a wonderful week ahead!

Dhemz 23 August 2011 01:06  

wow! very stunning...awesome shots...would love to visit London someday....cute cab!

AVCr8teur 23 August 2011 04:59  

So much history! Thank you for the tour. I bet you would make a great cab driver tour guide.

Ryan 23 August 2011 11:42  

What a great way to tour London, I never really enjoyed the open top bus tours much. Although I'm guessing it must have cost a few bob.

Faith McKay 23 August 2011 20:34  

I love meeting nice drivers! What an awesome tour :) I'm surprised they have to pass such a hard test, but it makes sense.

Emm 11 September 2011 12:04  

@ Kiki: I'm glad you liked it!! I enjoyed both the tour and the post!

@ William: I must get a photo of that plaque!

@ Ola: Definitely - they have to learn so much about this densely populated little town! "Yet" is definitely a good term.

@ Melizza: I'd absolutely recommend it.

@ Lauren: I'll hazard a guess and say you already know a lot more about history and architecture than I do!

@ trotter: You'll need more than a couple of hours! You'll need to get into London from Heathrow first.

@ Dhemz: Thanks!

@ AVCr8teur: Perhaps, but I am far too lazy to do the Knowledge.

@ Ryan: It is not cheap but definitely worth it if you can take 4/5 people.

@ Faith: Well, all London cab drivers that I have met have been nice but Graham was specifically a tour guide too.

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