Learning the Knowledge: Part Four, Nights Continued…

In my previous post, I wrote about a number of things which had a direct impact on me whilst out studying the Knowledge late at night. 

Shad Thames at night…

Most of the time, however, I was a mere spectator, viewing the gritty, late-night occurrences from the confines of my cramped Peugeot; the little car offering a kind of ring-side seat to the depravity of late-night London.

One of the most bizarre things I witnessed occurred early one Sunday morning in Hampstead; probably the last place in London you’d expect to see a violent act.

I was driving through North-West London, a few hundred yards from the Royal Free Hospital.

The ‘Royal Free’ as it is commonly known, was founded in 1828 by surgeon, William Marsden, as a kind of early precursor to the NHS- the Royal Free provided free health care for those who could not afford it.

William Marsden was born in Yorkshire, and came to London in 1815, at the age of 19, to study medicine. In 1827, he came across an 18 year old girl, lying on the steps of St Andrew’s Church in Holborn. The young woman was almost dead from starvation and disease, yet Dr Marsden could not find a place to take her for treatment. It was this tragic experience which led Dr Marsden to found the Royal Free Hospital; a truly worthy cause.

However, years later, as I was driving through the classy suburb of Hampstead, I saw a fellow for whom charity was clearly the last thing on his mind.

The man in question was wearing tight jeans and heavy boots, but was naked from the waist up; despite it being a crisp, cold morning. 

He was swinging a bat- a bona-fide, American baseball one- in his hand, whilst kicking at the front door of a respectable looking house. A terrified chap was peering from the top window, whilst his tormentor, with a face twisted in pure hatred, goaded him to “come the **** out.”


Going all over London at such unsociable hours, I witnessed my fair share of violence. 

One weekend, in the Turnpike Lane area of North London, I drove past a late-night kebab shop. With their boozed up patrons, such establishments are notorious for being flash-points of drunken brawling. Outside this particular kebab shop, I saw a group of four men, kicking their solo victim as he lay curled upon the floor. The attackers seemed to favour the upper area of their prey, and were stamping on his head with much gusto.

Perhaps the worst thing I glimpsed whilst studying The Knowledge was the aftermath of a stabbing. 

This occurred one night in South London; blue and white cordon, flashing blue lights and more blood than I’ve ever seen before; enough to coat several paving slabs, treacle in colour beneath the sodium-orange street-lamp glare. I have the utmost respect for those who have to deal with such occurrences on a regular basis.

Sadly, stabbings in London, especially amongst youngsters, have become commonplace in the news. Gun crime is not far behind. 

I heard gun-fire a few times whilst out studying London’s streets. One particular incident sticks in my mind- I was parked up by a large housing estate in Stockwell, clipboard on my knee whilst I jotted down notes on the local one-way system. 

Suddenly, in the still, night air, I heard the distinctive *CRACK* *CRACK* of bullets leaving a gun. It sounded rather too close for comfort, so I chucked the clipboard on the passenger seat and rushed off. As I hastily exited the area, I suddenly became concerned that I may have been witnessed speeding away from the scene, thus implicating me as a suspect in the shooting! 

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Gunfire seems to be pretty common in certain areas at night, and only becomes an issue when it actually strikes someone.


After over a year studying the ‘Blue Book’, being a witness to London’s late-night brutality was to become the least of my worries. I’d finished the 320 runs, and was now ready to apply for the examination process, to prove that I knew London’s roads and buildings. 

The Knowledge of London examination process is well known amongst those who undertake it, for being a long, drawn-out, stressful, frightening process, and I was dreading every moment of it.

The thing to remember about the Blue Book is that it is a basis; a tool to get you exploring every required inch of London. Sure, it contains certain routes- such as ‘Manor House to Gibson Square’ or ‘Carlton Vale to Oakwood Court’, but these are mere stabilisers.

By the time you’ve completed the Blue Book and the ¼ mile radii, you should have a reasonable grasp of London; the idea is to get the map in your head. 

On an exam- or ‘Appearance’ as it’s known in the trade- it is very, very rare that you’ll be asked a straight-forward Blue Book route. 

In most cases, an examiner will give you any two points in London- no matter how obscure- and, using the map of London etched in your head; you’re expected to describe the straightest route between the two with as little hesitation as possible. Learning the Blue Book routes parrot fashion is nowhere near enough of what you have to truly know.

This is designed to emulate the actual job- for example, when you’re at traffic lights on Whitehall, in the evening rush hour, and a customer hops in asking for Warwick Avenue, or Camberwell Green, you’re expected, as a London Cabbie, to immediately know where the location is, and in which direction you have to head.

This is a skill which does not come easily; and it is something which is acutely honed by the examination process which, to put it simply, is an agonizing, migraine-inducing affair.

Even before you begin the verbal exams, you have to undertake the ‘Map Test’. 

This is a written exam, undertaken with fellow candidates in invigilated silence as you sit at little, wooden school-type desks. On the map test, you are given two maps displaying two ¼ mile radii from London. All of the text has been removed from the maps; no roads are labelled, no buildings or places of interest are indicated. 

On a separate sheet, a number of roads and buildings are listed, and it is your job to pin-point said places on the blank map.

If you pass this stage (and people do fail), then it is time to move onto the real deal…. the verbal, one-on-one exams…. aka ‘Appearances‘.

Part Five

6 responses

  1. Hi Rob,

    Hope you’re well. Quick one. Runs using the Lots road, harbour avenue and townmead road seem to be a problem when using a car. As they only allow taxi’s and I’m presuming mopeds through? How did you get round this? I’m working on blue book run 228, Petyward to Merton road, and I need to get to townmead road.

    Cheers, Jay

    1. Hi Jay,

      All you can do is know the route on the map and in your head. A few runs do have obstacles like this and you just have to detour around them, no major problem really.

  2. Hi Rob, hope you’re well. Quick one. Using Lots road, harbour avenue and townmead road seem to be a problem when studying the blue book runs in a car. I presume they only allow taxis and mopeds through at harbour avenue. How did you get round this?



    1. When you do pass you will find yourself going through that Chelsea Harbour barrier quite a lot!

  3. Hi, you couldn’t tell me where that picture of the street at night was taken by any chance?
    It would be a great help as I’m scouting for film locations.


    1. Hi, Ben. I took the picture on Mill Street which is not far from Shad Thames/Tower Bridge. It is where Bill Sikes falls to his death in Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’…

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