Obscure and obsolete

Nothing has quite filled me with the dread and fear that Knowledge of London appearances did, I can still remember how I felt 30 years later.

For those who don’t know how these exams work (or haven’t been so diligent reading CabbieBlog), they are as simple as they are terrifying. You ‘appeared’ at the Public Carriage Office, then located on Penton Street and housed in a post-war building of monumental ugliness, dressed in your smartest suit and sat in the waiting room for your name to be called.

The austere waiting room was devoid of anything but a map of London on one wall that particularly nervous (or lazy) knowledge students would stare at in the hope they would absorb some extra nuggets of information, and a coffee table covered with unread trade publications.

Your examiner would call your name, sometimes from down the corridor so you wouldn’t even see them if they did show you would follow them and enter their office. They would have a seat in front of the window with all their maps and knowledge information safely out of view on an angled draughtsman’s type desk.

The Carriage Officer would then proceed to ask you a series of ‘point to point’ questions and you would then verbally tell them the route you would take, road by road, turn by turn.

So, if you were lucky, you might be asked to take the examiner from the Savoy Hotel to Paddington Station. So you would start “Leave on the right Savoy Court, left Strand etc, etc” until you reached the destination. The ‘Leave on the right’ bit is to do with establishing the direction you are travelling when leaving a particular point, and you all know that Savoy Court is the only place in England you drive on the right-hand side of the road.

If you didn’t know where the start or finish point of the question was you would have to say, “Sorry Sir/Madam don’t know that one”, and they would ask you another, generally more well-known point. This is called ‘dropping points’ and you would be marked on a combination of how good your routes are, how fluently you could call them and, of course, how many points you dropped.

There are three levels of appearances, each more frequent than the last before you do a final stage of suburban routes, a driving test and then you get your badge. Easy huh?

But the point of reiterating all this is to try to give you an idea that when you were sitting in that waiting room you would be thinking that your kindly examiner might ask you anything they want. And they did (and still do) ask you anything they want. There is no setlist of points to learn, that could never work in a city like London, just this vague definition of what counts as a Point of Interest. This can be a street, a square, or a named building, in other words anywhere that a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.

So, as I may have already said, anywhere! Each examiner would have their own little set of points that they liked to ask and some would be ridiculously obscure and some have even gained enough notoriety outside of the taxi trade that they are quite well known.

Why do the examiners ask these places?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that, but I think it’s for two main reasons. One is that to go and look for these places made you go to parts of the city you wouldn’t have gone to normally and secondly, it gives you a level of knowledge way above just places and roads.

Gathering together as much about the more obscure, interesting and just downright strange places that get asked on The Knowledge, should show why The Knowledge should never, ever be got rid of.

There are certainly Points of Interest that have crossed over to the mainstream, Policemans Coat Hook in Great Newport Street and Giro The Nazi Dog in Carlton House Terrace are two that immediately spring to mind, but I’m going to try and list as many as I can and pass on some of the stories that go with them.

Some of these stories may be completely mischievous lies, some myth, and some the truth, some may even be a combination of all three, but I’ll let you all make up your minds. What I do know is that some of the stories are great and are certainly well worth sharing. So here goes, starting with the more well known.

Secret Policeman’s Hook, Great Newport Street

This hook on the wall near the junction of Great Newport Street and Upper St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden is reputed to have been here since the 1870s. Probably used for holding a policeman’s cape while he directs traffic or possibly to let the garment dry after rain. As nowadays this junction is only congested with pedestrians was it a Victorian traffic hotspot? It’s a popular yarn, whether it’s true, who knows?

Giro the Nazi Dog, Carlton House Terrace

The British love of dogs is legendary, visitors to Britain over the past 300 years have commented time and again that we Brits are much fonder of our dogs than our friends or family. One dog that enjoyed the tolerant affection of the British belonged to Hitler’s ambassador to Britain Leopold von Hoesch in the 1930s, but in 1938 Giro was electrocuted and died. As a gesture of goodwill von Hoesch was allowed to bury it in the gardens to the left of the Queen Mother’s memorial on the north side of the Mall. When war came a year later no one would have dreamt of disturbing the grave of his dog – probably because the British had always preferred the dog to a German anyway.

Two Cherubs on the Phone, the garden of 2 Temple Place

Here are two statues of ‘cherubs’ holding what may or may not be early versions of a telephone. I can tell you how many punters have asked to be taken here. None, that’s how many.

The Corsican’s Nose

At Admiralty Arch, at the eastern end of the Mall, a little-known trivia fact concerns the presence of a life-size human nose which protrudes from the inside wall of the northernmost arch. Best viewed on foot, or whilst sat in the 24-hour traffic jam there, bewilderingly it stands at waist height for anyone riding a horse. As many a London cabbie will explain, it is said to resemble Napoleon’s nose and was rubbed by anyone riding through the arch as a snub to the diminutive Corsican. It is but one of 35 noses that were attached to buildings in 1997 by artist Rick Buckley, this is one of less than ten that still survive. One smartarse examiner would include it in his questions so that he could ask Knowledge of London students “Take me from the London Eye to the London Nose”. Oh, how we’d laugh at this great joke.

Methane Lampost, Carting Lane

The rear of the Savoy is a veritable warren of small streets, relatively unchanged over the years. In Carting Lane is last surviving methane lamppost, or to give it it’s full name – ‘Patent Sewer Ventilating Lantern’. Certainly, until recent years it was still operational. Schoolboy humour at Knowledge schools has inevitably renamed Carting Lane – Farting Lane.

Three Camels Corner, the junction of Eastcheap and Lovat Lane

Above the door to what is now an HSBC Bank (or has that, like many others been closed?) is a relief of, er, a Bedouin Arab in his flowing robes guiding a train of three laden camels across the desert, passing the remains of a fourth camel lying in the sand. The building was originally the headquarters of Peek Brothers & Co who were by the early 1880s running a very successful business importing tea, coffee and spice with one of its most successful brands being Camel Tea.

Spies Lamppost, Audley Square

Mentioned in this BBC story the lamppost was used by Russian spies some of whom may, or may not, have lived next door to Ian Fleming.

Nelson’s Fleet, The Mall

I wish I could remember where I read it, but apparently, it is a matter of debate as to exactly what is depicted on the top of the lampposts down The Mall. The story seems to have some variations but generally goes along these lines. Each lamppost along The Mall has a boat on top, they supposedly depict Nelson’s fleet and Nelson is supposedly inspecting his fleet from atop his column. But I know for a fact that Nelson does not look down The Mall and is looking pretty much directly south to Trafalgar itself. There is also the fact that each boat atop the lampposts is identical and therefore we pretty quickly run into some problems trying to see it as his fleet. But it’s a nice story and as is the way with these things, it seems a little churlish to spoil it, so I won’t dig any deeper.

Burton Tailor Mosaic, Chrisp Street

If you do a search on Google Images for “Burton Tailor Mosaic” it’s pleasing to see that quite a few of these lovely mosaics from the doorways of Burton shops seem to have survived. One particular examiner who particularly specialises in obscure east London points would ask for this particular one situated so handily on the corner of Chrisp Street & Susannah St, site of a former shop.

Homage to Fromage – Mice Eating Cheese, Philpot Lane

Two mice are fighting over a piece of cheese high up on a building on the south-eastern corner by the junction with 23 Eastcheap. They date from 1862 when the building was constructed for the spice merchants Messrs Hunt & Crombie by John Young & Son. London’s smallest memorial to a tragic fight between two builders of the Monument over the theft of a cheese sandwich – except the sandwich hadn’t been invented at that time – a fight ensued in which both fell to their deaths.

©Kieran Meeke

Little St Pauls, Vauxhall Bridge

Sculptures on the side of Vauxhall Bridge and only visible from the River Thames depicts a various turn of the 19th/20th Century worthy themes including Agriculture, Science, Fine Arts, Education etc, I’m sure you get the picture. One of these statues (Architecture I’m guessing) holds a small scale St Paul’s. So guess what out smartarse examiners would ask? “Big St Paul’s” to “Little St Paul’s”.

Little Ben, Victoria Street

Last “take me from big to little” type questions that got asked involves a clock tower that mimics its big brother just down the road. Given all of the building work that is going on in the area, I don’t recall seeing it recently. I hope it is being well looked after as London shifts and changes around it.

©Kieran Meeke

Tower Bridge Chimney, Tower Bridge

Is this the only bridge in the world with a chimney? Millions of visitors cross Tower Bridge every year but few notice a cast iron chimney painted to blend in with the lamp-posts. On the north side of the bridge is this series of blue lampposts but if you look carefully enough one of them doesn’t have a lamp on its post. It’s a flue for a guardhouse under one of the bridge piers, facing the Tower. Why have a normal chimney when you can disguise it as lamppost?

So there you have it, a little peek into the perils of Knowledge of London examinations and the kinds of Points of Interest’ that could get asked. But as previously mentioned, I wouldn’t have it any other way. All that stuff goes towards what makes London Licensed Taxi Drivers the best in the world. And that day when somebody asks to visit Giro the Nazi the Dog, how impressed are they going to be when I tell them I know exactly where it is?

Taken from an original article by Richard Cudlip at The Cabbies Capital.

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