Inside the London School Where Cabbies Learn the Fabled Knowledge
There are 25,000 streets in central London, laid out in a manner best described as willy-nilly. Anyone who wants to drive a cab must memorize them all. This arcane body of knowledge is called, in typical British understatement, The Knowledge. Mastering it takes more than three years, and physically changes your brain.
The compulsory understanding of the city’s roadways, highways, byways, parkways, and alleyways—not to mention the 20,000 landmarks among them—dates back to 1865. Graduates of these schools can, with utmost efficiency, follow the most direct route between any two points within a six-mile radius of the statue of Charles I near Trafalgar Square. “If you were looking at the route as the crow flies,” says cabbie Peter Allen, “you’ve got to keep this as tight to that crow flying line as possible.”
When he isn’t driving a cab, Allen passes on The Knowledge at Knowledge Point, one of several schools throughout London that turn students into masters. Retired cabbie and eighth-generation Londoner Malcolm Linskey founded the school in 1985. He gave photographer Alexander Wilson a crash course in January, showing him around the small school tucked away in a parking garage in Islington.
Students often say memorizing The Knowledge is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. “Every black cab driver you ever see has gone through this,” says Wilson. “They don’t have a social life, and they don’t get to do anything else with their lives if they do it properly. They’re there everyday pretty much and eat, drink and sleep it.”
Sticky tack and string on one of Knowledge Points many maps. The string represents the shortest distance between two points.
The lessons start with students navigating the city on mopeds. When they aren’t zipping about London, they’re hunkered down over maps and relentlessly quizzing each other. One fellow might ask the best route between Manor House Station and Gibson Square, then make sure his classmate got it right. Wilson described the scene as a “laddie atmosphere,” where people tease and support each other. Students study well into the night, sharing meals in the school’s small kitchen.
It’s like this for three-and-a-half years, with frequent lessons at the school and 12 oral exams before officials at Transport for London, which licenses the city’s cabbies. Students never know what they might be asked, and must provide the most direct route between any two points relying upon nothing more than the knowledge in their heads. Obtaining, retaining, and using this immense trove of information actually changes the size of the hippocampus.
Given how arduous the process is, it’s a wonder people even bother in an age when anyone with a pulse, a clear record, and a license can drive for Uber. That explains why there are more Ubers than black cabs in the city. Yet The Knowledge endures—the city licensed 892 new cabbies last year—driven in part by pride and passion. “I love London,” Linskey says. “And if you do the Knowledge you’ll fall even further in love with London.”