Britain: Tackled London taxi test: ‘Hardest thing you’ll ever do’

Black cabs are as much a part of London as Big Ben. If you want to drive it, you have to pass a difficult knowledge test, surrounded by legends. Who is still doing it today?

On a mid-August evening, 22 people line up outside a luxury London hotel to prepare for the toughest challenge ever. It is a colorful group, people came from different countries, young men, older men, three women.

They only happily greeted each other, many of whom had only seen each other on Zoom until now. All eyes are now on Mark Baxter who will be giving his first live class today. Baxter has short gray hair and black glasses. He speaks with a distinctive London accent, rattling off streets and landmarks, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Square, King’s Cross, it’s about one-way streets, cul-de-sacs and turning lanes. Between himself, he asks the assembled, the correct answer is rarely found. Baxter pleads with the group like a football coach: “You’ve got to find a way to remember it all.”

The things Baxter has in mind have a name that most of his students don’t yet know: “Knowledge.” This is the name of the exam, for which 22 men and women are preparing, many of them for years. The test Mark Baxter says is like a PhD thesis, probably even harder. Anyone who wants to pass it studies for an average of three years and then has to read a map of the city London to know by heart, or also: 25,000 streets and approximately 100,000 places, a huge feat of memory. First of all, he needs to know how to get there. Because only those who pass the legendary ordeal will receive a City of London license to drive a taxi. Not just any, but Black Cab, the most famous taxi in the world.

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Mark Baxter teaches novice cab drivers Knowledge.

Photo: Sarah Schierack

Almost 17,000 of these black taxis run through the British capital, some of them not black, but white, green or pink. It is not only a functional means of transportation, but also a landmark on wheels, a popular motif for t-shirts, socks or fridge magnets; London folklore – like Big Ben, like Buckingham Palace, like Union Jack flags, red double-decker buses and telephone boxes. It almost looks like there are cars there created by the city they pass through: On the one hand, modern, on the other, so traditional, so classic and quintessentially British that you wouldn’t be surprised if Winston Churchill suddenly left. Most of them are accordingly proud to attach an official city plaque to their car. In some families, the father and grandfather already drove a Black Cab. It’s an “honour” to be behind the wheel of the iconic taxi, says Mark Baxter, who has held his license for 15 years.

It is said that London “cabmen” have existed since the 17th century

Taxis, as the drivers are called, have their roots in the traditional industry dating back to the 17th century. Then, in 1621, the term “Hackney coach” first appeared in official documents: a black carriage that could be hired with a driver. The motorized version wasn’t invented until much later, but the term “Hackney carriage” for black cabs still applies today.

And “Knowledge”, a difficult entrance test, came later: the test was introduced in 1865. The reasons are perhaps not entirely clear, since 14 years earlier, during the Great World Exhibition in London, so many tourists complained about incompetent taxi drivers.

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London landmark: black cabs erected in Picadilly Circus.

Photo: Eibner press photo, Imago Images

If black cabs are a symbol of London, then drivers are something like ambassadors for their historic city, at least that’s how Mark Baxter sees it. “For a lot of people, we’re their first contact with London,” he says, and it goes without saying that he sees it as a responsibility. Especially for visitors from outside, taking a taxi is part of the London experience. A taxi driver who couldn’t say anything about the city? Baxter grimaces, it’s pretty clear what he thinks of the play.

Black Taxi Driver is a history buff. When he’s not in the cockpit, he’s a tour guide. His…

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