On the corner of Kensington Park Road and Ladbroke Road, just opposite Kensington Temple, from where on Sunday mornings the most fabulous voices are heard singing gospel, and right there among multi million pound houses, stands a dinky little green hut. In fact, it stands right in the middle of the road, at the front of the centre section allocated to a taxi rank.
I’ve seen it there for as long as I can remember, but always assumed that it was some sort of municipal shed. The Lovely Husband, however, who is inquisitive, adventurous and very observant, one day noticed a queue of people there and a couple of tiny tables and chairs, so off he went to investigate what was going on.
Well, knock me over with a feather! Turns out it’s a cab shelter serving hardworking London cabbies and, for that matter, anyone else, snacks and drinks. Who knew?! How cute! How charming! And unusual too! This absolutely needed closer inspection!
A little research tells us that there are now thirteen such shelters remaining in London where once there were sixty. London cabs have been licensed since 1639 but, of course, until the 20th century, these were horse drawn hansome cabs or hackney carriages, where the driver sat ‘on the box’ up top and was exposed to the elements, while the passengers sat under cover. With London weather being as it is, the cabbies were often drenched in rain, buffeted by wind and cold, and consequently often suffered ill health. Their licence did not legally permit them to leave their carriages unattended, so it was quite impossible for them to warm up in a public house or to grab a hot mug of tea and a bite to eat, unless they employed a lad to watch their cabs which reduced their meagre income further, not to mention tempted them to indulge in too much cockle warming booze.
“They have, at any rate, a claim upon our sympathy, when they sit for many hours in the pouring rain at the street cabstand, waiting for a fare; unless they venture to take refuge inside, making the cushions periously damp for the next coming passenger with the drippings of a soaked overcoat; or else desert the vehicle in their charge for the bar of the opposite public-house, where they may drink more than is good for their health or behavior” (The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 20th February 1875)
In 1875, a certain Captain George Armstrong, editor of The Globe newspaper (no relation to the Lovely Husband whose grandfather was Captain William Armstrong and a famous pioneer pilot and author), sent his manservant out into a raging blizzard to engage a cab to take him to Fleet Street, only to find that the few drivers he could locate were in the local pub and far too inebriated to drive safely. Being of a philanthropic nature and, no doubt, wishing to ensure that cabs were available whenever he needed one, this man, together with the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and others of like mind, took it upon himself to change this sorry state of affairs and founded the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund. The aim was to provide shelters at the busiest taxi stands within six miles of Charing Cross, all of them with an attendant to offer ‘good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices’. Standing on a public highway, they were required by law to be no longer or wider than a horse and cart, but even so, they managed to accommodate up to thirteen men at a time as well as a working kitchen. Astounding, considering the size of them!
These days the fund still exists and is part of the Heritage of London Trust, and all the shelters are Grade ll listed. Their distinct green colour is strictly enforced to be Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green, but few now offer seating inside.
Karen runs the Cabmen’s shelter on Kensington Park Road. It’s open weekdays from 7.30 am to 3.30 pm. She tells us that she applied for the lease a decade ago, only finally being granted it a whole eight years later. She’s cheery and pretty and does her job with sunny enthusiasm. No wonder the cabbies flock here! I ask her whether she’s married to a cabbie perhaps, but no, she’s single. Gentlemen, this lady makes a mean bacon sarnie, get yourselves over there!
We gleefully tuck into ours, a bacon and a sausage and onion sandwich respectively. They are huge! Karen certainly doesn’t stint on the filling, and the poppy seeded bloomer bread is fresh and soaks up the meat juices in a right tasty way. She thoughfully asks us which sauces we’d like, and is clearly intent on making us welcome in her magical little eaterie. I’ve not seen better service in the smartest of Michelin starred restaurants!
There’s no Nespresso coffee here, no double skinny macchiato, flat white or frappucino, the coffee is just what it says on the Nescafe tin, a bit weak in that very English sort of way but perfect to sip while sitting in the middle of the road with traffic passing either side of you and cabbies exchanging gossip all around you. And anyway, tea is probably the drink of choice here. Make it hot and sweet, luv. You might be eating off paper plates but somehow, by being here, you feel very in the know, very London and oddly privileged, kind of like hanging out with the cool kids at school. It seems mildly wussy to go and sit at one of the two little tables with their mismatched stools, as we do, to eat our late breakfast. Real men stand by the serving hatch and chat up Karen or have ‘a bit of a larf’ about the peculiarities of some of their fares. They seem like a genuinely nice lot, really gentlemanly in fact, heavily tatted as some of them are. You get the feeling that they’d definitely help you out if you needed them to.
Tea or coffee in large mugs are £1 a piece and cold drinks 80p, our two enormous sandwiches add up to £5.50. Pret, Café Nero and any of the other high street cafes and lunch bars can go eat their heart out! You haven’t lived if you haven’t eaten at one of the cab shelters!
Here is where you will find them:
- Chelsea Embankment, SW3 – close to junction with Albert Bridge, London
- Embankment Place, WC2 – near to the Playhouse Theatre
- Grosvenor Gardens, SW1 – west side of the north gardens
- Hanover Square, W1 – north side of the central gardens
- Kensington Park Road, W11 – outside numbers 8-10
- Kensington Road, W8 – close to the junction of Queen’s Gate SW7
- Pont Street, SW1 – close to the junction of Sloane Street
- Russell Square ,WC1 – western corner (relocated from Leicester Square)
- George’s Square, Pimlico, SW1 – on the north side
- Temple Place, WC2 – near junction with Surrey Street
- Thurloe Place, SW7 – in the middle of the road opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum
- Warwick Avenue, W9 – centre of the road, by Warwick Avenue tube station
- Wellington Place, NW8 – near to Lord’s Cricket Ground
Dear Readers, I’d be delighted to find out more about you, so please feel invited to leave a comment below or just say ‘hello’. If you enjoy reading my blog, please like, share and follow it. Thank you!