Dotted around central London you’ll find tiny green huts that resemble bicycle sheds, kiosks or maybe even posh public loos. But inside is a secret world of sizzling sausages, teaspoons clinking against china, and the constant, lively chatter of the city’s black cab drivers.
These are the few remaining Cabmen’s Shelters, serving up company and cups of tea to those who ply an often lonely trade. Members of the public can buy drinks and sandwiches through a serving hatch, but only those who have passed the ‘Knowledge’ test – memorising every street, landmark and route in the capital – are allowed inside.
A hut of one’s own
The oak huts were introduced in 1875 to offer cabbies sustenance and shelter – and keep them out of the pub. Run by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, the temperate huts had strict rules that banned swearing, gaming, gambling and alcohol.
The first hut still stands in St John’s Wood, though many of the 61 built in total were destroyed by bombs during WWII or bulldozed in street-widening schemes. The surviving 13 are UNESCO Grade II listed. Repairs must mirror the original style and materials, right down to the shade of paint – Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green.
Jude Holmes runs the small kitchen at Russell Square shelter, a 15-minute walk from Hotel Indigo London – 1 Leicester Square.
Inside, half a dozen cabbies squeeze around the narrow table while Holmes serves up endless cups of tea. Frying pans sizzle and splutter with bacon, sausages and eggs. Most shelters serve breakfasts and sandwiches, while some mix up the menu with pies, pasta and curries.
“I’ve been driving a cab for more than a few years and only recently started using the shelters,” admits cabbie Gary Zylberszac. “I decided, use them or lose them.”
Zylberszac pops in most days to chat with others ‘in the same boat’. “You can come in the cafe and let off steam,” he says.
Time-capsules of London history
The kitchens were originally powered by wood-burning stoves, whose rooftop vents remain. Some huts still have tenders outside, where drivers tethered the horses that pulled their cabs.
The shelters are time-capsules of London history. The Gloucester Road shelter, near to Hotel Indigo London – Kensington, was nicknamed ‘The Kremlin’ because left-wing drivers gathered there. A since-bulldozed Piccadilly hut was the site of Champagne-fuelled parties in the 1920s, when aristocrats (and non-drivers) smuggled in booze.
Many changes have occurred over the years. Noise restrictions in residential areas means most shelters, which once operated at night, close just after lunch. Colin Evans, a cabbie of 44 years and trustee of the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, worries that younger drivers aren’t frequenting the shelters; some don’t even know they exist. For most licensees, selling to the public through the hatch brings in the bulk of the profits.
“We need the new generation to start coming to the shelters,” says Evans. “Instead they’re going to other cafes and fast food places. But they don’t have the same intimacies. [The shelters] represent a moment in time. If we lose them, we lose part of the cab trade’s history and a part of London history.”