I was born and grew up in North-West London.
However, before signing up to study The Knowledge, I can safely say that I’d never driven a car in Central London before.
In my first Blog about the Knowledge, I described how most students use a moped or scooter to carry out their practical studies.
However, a smaller number choose to carry out their driving in a car.
This was the category I fell into, and there were two reasons for this:
1) I live very close to a motorway; a broad stretch of tarmac which gets me into Central London very quickly. Unfortunately, British law does not allow smaller engine vehicles such as mopeds or scooters to use these fast roads.
2) I thought I’d be a lot safer on London’s roads if I was enclosed by four metal panels! I have a lot of respect for people who ride around London on two-wheeled contraptions; that takes guts.
When I was a baby, my father- a carpenter by trade- used to ride a bicycle into Central London to attend the various building sites he was employed on. One morning, he was hit and knocked off of his bike at the notorious Marble Arch junction. Although he thankfully sustained no serious injury, hearing that story when I was older made me apprehensive about riding around Town in such a vulnerable manner!
The chaos of Marble Arch (photo: Google Street View)
So, although I knew using a car to study the Knowledge would add extra expense, I went to the bank and took out a small loan in order to buy one.
The vehicle I purchased was a little, blue Peugeot 106; second hand. It was an ex-courtesy car and, as such, was in good condition with little mileage on the clock. Those conditions changed of course after its stint on the Knowledge!
Once I had my trusty little motor, I thought it would be a good idea to give London-driving a go before starting my Blue Book runs for real. So, early one Sunday morning, around the time of my acceptance interview, I decided to take the car out for a spin.
It was a very liberating experience.
I set out at about 5.00am, the sort of time when the dawning sky looks like a giant bruise; all purplish, dark-yellows. Before long, I found myself in the deserted centre of London.
Although it sounds like a clichéd comparison, the roads that morning really were like the opening scene in Danny Boyle’s 2002 film, ‘28 Days Later’; the post-apocalyptic film in which a young man awakes in an abandoned hospital- the seemingly sole survivor of a rabid plague- and proceeds to wander the eerily deserted streets of London. (This famous sequence of course owes much to John Wyndham’s fantastic 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids).
Parliament Square deserted… a screenshot from the 1981 BBC adaptation of ‘Day of the Triffids’
I felt like I had London to myself; I drove along Piccadilly (the world-famous neon signs were flashing and flickering away, although nobody was there to see them or be influenced by their advertising), down towards Trafalgar Square (just me and a chilly, stony Nelson high up on his plinth) and along Fleet Street (the bustling commuters replaced with empty, rolling beer bottles, and scraps of paper shifting in the breeze).
However, my monopoly over the city came to an end as I approached one of my favourite London landmarks; the gorgeous St Paul’s Cathedral. As I approached the famous icon, the road narrowed and chicaned; a feature of the ‘Ring of Steel’; a restrictive system of barriers and obstacles slung around London’s financial district during the 1990s in response to IRA attacks, and still strictly enforced.
As I slowed my little Peugeot, a Policeman stepped out and ordered me to halt. Although I would later be stopped numerous times by the Metropolitan Police during my time on the Knowledge, this was the first time I’d encountered such a situation, and I had no idea what to expect. A little panicked and thinking I’d done something wrong, I scrambled for the cheap, plastic window lever and turned it quickly, the glass shuddering down into the door.
The policeman; not much older than me, looked into my vehicle.
“Good morning, Sir…. May I ask where you’ve come from this morning?”
I told him.
“And where are you heading?”
The first question was easy. This one threw me…for I had no destination!
“Well… nowhere to be honest,” I replied, trying my best not to sound too dodgy. “I’m going around in circles. I’ve just started the Knowledge, and am having a drive around.”
As soon as I mentioned the magic word, ‘Knowledge’, the young Policeman’s expression changed and he tapped the roof of the car with his gloved hand.
“Oh, OK, no problem. Off you go then, and good luck!”
The following week I set out to begin my Knowledge proper.
Again, I set out early on a Sunday morning. However, as I mentioned in my previous Blog, I didn’t know where Manor House, the famous Knowledge starting block, was! Sure, I’d seen it on the A-Z map, but it looked far too tricky to reach from where I lived. The beginning of the second run; Thornhill Square looked far easier to reach as it wasn’t too far from the Euston Road; part of a major artery which cuts through Central London.
With the streets to myself, I trundled around in my Peugeot, jotting down lots of scrawny notes. There were a bewildering number of road restrictions; mainly one-ways and streets blocked with gates (something, as I now know too well, that this area of Islington is famous for!)
I did my best to think about how I’d work around these obstacles, and it felt rather like a giant game of Cat and Mouse between myself and the local Council responsible for this jumble of constraints. It was good practice, because every working day now feels like this!
Alongside this, my brain did its best to comprehend the array of points (places of interest) in the ¼ mile circle. To this day, I can still remember St Andrew’s Church, West Islington Library, the Marathon Ethiopian Restaurant, the Cally Swimming Pool and the RIGPA Buddhist Centre on Caledonian Road to name but a few. A lot of places which you discover and commit to memory on the Knowledge may sound obscure, but customers do ask for them.
I then drove the route to Queen Square, near Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital (I’d studied the run alongside the map the night before). As I drove the route, I noted each road and did my best to recite and remember it, to see the streets in my head. Just to make sure, I drove the route another two times, burning it into my memory!
The next time I went out, I felt a little more confident, and was able to find Manor House and carry out the first run. In the Manor House area, I have a vivid memory of stopping the car on a small side road to get out stretch my legs in the early morning air. I swung my foot out, placed it on the pavement…. And trod directly into a soft mound of dog muck. I’m not sure whether or not this was a good luck omen, but it was certainly an inconvenience. I had to remove my trainer and wrap it in a plastic bag, which I was lucky enough to have in the boot of the car. I then continued my driving, operating the accelerator pedal with my besocked foot.
I soon settled into a routine. At the time I started the Knowledge, I was working in a department store, and I would do as much London driving as I could early on weekend mornings.
Whilst at work, I would often carry written copies of my latest runs in my pocket, and would take every spare moment I could (often unofficially, by sneaking a trip to the warehouse), to unfold the crumpled paper and recite the routes.
Sometimes I would be on checkout duty and, during quiet periods when there were no customers to serve, I would take a scrap of paper and draw the ¼ mile circles and routes in between as I saw them, attempting to replicate the intricate London roads and all of the one-ways, restrictions and points which they contained.
After a some time, I decided to switch from driving early in the morning, to driving late at night; usually between around 10pm and 2am.
Here comes the night… dusk over Staples Corner
Around this time, my family offered to help me through the Knowledge, and I was able to quit my full time job. I must say, I could not have carried out my studies of London without the support of my parents, and it is something for which I’m eternally grateful.
Studying full time allowed me to truly absorb myself in London. During the day, I would recite my runs, using a chunky marker pen to draw the routes on a large, laminated map of London (something which all Knowledge students will be familiar with). The map of London became a close companion, and I would keep it on display at all times. I spent hours absorbed in it, and there was always something new to find. I wrote countless pages of notes on road restrictions and points, I drew maps and stuffed several folders with paperwork.
It would often make my head throb but, as the runs went by, I gradually began to gain some understanding of London’s road system, piecing the huge area together in my mind, bit-by-bit.
Driving the runs late at night was good in a practical sense. It offered constantly traffic-free roads, and a quick journey between home and Central London. The darkness of night was no problem; London is well lit, although in my mind’s eye, my memory often recall the streets bathed in a dull, electric-orange sodium light!
With most major cities, the hours of darkness can bring about a Jekyll and Hyde type transformation, and London is certainly no exception. Although driving at night offered roads free of traffic and congestion charges, it also enabled me to see the place at its worst….