There are many private clubs existing in London. The most exclusive and secret of all these are the inconspicuous green shelters that you must take a test, called the “ Knowledge”, to enter. They are perhaps the most iconic historical structures in London. The shelters are located in the middle of streets, contributing to their significance in English culture.
The Green Cab Shelters, as these structures are called, were established by the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1875. After several years the number of shelters in central London reached 63, but the number has recently declined to only 13.
Any of these shelters, with their walls of green-painted planks, tiled pitched roofs, surrounded by parked black cabs, are worth a visit for some hearty English fare. Each of them evokes their own quaint vibe, but all are very British.
I visited the cab shelter on Acacia Road right off St. John’s Wood High Street. Created in 1875 by Arthur Kinnaird, it was the first Green Cab Shelter. It is currently rented and run by Andre Markovic. The idea to open cab shelters stemmed from the problem of taxi drivers drinking in the middle of the day. The shelters were meant to bring cabbies out of the pubs to help them to stay in the right condition to drive their customers; I wonder if it might do the same thing for students at ASL.
The shelters are worth a trip for anyone who wants to experience a piece of British History, as well as taste some hearty british staples. However, you should not expect to be invited inside, unless you are part of the club, and even then conditions do apply. The traditionalism of these shelters can be seen even today. Joan Little, a female taxi cab driver who came to grab a cup of tea and a mars bar, said, “I like to get my lunch by takeout from this shelter about twice a week, but I never go inside as that is only for men.” These English shelters are extremely exclusive.
The shelter was almost full with five cab drivers inside, and six people outside in line to get their food. Everyone was talking and briefly turned to look at me, but went back to their conversation. After I had ordered I started talking to Andre, the tenant of the cab shelter for 10 years, about his shelter. As I was talking, a few cab drivers butted in saying what they thought their favorite shelter was. One taxi driver said, “I really like the one in Little Venice, as the tenant Benny, is quite a character.” Andre then said, trying to explain the taxi culture to me, “Taxi drivers do not pick their shelter on the food, but rather the people who eat it.”
I ordered a cheeseburger with lots of onions for £2.40. The five-ounce burger was quite hearty, but did taste more like pork rather than beef and lacked the juice that a burger at, say, Meat Liquor contains.
The menu consisted of burgers, cheeseburgers, a pork loin sandwich,a bacon sandwich, tea, Kit Kats, and Mars bars. The most popular items, Markovic said, “were the tea throughout the day, the bacon sandwich in the morning and a burger for supper.” I was one of the few people to order food and rest appeared to come more for the social aspects of the shelter than to eat.
I ate the burger outside watching several cab drivers come by and be invited inside to sit and eat. I did not receive any such invitation, as I was an outsider to this club of taxi drivers. I watched as the taxi driver who ordered before me went around the side inside the shelter to sit down and talk to the other cab drivers. Markovic opened the door for him, but otherwise it stayed locked. After standing outside for five minutes eating my food Markovic pointed to a bench nearby suggesting I sit down, but making it quite clear I was not welcome inside.
One taxi driver, Paul Jones, who bought cab receipts, said, “I used to eat here everyday a decade ago, but I now prefer eating from chains such as Pret or Cafe Nero.” Markovic, said he has noticed some people have switched to eating at chains, but since 90 percent of his customers are regulars it has not been much of a problem.
He said his customer base is made up of about 50 percent cab drivers and 50 percent of the people who work on the high street. He did have Paul McCartney come by to grab a burger just a week ago and has seen all classes of British society eat from his shelter.
I also tried the pork loin sandwhich, which was significantly better than the cheeseburger. This meat had a nice char grilled taste to it and was accompanied by a roll and the same onions I had on my burger, which were perfectly caramelized.
All in all this shelter is worth a visit. It gives you a glance into the Victorian culture of London and exemplifies London’s own unique cultural identity, greatly represented in these green cab stands. The food may not be any better than the burger stand outside a football stadium, but the old world ambience and cab drivers who will eat beside you, like the friendly Markovic, make it an enjoyable and interesting experience.