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All 'The Knowledge' of London - From Alf Townsend's Book

It is a universally acknowledged truth that London’s black cabs offer the best taxi service in the world and no-one is prouder of this than Alf Townsend. An enthusiastic chronicler of the trade, he has played no small part in its history.

Since gaining 'The Knowledge' (memorising 25,000 different routes within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross) at the age of 29, Alf has been ferrying passengers around the capital and continues to do so today at the age of 72. Along the way, he has flirted with minor fame appearing on TV shows in the UK and the US, helped to found the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and become a published author.

'Most Highly-Trained Drivers in the World'

First and foremost though, he is a passionate advocate of the traditions and professionalism of the London taxi driver. In the flat that he shares with his wife, he explained to BBC London why licensed taxi drivers - those who have taken 'The Knowledge' - are streets ahead of their minicab or private hire rivals.

"The knowledge is like a jigsaw in the brain," says Alf. "I went out on my bike and learnt all the routes. That is how you start. It took me nine months to learn it all. You pass the driving test and then you're on your way."

"When you get in a licensed London cab it is fully taxed and fully insured. It's got passenger liability. There is a skilful driver who wears a badge – we are the mostly highly trained taxi drivers in the world. Unfortunately, you do not know what you will get in a private hire car. Some of them are right scallywags."

"They haven't got the training. People talk about satellite navigation but it has been proven that it's not as quick; it doesn't always take you the quickest route and won't take you away from heavy traffic. Tests have shown that a driver with 'The Knowledge' is much quicker and better than a driver with Sat-Nav."

Despite Alf's conviction that taxi drivers are superior to their private hire cousins, he is not so optimistic for the future.

"They have estimated that we will be 10,000 cabs short for the Olympics. And one of Mayor Ken's minions has indicated that for 2012, they will allow private hire cars to ply-for-hire [hail from the street] but, as we say in the trade, I think it is a dot on the card. Mayor Ken wants to integrate world-famous London taxis with private hires to have one system. The guys laugh at me but it is going to be the death knell for the trade."

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