The 50th Anniversary Issue

Our 50th birthday issue is on sale now. We're celebrating five decades of great food and travel with our biggest issue yet.

Subscribe to Gourmet

Subscribe to Australian Gourmet Traveller before 27th November, 2016 and receive a Villeroy & Boch platter!

Gourmet on your iPad

Subscribe to Gourmet Traveller for your iPad.

Qantas introduces the Dreamliner and non-stop flights to London

What does this mean for air travel? Prepare for a journey that is lighter, smoother and greener.

Cruise control: Captain Kent of the Emerald Princess

We caught up with Princess Cruises’ Captain William Kent to talk life on deck, sailing the Red Sea and how to spend 24 hours in Venice.

Midnight in Melbourne style

After-dark glamour calls for monochrome elegance with accents of red and the glimmer of bling. Martinis await.

Recipes by David Thompson

Thai food maestro David Thompson returns to the Sydney restaurant scene with the opening of Long Chim, a standard-bearer for Thailand’s robust street food. Fiery som dtum is just the beginning.

Reader dinner: Quay, Sydney

Join us at Quay for a specially designed dinner by Peter Gilmore to celebrate the launch of the new Gourmet Traveller cookbook.

GT's party hamper

We’ve partnered again with our friends at Snowgoose to bring you the ultimate party hamper. With each item selected by the Gourmet Traveller team, it’s all killer and no filler.

Aerin Lauder’s Morocco

Meet Aerin Lauder; creative director, lifestyle mogul, mother and global traveller. Here she shares her musings on Morocco, the exotic catalyst for her latest collection.

A hotel dedicated to gin is opening in London

A modern-day gin palace, The Distillery, is set to open in the middle of London’s Portobello Market this year.

Memories by the meter

One of London's most abiding stories is its taxis, writes AA Gill. And for him, the ticking of the meter is ever a harbinger of Christmas stockings and plum pudding.

The city has a thousand stories: apocryphal, paradoxical, instructive, fabulous and defining. They sketch the metropolis's self-image, its boast and its hubris. Collectively they build up another image, a legendary city that floats above the bricks and the smoke.

One of London's most abiding and popular stories is its taxis. Every city has taxis, but only London has its sherbets. (That's rhyming slang: sherbet dab, cab.) Black cabs are its legend. They carry inside them compendious and pithy anecdotage from taxidrivers with their Google-ish geographical memories. They are notoriously vinegary and opinionated. "A taxidriver said" is shorthand for right-wing prejudice and street common sense, along with a dose of football sentimentality. Traditionally, they're older white men from the East End. A lot of the cabbies were once Jewish, and a Yiddish-Cockney mash-up of short-fused humorous pessimism still infects the taxi.

One of the more polished Victorian stories about cabbies and their cabs is set some time in the 1870s. One dark evening in December, a gentleman takes a cab across London. He is a politician going to a meeting of importance at his club. And as he gets out he asks the cabbie to wait for him, he shouldn't be long, promising an extra sixpence. It starts to snow. The meeting goes on. The gentleman has dinner and continues with his deliberations over cigars in the snug. As the fire droops in the grate, he realises that a grey light is stealing in through the window. He excuses himself, pulling up his fur collar, and as he steps into the freezing dawn, there, quite forgotten, is the cabbie sitting hunched in his greatcoat atop his cab. He is frozen hard in death, the mittened hands still grasping the reins of the silent, snow-draped horse.

The gentleman is, of course, mortified. He'd inadvertently condemned the man to eternity for the sake of a sixpence and a garrulous dinner. He looks at the white heavens and promises in the manner of Victorian gentlemen that something will be done to atone. He summons another cab and drives home to ponder what that something might be.

The apocryphal story insists that the gentleman was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, and what he did was set up a charity to build refuges for cab drivers. As the cabbies couldn't leave their cabs to get something to eat or get out of the rain or snow, the shelters had to be on the street. They continued to be built into the next century; at one time there was something like 60 of them.

But from 1908, motorised cabs with their clockwork meters started to take over from the old Hansom cabs. The refuges fell into disuse and were demolished without anyone noticing much and there are now just 13 left, most of them in the genteel areas of south-west London. They are all the same: wooden tongue-and-groove structures with pitched felt roofs, fancy gabled ends and windows too high to look in. They were always painted a pleasant apple-green colour, and they have the rural look of grand potting sheds or small cricket pavilions. Sometimes they boast hanging baskets full of pansies. Inside there's enough room for a small kitchen and a dining room/library. Being relentlessly keen at social improvement, the Victorian charity insisted that they all incorporate invigorating literature and periodicals; now it's mostly tabloid papers.

Londoners don't really notice the cab shelters much. Some of them serve builders' breakfast sandwiches and cups of tea out of hatches, but inside they're reserved for the Green Badge-holding cabbies. They are a small part of London's story.

Cabbies and taxis are a big part of every city's public relations. A cab driver is probably the first native you meet in a new place. Except in most large cities he won't be a native. He'll have arrived just ahead of you, but with less luggage. Only in London is driving a cab not an entry job for a new immigrant, and that's because it takes about four years to train to be a taxidriver. They have to do something called The Knowledge or, as they call it, The Knodge. They learn hundreds of journeys by rote, mentioning every street, every turn, every point of interest, like a Dreamtime walkabout. Cabbies have to grow extensions on their hypothalamuses to fit it all in.

So they really do sound like the voice of authority. They are famous for their trenchant views on politicians and criminals and referees and the French. They also have earthy and Calvinistic opinions about celebrities, conversations invariably starting, "I had that Rolf Harris in the back once. Nice bloke, but not like that Liza Minnelli. Had her in the back. Looks sweet, but 'as she got a mouth on 'er."

Writing this about taxis exhumes two people who are rarely thought of now, but both had walk-on parts in London's story. Or ride-on parts, really. First, the astonishing Earl of Shaftesbury, who was a panoramic do-gooder. He makes the Gateses look like Scrooge. The cabbies' refuges aren't even mentioned in the list of his philanthropic achievements, which ranged from ragged schools (the first systematic education of the poor) to the law that stopped exploitation of children, in particular of the climbing boys - orphans sold to chimneysweeps whose occupational disease was cancer of the scrotum.

When the earl died, 196 different charitable organisations were present at his funeral in Westminster Abbey. And, as his son described it, the streets round the abbey were packed with "the halt, the blind, the maimed, the poor and the naked standing bare-headed in rags amidst a pelting rain, patiently enduring to show their love and reverence for their departed friend… to be laid at last to his long sleep amidst the sob of a great nation's heart".

The other is Joseph Aloysius Hansom, a man whose bearded face disproves nominative determinism. He gave his name to the cab he invented, a carriage with a low centre of gravity to help manoeuvring, a suspension that relieved the horse of strain, and a secure ride for passengers. The most successful carriage ever invented, it travelled from London to every major city with streets. Hansom failed to make any money out of it; he should have been the horse-drawn Henry Ford. But the combustion engine rendered his brilliant invention obsolete within a generation, proving again that timing is everything. And it is timing that prompted this odd rumination around Christmas.

For me, the taxi is always linked to my family taking me up to the West End to look at the Christmas lights and the tree, a present from Norway, in Trafalgar Square, and then to Hamleys Toy Shop. Always in a taxi, which was a part of the treat. The smell of them, the ticking of the clockwork meter, and the irregular timing of the diesel engine was always a harbinger of stockings and plum pudding. That yellow light was the bright star of wonder.

Signature Collection

Find out more about the Gourmet Traveller Signature Collection by Robert Gordon Australia, including where to buy it in store and online.

Read More
things to do this autumn

Whether it's foraging for wild mushrooms in a picturesque Victorian forest or watching a film by moonlight in Darwin, we've got you covered with 20 exciting autumn experiences from around Australia.

Read More
Gourmet TV

Check out our YouTube channel for our latest cover recipes, chef cooking demos, interviews and more.

Watch Now

You might also like...

Best of Italy

Rome, Florence, Naples, the Amalfi... the list of our favour...

Best New Hotels 2009 slideshow

We’ve got the keys to the most fabulous new hotels in the wo...

Burgundy, France: Top soil

“Water can rust iron. Imagine what it does to your insides. ...

Bali's new high

It’s no secret that recent times have been tough for Austral...

New South Wales South Coast

Unsung hero Flashier holiday spots may steal the limelight, ...

Gourmet Barcelona

From the city's best sandwich bar to its favourite charcuter...

Greece's Mani peninsula

Greece’s rugged and bloody Mani peninsula was once a no-go z...

Venice in pictures

Read our story on what to do if you only have 24 hours in Ve...

Great Brittany gallery

Take a walk on the wild side. Follow Brittany’s windswept co...

South African safari lodges gallery

Travelling from the Great Karoo to the Kruger, Emma Ventura ...

Iceland photo gallery

Erase the images of that volcano with the unpronounceable na...

Happy holidays

They’re following the sun and chasing the snow, staying clos...

Kyneton and Castlemaine

Kyneton and Castlemaine were born out of the gold-rush era, ...

Insider's guide to Manly

Breath of fresh air The classic Sydney beachside neighbourho...

The best of New Zealand

Choosing from the bounty of New Zealand's holiday destinati...

get the latest news

Sign up to receive the latest food, travel and dining news direct from Gourmet Traveller headquarters.