Walking around central London, one sometimes comes upon a unique tardis-like structure sitting by the side of the road. These dark green tongue and groove timber-framed constructions are protected historical sites functioning as both interesting relics from the past and present-day pit stops for taxi drivers.
The first taxi shelter was built in London in 1875 and paid for by Captain George Armstrong, a newspaper publisher and editor, after his servant was unable to find him a cab during a storm. All the drivers had abandoned their cabs and sought refuge, companionship, and drink in a local pub. Apparently, George Armstrong felt that if the cab drivers were provided with alcohol-free, heated shelters, they would not resort to “the demon drink” and would be much easier to find. So, George Armstrong, anxious to have sober cabdrivers on tap, rounded up some of his wealthy friends and acquaintances, started a building fund, and erected the first shelter at a cab stand across the street from his house.
Around the time that the shelters first opened, London was often thought of as the centre of the universe. It was a place of culture and learning. Van Gogh, Degas, Whistler, and Tissot were creating art. Mark Twain, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde were scribbling away. The Martin Brothers were creating pottery. Public parks, baths, and libraries were mushrooming.
During this time, London was also a place of massive traffic jams, epidemics, pollution, and filth. Social tensions were obvious and the divide between the rich and poor was enormous. There were, however, a number of well-known philanthropists and foremost among them was the 73-year-old 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. A well-known champion of the working classes and urban poor, and the first president of the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, he set up a charity with the aim of providing places at the busiest cab stands where the drivers of hansom cabs and later hackney carriages could obtain “good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices”.
Between 1875 and 1914, 61 shelters were built in central London at a cost of about £200 each. Because the shelters were erected at cab stands on public highways either in the curb lane or in the middle of the road, the police ordered that they could be no larger than a horse and cart. In spite of their small size, however, they managed to provide a working kitchen and bench seating for 10–13 men on either side of a long narrow table.
Today only 13 shelters remain. Found mostly in the more salubrious parts of west London – a well-taxied area – they continue to function as diners, each with its regular clientele of cabbies. The shelters are very similar to private clubs; only cabbies are allowed inside and each shelter has its own personality, its own menu, and its own particular clientele.
Take-away food such as sandwiches, soup, and drinks, is served through a window hatch to all comers, however, and it is this passing trade that actually allows the tenants to make a decent living and local builders, postmen, salesmen, tourists, and students to get a reasonably priced lunch.
Not far from the original shelter built by Armstrong, Lidija Armanda runs a shelter six days a week from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon at Wellington Place in Saint John’s Wood (also known by its restaurant name, “The Chapel Shelter”). Lidija, originally from Croatia, has brought healthier, more exotic tastes and non-British cuisine into her kitchen.
Pointing to her patrons, Lidija says, “They were all raised on steak and kidney pie and fried fish and potatoes and piles of grease and fat. I refuse to serve this. I’m also against sweets but sometimes I give in and make bread and butter pudding. I try to give them decent, well-balanced food with a Mediterranean flavour. It is healthier and tastier than the typical English and slowly they have come to appreciate it.
Read on "Some of them had never had olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, basilica or coriander."
“Some of them had never had olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, basilica or coriander until they ate here. Now they can’t get enough of it. I even have a special jar full of typical Croatian spices that I add to some of my cooking. Right now I’d say that at least 90 per cent like salads. That’s a big switch for them.”
Kensington Park Road – outside numbers 8–10
Kensington Road – north side
Russell Square – northwest corner
St George’s Square – north side
Thurloe Place, Kensington – opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum
Warwick Avenue – Clifton Gardens
Wellington Place, St John’s Wood
Listening to us talk condiments and spices, one cabbie turns to me and says, “Write this down now: Lidija has extended our lives by a few years by making us healthy food. She has personally saved me from a McDonalds Hell.” Another cabbie looks at me and says, “I bring in the surplus organic vegetables from my allotment for Lidija because she appreciates them and we get wonderful plates of grilled vegetables and salads in exchange.” A third cabbie chimes in, “For me, it’s Lidija’s chicken baguettes. I have to have my chicken baguette fix every day and then I’m satisfied.”
Because Lidija spends so much time here and actually employs her son and daughter to help out, she tries to create a family atmosphere. In fact, her son Andre is well known for his band, his fishcakes, his wall drawings, and his perfect omelettes. In the corner is a free lending library of magazines, newspapers, and paperback books. Often the guitars, donated by cabbies, come down from the walls and someone plays. Frequently there are quizzes to raise money for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. In fact, this shelter appears to be much more than a pit stop for hungry cabbies. It seems to be a place where the cook, her children, and her patrons all form bonds and have fun.
Lidija seems to think this may partially be due to her Croatian background. “Food is an important part of my culture and I have tried to do that here,” she says. “It is food that brings people together and it is food that helps make friends and keeps us together. I look forward to work every day because the guys are an interesting bunch and they don’t treat this place like a restaurant. They treat it like their home. And we all treat each other like family.”
Watching the cabbies come and go, I see a place full of smiles and laughs and good-natured teasing. Everyone is greeted by name. Family dramas are discussed. Famous and difficult passengers are talked about. Politics are debated. Road closures are mentioned. Frustrations are vented. And, of course, recipes are swapped. It seems as though Lidija has not only given these cabbies a welcome respite from London’s mad traffic but has also piqued their interest in food.Back in 1875 when Captain George Armstrong built the first shelter, I doubt that he envisioned a place where a Croatian cook would be roasting vegetables for a group of organic vegetable-growing, book-borrowing, guitar-playing, quiz-taking, recipe-swapping, fund-raising cabbies.
Dawn Starin is an honorary research associate at University College London who has been studying and writing about the people, primates, and forests of West Africa and Asia for decades. An extended version of this article appeared in a summer 2010 issue (vol 10, number 3) of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.