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A Giant Hippocampus

A Giant Hippocampus


If you want to know how tough it is to navigate London, just think about the route from my favorite hotel (The Stafford) to my favorite curry house on Brick Lane. It’s only 3.9 miles, but there are 15 turns (if you count the slight right at Piccadilly and the slight left at Old Street).

Ever wonder how London’s Hansom cabbies always know where they’re going?

Thank The Knowledge, the brutal test they have to pass to get their All London license (also known as the “Green Badge”). They have to know 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. They also have to know places of interest – hotels, museums, theaters – and important landmarks -Lord Nelson’s statue, Churchill’s War Room, Hyde Park Corner – within a quarter mile radius of the start and finish points of any one of the 320 runs. What makes this all the harder is the fact that London isn’t set up on a grid, like New York.

It takes about three years’ of study to pass The Knowledge, most of it spent driving around in unpleasant weather on a scooter, poring over rain-soaked maps.

How can any one person know every street in London? Their brain grows.

According to a University College London study, Hansom cab drivers have a larger hippocampus compared with other people. That’s the part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals. And if they didn’t start out with a larger than average hippocampus, they grew one.

“There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the brain changes,” said Dr. Eleanor Maguire, who led the research team. “The hippocampus has changed its structure to accommodate their huge amount of navigating experience.”

Of course, there are a few tricks. Students use the pneumonic “Little Apples Grow Quickly” to help them remember the order of theaters on the north side of Shaftesbury Avenue: Lyric, Apollo, Gielgud, and Queen’s.

As hard as it is to pass The Knowledge, it’s worth it. On average, London cabbies earn about £200 over a 12-hour workday, or about £55,000 a year (before expenses). That’s a marked change from the days when cabbies worried about Kipper Season. That’s the age-old term for the slow period, usually in January and February, when tourism (and fares) is off. The term came about because cabbies had to eat Kipper (usually herring or mackerel) because they couldn’t afford better food.

I don’t think Kipper season’s much of a concern anymore. Hansom cabs cost about a third more than minicabs. But I think they’re worth it. You see, my favorite curry house is in White Chapel, within walking distance of the five Jack the Ripper murders. So it pays to get where you’re going the first time.

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