Last Monday one of our regulars came in for a late breakfast. “How is your day going?” I asked. “Well I’ve just been reading your latest rant about British food on your blog. Seems I’m to blame.”
Oops. If this Australian has offended it is without malice or intent. As Russell Davies so politely put it, I’m simply trying to understand “Britain's peculiar food culture”.
I have discovered that British peculiarities can also be lovely.
For the last few months I have been cycling past a curious green hut in the middle of Kensington Park Road in West London.
I could never work out what it was but assumed it was some sort of council shed used to store street cleaning equipment and road signs. It was when I was watching Marco Pierre White’s Great British Feast that I learned that it is in fact a café for cab drivers called a Cabman’s Shelter.
These huts were built in the 1800s with funding from philanthropists to enable cab drivers to park their cabs on the public highway and have a hot meal and a cup of tea without having to pay for parking or for someone to watch their cab. 13 of the 61 built are still operating as cafes but getting to see one in operation is no easy feat, especially if you are not a cab driver and therefore don’t have The Knowledge which presumably includes the locations and opening hours of these exclusive members’ clubs.
I am too early on my way to work, and there are no signs of life on my way home.
I asked one of the locals walking her dog one night whether she knew when I could find it open. “Sorry, I’m not a cab driver”. So next time I was in a cab I asked the driver but he said he didn't know anything about them either.
"I never go there. It’s really just for the old guys.”
"How do you manage to grab a meal while you are on duty?"
"I eat at The Wolseley. There’s a cab rank right outside".
Finally I got my timing right when I managed to get away from the café just before lunchtime and was allowed a glimpse into the secret world of the cabman’s shelter on Russell Square .
What I saw was one of the finest displays of camaraderie around a shared table that I have seen.
8 cab drivers squeezed along narrow benches talking about the football, having a meal and a cup of tea and a rest from the chaos of London traffic. I got the impression that this was the highlight of their day - a ritual they have been following for years with familiar faces coming and going.
A sign that was erected after a period when the drivers were "dropping like flies".
Maureen, who has been cooking meals for the drivers in the tiny galley kitchen for 32 years, tells me that most of them order a fry up which costs £4.25 and comes with a cup of tea and two slices of white bread.
They were interested to hear about my café but when I told them that poached eggs on toast cost £5 they roared with laughter. “Time for prices to go up boys!” Maureen shouted.
I made a quick exit before I was lynched.