Meet the Norfolk mayor celebrating 30 years as a London cabbie
PUBLISHED: 18:04 04 December 2018
In 1988 Tina Kiddell was the youngest woman to ever become a London black cab driver, and only the 42nd ever woman to be given her badge.
Thirty years on she is still going, driving people of all shapes and sizes around the capital - all while representing the people of Watton as mayor.
On Thursday, November 28, at the age of 53, Ms Kiddell celebrated her 30th anniversary of being given her badge and officially beginning her career as a black cab driver.
• The Knowledge - more material to learn than a brain surgeon
To become a black cab driver in London, first you must pass The Knowledge.
It is one of the most comprehensive exams to sit, with new drivers expected to know 320 routes within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross - alongside all the road names and landmarks within a quarter-mile radius of the start and end points of each route.
If you make one mistake and go down a one-way street the wrong way or fail to follow road signs along the route you have ingrained into your brain, your chances of passing are over.
It was no different 30 years ago when Ms Kiddell decided to become a cabbie.
“It was exactly the same as it is now,” she said. “You have to learn every building, every street, every park, every government office, every nightclub, every club, every association, every place in London.
“If it is on the A to Z you have to know it.”
Introduced in 1865, legend has it the Knowledge of London was developed following the Great Exhibition of 1851 held at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
The story goes that hundreds of thousands of visitors complained to the London authorities about their cabmen not knowing where they were going or how to get to their destination.
Ever since, getting The Knowledge has been the only way you can become a London black cab driver.
Ms Kiddell said: “There is evidence to support that the hippocampus in a London cab driver is larger than anyone else because it is swollen due to the sheer amount of information and knowledge.
“It is more material to learn than a brain surgeon.”
She added: “I did it in just over two years which is quite quick but I did it full time because I was supported by my mum and dad.
“You go around on little mopeds doing ‘runs’ which go from point to point and you build up a framework where we know everything that may come up on those runs.
“It is only when someone gets in your cab when you start actually doing it visually.”
• A woman in a man’s world
“I was the youngest woman to ever get a badge at that time and I was only the 42nd woman”, Ms Kiddell said.
“I got Knowledge Boy of the Year - the person who gets the best score - and I knew I had stepped into a man’s world.
“They tried to change the name of the award to Knowledge Person of the Year but I didn’t want to be that person that changed it so I refused, I wanted to be the Knowledge Boy.”
There are more than 25,000 men working as cabbies and only between 1,500 and 2,000 women, meaning people like Ms Kiddell remain very much in the minority.
Not averse to working in traditionally male industries, Ms Kiddell also runs a market stall in Watton’s High Street market.
She said: “Being a cab driver is one of the oldest trades along with being a market trader and it is still predominately male dominated.
“When I first went out we were very very rare. People used to get in and say ‘I haven’t had a woman cab driver before’.”
Early on, it took a brave woman to be a cab driver.
Ms Kiddell described needing “extraordinarily broad shoulders” when going into a cafe for a mid-shift caffeine hit.
“It took a lot of guts to step in there and take the banter. Everything they would say then is totally illegal now but it was funny and you gave it back as good as you got.
“You will still find drivers that are still the same but more tongue in cheek now. There is quite a good rapport with them now. They take you under their wing some of them were a bit die hard but they are now a lot more accepting.”
• Juggling civic duties with the capital’s call
Today, Ms Kiddell has to balance looking after her elderly parents with her job in London, her market stall, being a single mum of two twins and her role as the mayor of Watton.
“I laugh hysterically when I try to balance it,” she said. “I think it is balls in the air and I care for my parents so I am at home a lot more now than I used to be which is why I have the time to go on the council.
“When I had my twins it had a massive impact. I was hugely big while pregnant but I carried on driving right up until a couple of weeks until I was due.”
She added: “There was a garage that looked after my cab and when I went in there after having Fred and Daisy, they couldn’t believe it when they came in in their baby chairs in the back of the cab.
“We had four grown men all greased up and most of them had a tear in their eye.”
Admitting she did not have much time on her hands for herself, owning her own cab and being self employed gave her some flexibility.
Ms Kiddell said: “Because I am self employed my hours are my own to juggle so in between meetings I jump down to London and I am very lucky my accommodation puts me up at very last minute.”
Anyone can get into the back of a cab and while celebrity pick-ups are relatively common, the normal punter has no idea they are being driven around the capital by a Norfolk mayor.
She said: “It is quite funny sometimes because our town clerk can be phoning me about all sorts of things such as drainage, the high street market, problems with Breckland council and I will have a punter in the back of the cab.
“I will be talking to her about different things and the people in the back of the cab have no idea that their cabbie is the mayor of Watton.”
According to Ms Kiddell, having to travel to London and work there does not impact her civic role back home in Norfolk.
In fact, it has given her the opportunity to encounter new and different ideas.
She said: “It gives me the opportunity to drive around London and look at how things are done in London. I bring back, hopefully, some fresher ideas because you are not stagnating.”
• The people
From Madonna to Eric Pickles, Dame Judi Dench to Boy George, Ms Kiddell has seen them all in the back seat of her cab.
“I have spent 30 years with people talking to me from the ‘gasworks’ - what London cabbies call Parliament - and people from the highest echelons right down to the dregs of society,” she said.
“You get a real diverse range of conversations from one job to the next.”
She added: “I find that I am going to meetings in my mayoral capacity now like Chamber of Commerce meetings and I am talking to the same type of people I was as a cabbie and they are talking to the front of my head and not the back.
“It is just surreal, I have really met some amazing people over my time and I am still meeting them in the same capacity as the mayor of Watton.”
Celebrities a-plenty have sat in the back of Ms Kiddell’s cabbie, but the black cab ‘code of honour’ does not allow her to divulge any of the gossip.
She said: “I’ve had Bill Nighy, Madonna and Guy Ritchie before they split up, Kylie Minogue just after Michael Hutchence had died. I’ve had Boy George, Dame Judi Dench, Hugh Grant, Eric Pickles, Eric Sykes, and Kim Wilde as well.
“When you pick them up they are ordinary people. I’ve picked up Dame Judi Dench a few times and she is really really lovely. The bigger they are they nicer they are.”
She added: “It is indicative of the whole of the human race, you have got nice ones and some not so nice ones, whether they are famous or not.”
• The places
Working in London has also meant dropping people off amongst the iconic buildings of the capital from St Paul’s Cathedral to the top of Downing Street.
One moment, when tasked with taking a couple to a garden party in Buckingham Palace, sticks in the mind for Ms Kiddell.
She said: “I got called into the inner sanctum – where you go through to where the red carpet is at Buckingham Palace – and the doorman opened the door and I was so in awe of where I was dropping this couple off for their garden party I nearly forgot to take the fare.
“It was just a sense of heritage, patriotism and tradition and I was crying, just overwhelmed.”
She added: “Moments like that reiterate why I drive a black cab and not a minicab or another form of transport. You are an iconic legend of London and part of London’s finest.
“Every cab driver will be as patriotic as the next. I do love the job.”