Cabmen's Shelter, Russell Square
Open from 7am – 3pm
by Evelyn Waughffle
On the west side of Russell Square stands a small wooden construction which looks like a prim garden shed. A Bloomsbury garden shed would, I suppose, be necessarily smarter and more sophisticated than its suburban counterpart, sort of like its snooty distant cousin. This one, a very fine specimen indeed, has a neat black hat of a roof and walls painted a shade of racing-green normally reserved for billiard tables. My curiosity had long been piqued by this strayed piece of garden architecture which, for all its nattiness is still somewhat provincial, not so much out of place as it is out of time. Earlier this year I was thrilled to discover that it is not a shed at all. The structure is one of thirteen still standing in London, out of sixty-odd built between 1875 and 1914 by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund. This was a fund set up by a gang of Victorian philanthropists who took pity on the men who drove hackney carriages at ungodly hours of the day and wondered, presumably, where on earth they would get their breakfasts. It is nice to think that the Victorians thought as highly of this meal as we do, and higher perhaps of cabmen. Not being a cabman I approached the shelter with some trepidation. There was an open hatch out from which blew pleasant frying smells and a door, ever so slightly ajar.
I felt like Lucy, who discovered Narnia inside a wardrobe, except that in my case Narnia was the size of a wardrobe. The shelter is both larger and smaller than you might imagine. One half houses a very well stocked kitchen, the other benches and a strange adjustable running board of a table. The eating-half is not quite as small as a matchbox, more like a decent sized bathtub. But eating your breakfast in a bathtub (with three sturdy workmen flanking you to the left and a refrigerator hemming you to the right) is not for the faint-hearted. Like Archimedes, I was suddenly keenly aware of the volume of irregular objects. Everything worked with a floating co-dependent gravity; we all had to be very careful not to upset the ketchup or the boiled eggs would fall out. Turning the pages of the Sun was a feat of marvellous collaboration.
The root of this extreme spatial curtailment is the adjustable table which loops above the benches and holds diners in place like a harness on a theme park ride. It was how I imagine eating breakfast in a lifeboat might feel; birdcage on your lap, bobbing up and down in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by rather grim strangers who you can’t quite be sure understood your request for them to ‘pass the salt’. Interestingly the ‘lifeboat’ approach to seating has been adopted (perhaps in homage) in the back of the Monmouth Coffee shop not far from here. It is as though they either don’t want you to eat at all, or for you not to be able to leave if you do.
The food. I opted for a sausage sandwich. But I could have been more imaginative as the size of the kitchen does not reflect the limits of the menu. If you want it, Terry can probably make it. The sandwich was piping hot, a tidy squelch of thick white bloomer (margarine, un-toasted) and a crush of sausages. It was a full sandwich, as if, in an unconscious echo of the shelter, the bread had been stuffed, packed, crammed. It was a rush-hour-platform of a sandwich; I was a little overwhelmed. I sipped my coffee and waited for the sandwich to cool, wondering how to tackle it. The coffee was of the milky, sugary, instant variety that I associate with youth hostels. It was lovely. The sausages were good; thick and pink, crisp and brown, but there were so many of them! The sauce to sausage ratio (there was a generous slathering of HB and tomato ketchup) was such that the thing started to lose its shape. The integrity of the structure crumbled entirely when not one but two sausage halves slipped from my grip, and out onto the plate; men overboard!
There is no cutlery in the cabmen’s shelter so I ate the escapees with my fingers which, while it may have been a little revolting to observe, was both necessary and satisfying. It also gave me the chance to effect an introduction to the three men I was breakfasting with. Our knees were practically touching but English breakfast sang-froid meant we had not shared anything but gruff nods and evasive grunts during the pantomime of sitting down without knocking anything over. There aren’t many situations as disarming as being temporarily incapacitated by a sausage sandwich. They saw me floundering, offered a stack of paper napkins and we all made friends. They were lift-repair men and gave me some very good advice about why you should never take lifts. I wondered if the shelter were smaller or larger than those famously claustrophobic spaces but kept it to myself. I will be going back. The food was good, the price excellent (£2.50 for vast s/w and coffee), and the surroundings, not to be missed.