Café Pier, a tiny new café on the north bank of the Thames in Chelsea, has an enviable location. Sitting at one of its handful of tables, you can look out across the river to Albert Bridge and Battersea Park, and beyond that to the revitalised London landmark Battersea Power Station. Dog walkers and couples stop by for coffee and toasted sandwiches, while joggers on the river path look on enviously as they pant past.
For most of its history, however, the building’s priorities lay in the other direction, on the main road. This is one of London’s historic cabmen’s shelters, the little huts dotted throughout the city to offer places for taxi drivers to stop, freshen up and get something to eat and drink. This one had fallen into disuse in recent decades, since the road became a red route and cabs could no longer park there while their drivers got their tea and sarnies. It has been revived by Melis Kurum, who has a day job in restaurant PR, and her friend Cem Kemahli.
‘We first spotted it on lockdown walks,’ she says. ‘So we’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years. We looked into it and found out that it was owned by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, so we reached out to them and they explained why it had closed. We were excited to put it back into public use.’
The Heritage of London trust helped fund the restoration of the shelter, to get it in a position where it could be reoccupied, before Kuruk and Kemahli took over running the smart green-painted café. The new menu is short but appetising: toast with jam and butter, soft boiled egg and soldiers, focaccia sandwiches, bagels and toasties, with natural wines… which perhaps might not be so familiar to the original cab drivers.
At one stage there were dozens of these shelters around the capital. They started in the late 19th century, to provide ‘good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices’ to the drivers of hansom cabs, which were horse-drawn at the time. Part of the motivation was to stop them from drinking so much on the job. There were strict rules about them: they could only be used by licensed drivers, and gambling, alcohol and swearing were all banned.
By 1914 there were 61, but by the end of the Second World War many had been damaged, and they continued to fall into disuse as motoring habits changed. Today only 13 remain, all north of the river, but the Café Pier is unique in being open to non-cabbies.
‘Everyone is surprised to see it back up,’ Kurum says. ‘It’s lovely to see people enjoying the shelter again after all these years.’ The customers have been mostly locals, but they’ve also had parties of schoolchildren, and curious foodies. There are plans to do pop-ups with chefs, to make the shelter more of a destination. They have even had a few cabbies down – although they have to park further away.