Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 49 seconds
Everyone has a story – but taxi drivers surely have the most. Meet Black Cab driver Ray Coggin – who can talk about traffic and the stars he’s met in the back of his cab just as lucidly as London’s history. Here he gives Islington Faces a special tour of Islington so we meet a ballonist, a Tudor statesman, Pepys and a wellbeing entrepreneur. Interview by Nicola Baird
“I look like the bloke in the photo,” emails Ray Coggin arranging to meet Islington Faces at the taxi rank in the middle of Baker Street. The plan is he’ll talk about growing up in Islington and UK Taxi Tours which runs bespoke trips around London.
It’d be hard not to enjoy time spent with this witty North Londoner, so no wonder his clients are often repeat business. “We do any kind of tour – literary, crime, mystery and espionage. There’s one for Dickens’ fans and even the chance to follow Nelson’s route from his London column to his Portsmouth flagship,” he explains adding that the one-off fee isn’t so high if a family of five, friends or business colleagues at the end of a conference get together.
“American and Japanese businessmen who’ve been to London before like something different to do, like our nice Islington tour from City Road’s Honourable Artillery Company to Hertfordshire.”
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On Ray’s taxi tour travellers meet the Italian, Vincenzo Lunardi – the Daredevil Aeronaught as he was known then – who became the first man to fly a hydrogen balloon in England after a nail-biting launch from Finsbury Fields near Old Street in 1784. They then drive to Canonbury Tower, with its links to Tudor statesman Ralph Sadleir, and Thomas Cromwell (the star of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall) before heading out to Sadleir’s country estate in Hertfordshire where the music festival, Standon Calling is held every July.
On this bespoke day trip there’s time for a pub lunch in the pretty village of Standon before a look at Sadleir’s magnificent tomb in St Mary’s church. This is followed by a quick detour to the neighbouring village of Puckeridge to see the Crown & Falcon, an inn where Samuel Pepys stayed in 1662 and famously bought the landlord’s shoes because his own no longer fitted.
“We were researching a Tudor tour following Sir Ralph Sadleir who was born in Hackney, and the protégé of Thomas Cromwell, who owned Canonbury Tower. Sadleir became a statesman and served four monarchs beginning with Henry VIII. By the time Sadleir died he was the richest commoner in England,” says Ray who works with Westminster & Islington Guide, Joanna Moncrieff, to develop their tours.
“We found we could inter-splice Lunardi’s balloon trip, Samuel Pepys and Ralph Sadleir on the drive to Hertfordshire and on the way back go via the springs at Amwell which feed the New River which goes into Islington right to Sadler’s Wells,” explains Ray.
What do you know about balloonists in Islington?
Q: Tell us more about Vincenzo Lunardi
Ray Coggin: “There were 150,000 people waiting and Vincenzo was scared his hydrogen balloon wouldn’t work because he thought the crowd would lynch him. He took a cat, a dog and a pigeon to prove that everyone could survive. He managed to take off at 2pm and the dog was jettisoned at once. The pigeon flew off. He got as far as Welham Green – where the Hatfield train crash was – then he jettisoned more things, gave the cat to a nine year old girl (who promptly sold it) and took off again ending up at Standon Green End in Hertfordshire. There’s a plaque there. On the way back he stopped at the Bull’s Head in Ware.”
- Find out more about the 1784 flight to Balloon Corner, Welham Green and the balloon monument at Standon Green End.
Q: So that’s why Finsbury Park tube station has a balloon design on the platform?
Nicola Baird: Perhaps. According to Islington Faces’ research, Annabel Grey, the mural designer of the hot air balloon at Finsbury Park was given the theme of hot air balloons. She possibly confused Finsbury Park with Finsbury Fields (nearer Old Street) where Vincenzo Lunardi made his flight. See more info here.
Or we go through Ware to see the tomb of Michael the ‘oldest man in the world’ who made his living selling an elixir of life and died when he was 148.”
Ray’s laughing when he says this, it’s clear he thinks Michael was a charlatan and his wife then used his death as a business opportunity.
Where does Ray Coggin recommend London visitors go?
- I always recommend Upper Street. It’s got a buzz, theatres, pubs things to see and history. It’s been buzzing for 20 years and great if you’ve only got a day or two in London.
- Arsenal for a game! Or do a tour, or go to the museum. I feel historically connected to all around the Arsenal. Arsenal is in the blood. In my father’s time he’d watch games from the flats at the college end, which became the Clock End. And I’ve got a season ticket.
- Canonbury Tower. If you book on a tour with Clerkenwell & Islington Guides you’ll see how fantastic it is from the roof and the history that goes with it (next tour is Friday 13 January 2017). You can see where bombs hit places, post war development and then marvel at the fact that a Tudor building even survived the flying bomb round the corner.
- King’s Head Theatre. I once saw Suzanna York, who was a heroine of mine at the time. In a previous life I was a courier and delivered to her home address – a major star.
- Go to the canal. I’ve spent the past 30 years on and off the canal and occasionally I still bring my boat to London. Going back 15-16 years with my last boat I went through the tunnel in Islington and then came out into the gardens by Noel Road /Vincent Street on a seven day mooring. It was so good being within walking distance of Upper Street and I managed to stay for nine months before moving on to Bishop’s Stortford, on the border of Hertfordshire and Essex, and then three years later to Wolverhampton, where I sold the boat.
Ray’s Arsenal born – still a season ticket holder – although he lives out of town now, with his wife, Liz, in Chichester. “Arsenal is in the blood,” explains Ray. “My father was born in King Henry Street and lived there until his family moved during the war to Hurlock Street, N5. They didn’t tell him the house was gone, so when he came back from the war he had to ask a neighbour where they were!”
Ray’s dad met his mum in Chichester and the pair were married in Islington at Joan of Arc, Highbury Park. When Ray was born he was christened at Joan of Arc. Not long after his family moved to Turnpike Lane, Hornsey. But football took them back to Highbury frequently.
Definitely don’t get Ray started on the state of London’s traffic. He’s a taxi driver! But Ray’s also a fantastic story teller with a magnificent twist to his day job who can spin such a good yarn about long-gone Londoners it’s almost as if they’ve been passengers in the back of his distinctive blue cab. Do have a look at his website or join one of the Christmas Lights walks Ray runs, with Joanna, for charity every year. In 2016 (Saturday 17 Dec, 5-6.45pm) they raised more than £400 for Stand up to Cancer. See more here.
- Book a bespoke tour with Ray by going to https://londonanduktaxitours.com/tours/
- Follow Ray on twitter @TaxiToursLondon or email him firstname.lastname@example.org
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. As this will be the last interview until 2017 here’s wishing all Islington Faces readers happy and safe holidays. Many thanks for all your support over the past year. Nicola