At the crack of dawn on October 17, a convoy of 100 London taxis set off from Docklands to Dover, their orange “for hire” lights a-glow. Accompanied by City of London police cars, ambulances, AA vehicles, and roaringly fast police outriders from London and France, it was a magnificent sight.
The reason was pretty magnificent, too. For the 15th year, the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers were fulfilling their tradition of charitable works by taking 110 children with life-threatening and chronic diseases to Disneyland Paris. It is a treat that will stay with them for the rest of their lives – which, in some cases, will not be long at all. As one driver put it: “Some of the children may not make it to this time next year.”
But it is not just for the children – it also gives sorely-tested siblings and parents a three-day break, during which they don’t have to think about anything except enjoying themselves.
The scheme began in 1994, the year Disneyland Paris – then known as Eurodisney – opened. The resort had a troubled first few months, and invited 50 London taxis carrying 100 children from Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) to visit free of charge. It was a fabulous publicity stunt but the children loved it.
Since then, 3,000 children have been taken there, and large amounts of money have been raised to pay for the trip. Everyone involved gives their time for free – the cabbies, police, ambulance men and women, nurses and doctors.
For us, it all started in June when Great Ormond Street asked whether our five-year-old daughter, Blossom Barrow, would like to come on the Magical Taxi Tour, along with her brother Otto and one parent. As I wrote in these pages earlier in the year, Blossom has been diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer with a high rate of recurrence, and London taxis had played a comforting role throughout her illness – sometimes refusing to accept a fare as they took us to or from the hospital.
Blossom had had a gruelling year – today, six months post-treatment, she is in remission and good spirits, though we can’t know how long this will last. She is also besotted by Disney princesses and theme parks. This enthusiasm is shared by her brother, who has sometimes found it hard to take the attention lavished on his sister in hospital. So going to Disneyland with the taxi-drivers would be truly thrilling for them both – so much so, I didn’t dare mention it at first, in case something went wrong. But when their father and I finally told them (I won the battle to go with them), they talked about it with glee all through the summer.
So at 5.30am on the 17th, Blossom, Otto, their father and I turned up at GOSH, which, along with other hospitals such as the Royal London; Chase Farm, Enfield; the Royal Marsden; University College Hospital and the charity Clic Sergeant, puts forward children for the tour. (Phil Davis, the event’s energetic organiser and one of its founders, also liaises with the Teenage Cancer Trust for ”kids who get lost in the middle’’.)
We were a motley gathering: small children, teenagers, some in wheelchairs, and of many races. We waited as the drivers assigned to each family turned up to claim us. Would ours be the burly man in a silly Disney hat? Or the bearded, sporty-looking one?
It turned out to be John who, when he called out Blossom’s name, inspired instant trust: he was gentle, bespectacled and a veteran of 14 previous trips – he had missed only one when his brother had a heart attack. We put on our green wristbands and necktags, the children waved goodbye to their father and climbed into the cab. There, they found two of the biggest goody bags ever, and squealed with pleasure.
So much so, it was hard to tear them away for breakfast at the East Winter Garden in Canary Wharf, where we were serenaded by a band from the Blues and Royals, and the children were presented with T-shirts and €30 spending money. The Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman David Lewis cut a red ribbon at the front of the convoy, and the trip was on its way. Next stop – Dover.
On the cross-Channel ferry, John told us about his previous trips and a little about the children he had met, but he never once asked intrusive questions and was kindness itself. Later, on a motorway pit-stop, he produced a box of Krispy Kremes; Blossom, who has always turned her nose up at doughnuts, excitedly ate most of one.
It was dark by the time we arrived at Disney’s Hotel Cheyenne with its Wild West interiors. Next morning, the day dawned clear and blue. Blossom and Otto were so excited they were up at 5.30am. Five hours later, it still took 40 minutes of queuing to get through the turnstiles; the resort, said John, was the busiest he had known. The rest of the day was more agreeable: watching a Hallowe’en show and the afternoon parade, and greeting Ariel, Blossom’s favourite princess. Otto’s preferred ride turned out to be Alice’s Curious Labyrinth, while Blossom’s top choice was Pirates of the Caribbean.
The day ended with a party in the ballroom of the New York Hotel. Silver and dark blue balloons bobbed above each chair, and everyone dressed up. Orange juice, chicken nuggets, chips and chocolate cake – a child’s ideal menu – were followed by dancing and a visit from Mickey and Minnie Mouse. But Blossom couldn’t keep awake, and eventually we had to carry her, asleep, back to the hotel.
At the party, a police biker had promised the children the chance to sit on and rev up his bike in the morning. It provided a high point on which to leave. It was moving to see the pleasure this gave to so many – in particular one teenage boy who grinned as his slouched form was lifted from his wheelchair. Police and ambulances made powerful use of their sirens as we departed – a stirring farewell.
Incredibly, there are just eight cab drivers and livery members on the committee that organises the tour, and they give up at least 21 days of work a year while doing so.
“We raise money by selling the sides of the taxis to livery companies and large corporations for the weekend,” says Phil Davis. “Then there are people such as P&O who have paid for all our Channel crossings for 15 years. Even when there was a fishermen’s blockade, they paid for us to go by Eurostar. We’ve seen two fuel blockades – on one, Texaco converted a tanker for us and we took our own diesel – one lorry blockade and two fishermen’s blockades, but the trip has always gone ahead.”
While Disneyland had been one element of the trip, what was really special for me was the means of transport and being wrapped in affection and jollity. When you have a seriously ill child, you live in fear. For once, outside a hospital environment, everyone understood.
Without doubt our taxi driver, John, made the trip the pleasure it was; he looked after us, told stories, made everything easy. I’m sure the other drivers did the same. As Blossom put it, it was “the best thing ever”.