At Your Convenience: Part 2

from by Loo Tours

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Plunge yourself into the surprisingly dynamic world of the British Public Toilet. This tour takes you past some of London's most iconic views with a new twist.

Part 2 takes you from the toilets of the Embankment Gardens to Covent Garden.

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Stop outside the gates and look at the sign on the right of the entrance.

You’ll notice, these are Award Winning Toilets. The Loo of the Year Awards have been held in Britain since 1987 to encourage high standards in toilet provision.

Sadly, you’ll have to cough up 50p to visit these particular award winners… or any others in the borough of Westminster.

Over the past 10 years in Britain it is estimated that 40% of all public toilets have been closed. They have, during this time, been handed down the social food chain to Local Authorities, who have no legal obligation to provide you with a public toilet.

This is why you’ll see vastly different things going on in different London boroughs.

In August 2012 Westminster council ceased to operate any public toilets. They were contracted out to Carslile Cleaning Company… Trading under the name City Loos, a subsidiary of the Impellam Group owned by the billionare and former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft. So he’s the one you can write to if you want to complain about the 50p charges in place at all of Westminster’s public toilets.

You might remind him of his own saying: “Those who can afford to help others have a moral duty to do so.”

Speaking of positive social change, we can’t leave this building without looking at the rather unusual unit on the left.

That is a changing Places Toilet. These facilities are designed for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities or other physical conditions which mean they need the support of a carer to help them change.

Inside there is an adult sized changing table, a tracking hoist and plenty of space for everybody who may need to in there.

The name “changing places” comes from the fact that for the people who need them these toilets are the difference between leaving your house for more than a couple hours, by which time you’d have to return home to change in a clean environment, or else be changing on a grotty restroom floor somewhere.

To me they highlight how important toilets really are: while for most of us it’s a minor inconvenience to pay 50p they do affect some people’s lives drastically.

Continue along the street now in the direction you were going. You’re looking for a garden gate on your left.

Turn Right into the garden gate and walk straight on.

See that stone arch on the far side of the garden? That’s where we’re headed.

This garden that you’re walking through was once part of the River Thames. After the Great Stink in 1858 the Metropolitan Board of Works was faced with a choice: dig up the expensive houses along the strand or else reclaim some land from the river.

The second option had the additional advantage of causing the river to flow faster, helping to carry away the refuse that was already there. In fact, many architects had been saying since the 1600’s that the embankments should be built.

The new land also provided space for the lovely garden that you’re standing in now, which has, from its first moment been here to stand on top of sewage. Ever wondered why the grass is so green? Well that’s not actually why. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are currently on top of 8 million people’s waste!

Stop in front of the gate.

This gate was once a river gate belonging to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. It was landlocked in the building of the sewer, and they never got round to moving it back to the river’s edge.

From here, turn left and follow slightly winding path. I am about to show you what I consider to be one of the weirdest things on the modern public toilet scene. It may require some imagination and you get major bonus points if you can spot it before I tell you what it is!

Turn Right. See that staircase on your left. Go up and back down the other side. When you’re there, look for a circle on the ground and stand on top of it.

You are currently standing on a Urilift: one of London’s nocturnal pop-up urinals. At night they rise from the ground and stand approximately 7 feet high… a silver column with three open air urinals round it.

The Urilift was invented in the Netherlands as a solution to the problem of on-street urination by people drunkenly stumbling out of pubs. It can be put up at night and lowered during the day so as not to be an eyesore. London introduced them in the early 2000’s. Westminster council estimates that every year approximately 10 thousand gallons of urine is at risk of ending up on the streets!

I have a particular bone to pick with these… they are for men only! It is the end of a long line of gender inequalities in the toilet, which we’ll talk more about as we go.

Start heading up the hill.

You’ll want to try and stick to the right for the moment, because while it may not look it this is actually a road.

The fact that men can pee standing up has long been an evolutionary advantage. Even the clothes we wear… the fly front zips on our trendy jeans are designed to accommodate this. And this has meant they always save a penny. At the Crystal Palace Exhibition when the toilets raised £2440-some over £2000 was from women. You can’t charge a man to have a wee!

He’ll just find somewhere else to do it! So urinals were provided completely free of charge.

In some ways this remains true today. In addition to the Urilifts, plastic urinals are dropped throughout the nightlife areas of Soho. Some public conveniences still have coin operated locks on the cubicle doors rather than a general entrance fee.

The modern convenience which I am by far the most bitter about, petty though it may be, are the Wee Controlled video games. If you’re a man and you go to certain bars across the city you will find a screen above the urinal… it plays a commercial until you approach it, at which point it senses your presence and says “Pee to Start the Game!”

As a woman this was as far as I could get. But boys, as you wee you can shoot penguins while you ski down a slope! When you get to the end it gives you your score, and you go drink more so you can play again. It’s great for everybody… except women who are “anatomically challenged” according to Captive Media, the game’s creators.

Pause for a moment here at the end of John Adam Street.

Down at the far end you can just make out the headquarters of the Royal Society of Arts, who have been so involved in the advancement of public toilets throughout the years. It is thanks to their keen watch that we have the figures for the Great Exhibition, and that efforts were made after that time to improve the state of London’s Loos. I’ll tell you a bit more about them later on.

Carry on walking up the hill. See the steps in front of you leading down into the underground? Walk to the top and meet me there.

Head down into the underground.

Now you’re at the bottom of the stairs turn left. You’re in Charring Cross station. There are 30p toilets upstairs in the mainline station, but nothing in the Underground.

In fact, less than half of the 270 stations served by the London Underground have toilets. In Central London that drops to less than a quarter.

Turn right and start heading upwards. Past the paddle gates on your left.

Station toilets are overseen by the various train operating companies. They decide whether to charge you or not and how pleasant of an experience to make it.

There was much toilet controversy over the new Crossrail, who declared that they had no intention of adding toilets to their stations. Local campaigners painted a horrific vision of the major transport hubs flooded with stranded customers having to depend on street corners and bushes.

On your right is Mad World Fancy Dress. Stop by the Window. It’s not a toilet, it’s just kind of interesting. I think that this is the most bizzarely placed costume shop in London… in case you just happen to step off the tube at Charring Cross and realize you forgot your fancy dress…?

Turn around. Across the hall is a fitness equipment shop. Again rather bizarre
… you know, in case you need to pick up a treadmill on your way home or anything like that.

Continue walking down the passage. On some days ahead of you you’ll see street dancers practicing in the corridor. Speaking as a former drama student, I know how precious London space can be.

Take Exit 7 on your left… back up to ground level. I’ll meet you again at the top.

As you come out the exit, to your left you’ll see a butterfly urinal… so called because the designers believe that when it is open it looks like a graceful butterfly spreading its wings to shelter needy toilet goers. Go have a look at it… but make sure there’s no one using it first! Unlike the Urilift it is here constantly… but like the urilift it’s for men only. So ladies have to hunt yet farther afield…

Before you carry on walking towards the church, take a moment to admire the back window. I think it’s a rather cool feature. It was designed by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary. The window depicts an abstract cross… as though reflected in the water. It is felt my some to symbolize the Church of England’s shifting attitudes on race, gender and sexuality.

Start walking again. Continue on towards that glass cylinder alongside the church. When you get there walk round it and stop by the automatic doors in front.

Churches have a long history of interest in sanitation.

Our first ever reference to organized sanitation actually comes from the bible… it didn’t quite make the ten commandments, but later on in the very same speech on the mount to the Israelites Moses says:

“Thou shalt have a place also without the camp whither thou shalt go forth abroad. And thou shalt have a paddle upon they weapon. And it shall be when thou wilt ease thyself abroad thou shalt dig therewith and turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.”

Modern translation: Go outside the camp and bury it.

St. Martin in the Fields is the self-proclaimed “Church of Ever Open Toilet Doors”… if you don’t believe me pop into the ladies toilets which are down the glass entrance to the crypt and through the café.

A sign in the ladies suggests that if you are visiting the church merely to sample the facilities you might consider making a small donation in the box provided towards the £32,000 a year cost of keeping these toilets available to all.

As a general rule if you’re exploring London, churches are either brilliant because they have a strong sense of community and welcome… or else they are rubbish because they were built before the age of indoor plumbing and haven’t updated sufficiently.

The good facilities at St Martin in the Fields are actually a relatively recent addition.

Routh wrote:

"The crypt of this famous church is a strange, dark, untidy place, but stranger still is to find loos in it! The Ladies you can’t get in because the door is jammed- Let’s hope not with Toileteers who’ve been there for an age behind it. In the Gents there’s much water on the floor, 3 stalls, 2 hand-basins without soap or towels, and 4 cubicles, one with no seat, one with no paper, one with no seat or paper, one with a seat but not attached to the basin, and no chain or paper. I suspect this is all temporary because there were a lot of work men milling around, meaning playing cards and drinking tea, and one of them said he thought they were turning the place into a restaurant."

Look across the street. The National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square… you have so many options for toilets here! I get irrationally excited about this, and never know which ones to use.

Head towards you’re right, away from the Church. You’re aiming for the Zebra crossing Just past the statue of Edith Cavell, a First World War nurse who was shot by the Germans.

Before you cross look up the street to your left. See the big round ticket booth there? That was once a ladies toilet.

On the final leg of our journey we’re going to fill in that gap between the Great Exhibition and the toilets of the modern age and talk about the subterranean toilets of London and what has become of them.

Before you cross look up the street to your left. See the big round ticket booth there? That was once a ladies toilet.

On the final leg of our journey we’re going to fill in that gap between the Great Exhibition and the toilets of the modern age and talk about the subterranean toilets of London and what has become of them.

You can cross now… take your time and be careful.

This is where traffic may start to get a little hairy, so proceed with caution! The taxis and busses don’t actually want to kill you because it makes a lot of paperwork for them to deal with, but it doesn’t mean they won’t threaten to.

Once you’re across turn right and cross the street again

Turn left immediately before you pass the Chandos pub and start walking up the street.

Keep an eye out for a gap in the wall on your right.

Stop when you get to the gap in the wall, barely big enough to squeeze into.

This is Brydges Place is the Second Narrowest Alley in London, at least according to the internet. It’s also described as “A prime spot for late night piddlers.”

Start walking down the ally. Can you tell what it’s normally used for? Some days it is more multisensory than others… for which I am very sorry!

One the wall to your right there may be some interesting graffiti. There used to be a bit that said “Sorry for Pissing Here so much: Blame Maggie.” I was very sad the day they painted that over.

While this reflection on Maggie Thatcher’s reign was probably an impulsive nod to the low status of bodily functions rather than a cleverly thought out statement on Thatcher’s legacy in the field of toilets, it might be considered the privatization of the water companies in 1989 lead to an increase in prices… including the cost of flushing a toilet.

If 8 million people in London flush the toilet 4 times a day, that’s 12 million toilet flushes… over 19 million gallons of water assuming they are all the regulation 1.6 gallon flush. The UK flushes approximately one third of its clean drinking water down the loo.

Various celebrities have spoken up about this from the American president Teddy Roosevelt who said

“Civilized people should be able to dispose of their sewage in a better way than putting it in the drinking water”

to Prince Philip who said in 1965:

“This is the biggest waste of water in the country by far. You spend a pint and flush two gallons.”

At the end of the alley cross the street again and keep walking towards The Lady Magazine which should be looming up in front of you.

This is the site of another early public toilet. In 1852, the year after the Great Exhibition a group of Entrepreneurs including Samuel Morton Peto, who built Nelson’s Column, and Henry Cole who was better known for designing the first commercial Christmas Card got together to finance a ladies toilet on the corner of Bedford Street. The corresponding Gents was about a mile away on Fleet Street. They distributed 10,000 handbills and placed advertisements in the Times.

During the first month they had only 24 visitors to the ladies. That continued to drop until finally 8 months later the project was declared a failure and the toilets closed down. On-street conveniences, it seemed, were not, after all, a viable option.

Stop! Look across the street to your right. The Blue Plaque on the side of the building that is now TGI Friday’s marks where a young Charles Dickens once worked.

Here’s his great great great granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley who can tell you more about him than I can:

[Lucinda] “When Charles Dickens was 12 years old his father, mother and younger siblings all ended up in a debtors prison, in the Marshalsea in Southwark. Charles Dickens was working in a factory right here (before it was a TGI Fridays) and every morning he would leave his lodgings in Camden Town, walk here, then walk across the river to see his family in Southwark before walking all the way back again, a journey of about 8 miles every day.

“This made him very interested in the conditions of London’s poor, and one of the things that he became interested in was sanitation. When he was older, when he was writing his first novels and still working as a campaigning journalist, his younger brother Alfred Dickens became a sanitary engineer. From him, Charles Dickens learned a great deal about the need for clean water and good sanitation in London and elsewhere. Charles Dickens worked closely with contemporaries of Bazalgette and campaigners such as Henery Mayhew. He championed Sanitation for the labouring poor, and his name appears on several petitions for the improvement of public conveniences.”

Start walking again… cross the street towards the Lady Magazine. Remember what I have told you about taxis!

Turn left and walk up the street.

In this area you’ll see a lot of cycle rickshaws going by. I rode one for awhile which was great fun, until toilets took over my life.

The London Cabbies run a tight ship. They are legally known as Hackney Carriages and are the only taxis legally allowed to pick up passengers on the street.

Rickshaws get round this through an archaic loophole in the law whereby they operate as ‘stage coaches’. This means they have to charge per passenger and the price has to be agreed before you start your journey. This is useful to know if you ever end up haggling with a rickshaw rider!

Cross the street again and turn right.

We’re heading into Covent Garden now.

You won’t be able to see it yet, but on your left behind these building’s is St. Paul’s Church, not to be confused with St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is better known as the Actors church, due to the visitors from Covent Garden. The story goes that when it was built the Duke of Bedford who owned the area was not wild about the idea of a church and said to Inigo Jones, the architect “I would not have it much better than a barn”. Jones replied “then you shall have the handsomest barn in all England!”

Carry on to the end of the block, where you’ll see more cycle rickshaws waiting on your right more likely than not. When you get there I’ll give you your next instruction.

credits

from At Your Convenience: A Lavatorial Walking Tour, released November 16, 2014
Performed by Rachel Erickson (The Loo Lady)
Music by Paul Freeman
Musicians: Nadia Wilson and Julie Groves
Guest voice: Lucinda Hawksley

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