London at Your Convenience
Los Angeles Times
Day one of my trip to London and I’m caught short at Victoria Station. But rather than pay 30p for turnstile entry to the public washroom, I hit the upstairs food court, congratulating myself on finding a freebie alternative. Except it isn’t. The turnstile here says “50p.”
“It’s one of the reasons I started this tour,” Rachel Erickson tells me the next day. The California expat moved to London to study drama in 2011 and, between classes, she launched a rent-paying sideline reflecting her keen interest in finding places to pee in the city without having to pay.
Adding a slice of history and some quirky anecdotes, her 90-minute Loo Tours soon became a hit. They now run most days, with three different routes.
Meeting at Waterloo Station – where else? – I join a dozen participants alongside the plunger-carrying “Loo Lady.” Naturally, we’re gathered outside the station’s ever-busy public facilities (30p).
“Don’t pay that – follow me instead,” says Erickson, waving her prop aloft and leading us outside with a loud “Follow the plunger!” We stop nearby and she points to a tiny “Community Toilet” sign. It indicates a gratis facility in a local pub, part of a scheme designating bar and restaurant loos for public use.
For Erickson, the scheme’s downside is that it encourages councils to close their public conveniences. We hear that an estimated 40 percent have shuttered in recent years, threatening to consign the concept to history books.
But history, it transpires, is the bottom line in London’s fascinating toilet tale. Pushing through the crowds – Erickson enjoys the double-takes triggered by her prominent plunger – we soon reach the River Thames.
Ushering us through the turnstiles of the Jubiloo here – a slick, privately-owned facility that normally charges 50p – we learn that the idea of paying would have been poo pooed by early Londoners.
Ascending a footbridge over the river, we hear why. “This is London’s first toilet,” Erickson announces with a wry smile. But while communal Roman lavatories emptied straight into the waterway, the city’s blasé ablution habits eventually backed-up.
“By the 1850s, the river was a giant cesspit. But it wasn’t until the stench reached the Houses of Parliament – during a summer nicknamed the Great Stink by the locals – that action was taken.” That meant designing a gargantuan brick-built sewerage system, much of it still in use today.
On the other side of the bridge, Erickson points out a memorial to the man who brought order to London’s ordure. Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette built a system for three million locals – 10 million short of the number it services now.
Weaving north from the river, we pass some City of Westminster public toilets – charging 50p a visit, Erickson laments – then arrive at a discreet steel ring embedded in the sidewalk. It’s a pop-up urinal that rises nightly from the ground to discourage “late-night piddlers” from sullying area alleyways.
But it’s not the only way to spend a penny here without handing over some coin. Near Trafalgar Square, Erickson lists several gratis options in the area, from Starbucks to the National Gallery. Making a mental note for future visits, I turn to my fellow toilet tourists for their take on the tour.
“We chose it because it’s odd and a little exotic,” chuckles Greenville, SC resident Bill Whiting, visiting London with his wife Rhonda. She adds that their son-in-law encouraged them to take the plunge and she’s glad they did: “we’re enjoying seeing parts of London other tourists don’t see.”
Crossing Covent Garden’s brick-cobbled plaza, we’re also hearing stories few other visitors encounter. London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, we’re told, marked the first time paid restrooms were tried in the capital and their success – 827,000 visitors and a handsome profit – triggered a flush of pay-to-pee facilities.
But London has always been a toileting innovator. On a side street near the Strand’s grand Savoy Hotel, we gather around an unassuming streetlamp. In Victorian times, lamps like this lined the city, powered by excess biogas from the sewerage system.
When all London’s gas lamps – not just sewerage-fueled ones – were eventually superseded by electricity, this final biogas example was saved and restored as an historical reminder. It’s now, Erickson claims, fueled from the washrooms of the Savoy.
But this isn’t the only change to London’s lavatorial landscape over the years. Many conveniences have been converted for housing or businesses in recent decades – including our final stop.
Descending a darkened stairwell in a nearby sidewalk, we’re told that “company-seeking” regulars from Oscar Wilde to Joe Orton notoriously favored this former gentlemen’s public loo.
Closed in the 1980s, it’s since become a jazzy subterranean bar with a nice line in cocktails. After inspecting its cubicle toilets – the glass doors turn opaque when locked – I wave goodbye to the group and return to the sidewalk above. My days of paying to pee in London, I promise myself, are now firmly behind me.
If you go:
London Loo Tours cost £12 for adults. For booking and further information, visit www.lootours.com.