A Lon­don jaunt flush with good tips

Guides on Loo Tours share his­tory as they point out free pub­lic re­strooms, all done with a spot of cheek.

Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - By John Lee travel@la­times.com

LON­DON— It was the first day of my trip to Lon­don and I was caught short at Vic­to­ria Sta­tion. Ev­ery traveler knows the mantra: Never pass up an easy bath­room op­por­tu­nity. That’s ex­actly what I had done— and now I would have topay.

Rather than fork over 30 pence (about 45 cents) for turn­stile en­try to the sta­tion’s pub­lic wash­rooms, I hit the up­stairs food court, con­grat­u­lat­ing my­self on the re­source­ful­ness that helped me finda free­bie al­ter­na­tive.

Ex­cept it wasn’t free; the turn­stile said 50 pence, about 77 cents.

“It’s one of the rea­sons I started this tour,” Rachel Erick­son told me the next day. In 2011 the Berke­ley na­tive moved here to study drama, and be­tween classes, she launched a rent-pay­ing side­line called Lon­don Loo Tours that re­flected her keen in­ter­est in find­ing places to go, so to speak, with­out hav­ing to pay.

She has since re­turned to the U.S.— and is ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of launch­ing a San Fran­cisco toi­let tour this year— but her pop­u­lar Lon­don walks con­tinue with two like-minded lo­cal loo guides.

The 90-minute jaunts of­fer quirky san­i­ta­tion anec­dotes along­side some aro­matic so­cial his­tory.

Erick­son, who likes to be known as the “loo lady,” was still lead­ing the tours on my visit. About a dozen par­tic­i­pants and I met up at — where else?— Water­loo Sta­tion.

Ready to go, we gath­ered out­side the sta­tion’s ever-busy (30 pence) pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties.

“Don’t pay that. Fol­low me in­stead,” said Erick­son, wav­ing her prop plunger aloft and lead­ing us onto the streets be­yond the sta­tion.

Quest for free

We soon were stopped in our tracks as she pointed to a tiny “Com­mu­nity Toi­let” sign that in­di­cated a gratis fa­cil­ity in a lo­cal pub.

In­di­cat­ing free­bies is part of a govern­ment-ini­ti­ated pro­gram that des­ig­nates bar and restau­rant loos for pub­lic use — a handy idea in a city where free pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties can be hard to find.

Case in point: When we reached the nearby River Thames, we found one such al­ter­na­tive: The Ju­biloo, a slick, pri­vately owned fa­cil­ity that’s pop­u­lar with tourists (and oth­ers, ap­par­ently — it even has its own Face­book page at www.face­book. charges 50 pence.

Early Lon­don­ers had no need of a Ju­biloo.

“This is Lon­don’s first toi­let,” Erick­son said as we stood on a foot­bridge over the Thames. Com­mu­nal lava­to­ries, pop­u­lar dur­ing the Ro­man oc­cu­pa­tion of Eng­land from AD 43 un­til 410, emp­tied straight into the in­creas­ingly fetid wa­ter­way.

“By the 1850s, the river was a gi­ant cesspit,” Erick­son said.

“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 sewer sys­tem, much of which is still in use to­day.

On the other side of the bridge, we were ush­ered to­ward a me­mo­rial to the man who brought or­der to Lon­don’s or­dure. Civil en­gi­neer Joseph Bazal­gette built a sys­tem for 3 mil­lion lo­cals, 10 mil­lion fewer than the num­ber it ser­vices now.

Weav­ing north fromthe river, we passed some City of West­min­ster pub­lic toi­lets (50 pence a visit), then ar­rived at a ring em­bed­ded in the side­walk.

It’s a pop-up uri­nal that au­to­mat­i­cally rises each night to dis­cour­age sul­ly­ing of area al­ley­ways.

But it’s not the neigh­bor­hood’s only op­tion. Around Trafal­gar Square, Erick­son listed sev­eral, in­clud­ing Star­bucks and the Na­tional Gallery, where ad­mis­sion is free.

‘A lit­tle ex­otic’

Mak­ing a men­tal note for fu­ture vis­its, I turned to my fel­low toi­let tourists for their take on the tour.

“We chose it be­cause it’s odd and a lit­tle ex­otic,” Bill Whit­ing of Greenville, S.C., said with a chuckle. Rhonda, his wife, added, “We’re en­joy­ing see­ing parts of Lon­don other tourists don’t see.”

Cross­ing Covent Gar­den’s brick cob­bled plaza, we also heard sto­ries few other vis­i­tors en­counter. Lon­don’s 1851 Great Ex­hi­bi­tion, a huge world’s fair of man­u­fac­tured goods staged in the pur­pose-built crys­tal palace, marked the first time pay re­strooms were tried in the cap­i­tal. Their suc­cess — 827,000 vis­i­tors in six months plus a hand­some profit — in­spired other such fa­cil­i­ties.

It wasn’t Vic­to­rian Lon­don’s only loo in­no­va­tion. Ona side street near the Strand’s grand Savoy Ho­tel, we gath­ered around an unas­sum­ing street lamp. In the1 9th cen­tury, lamps like this lined the city, pow­ered by bio­gas fromthe sew­ers.

When all of Lon­don’s gas lamps (not just sewage-fu­eled ones) were elec­tri­fied, this fi­nal bio­gas ex­am­ple was saved and re­stored as a bit of his­tory.

Re­mod­eled

This isn’t the only change to Lon­don’s lava­to­rial land­scape. Many city con­ve­niences have been con­verted into hous­ing or busi­nesses, in­clud­ing our fi­nal stop.

A five-minute walk fromthe Savoy, we de­scended a dark­ened stair­well in the cen­ter of the side­walk. We were told that “com­pany-seek­ing” reg­u­lars, in­clud­ing play­wrights Os­car Wilde and Joe Or­ton, fa­vored this former gen­tle­men’s pub­lic loo.

It­was closed in the 1980s and has since be­come a jazzy sub­ter­ranean bar. Af­ter in­spect­ing its cu­bi­cle toi­lets— the glass doors turn opaque when locked— I waved good­bye to the group, and to pay­ing to go in Lon­don.

Pho­to­graphs by John Lee

RACHEL ERICK­SON, cre­ator of Lon­don Loo Tours, re­gales her group with san­i­ta­tion tid­bits and so­cial his­tory dur­ing a 90-minute walk that in­volves point­ing out the city’s free pub­lic re­strooms.

THIS BAR

was once a pub­lic loo fre­quented by such Vic­to­rian fig­ures as Os­carWilde.

A ME­MO­RIAL to Joseph Bazal­gette, the en­gi­neer who cre­ated Lon­don’s mod­ern sewer sys­tem, is near the Thames.

ERICK­SON points out Lon­don’s last bio­gas lamp.

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