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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Back on the track of London's disappearing public loos

One of London's fast disappearing conveniences, this old cottager's dream on the North Side of Clapham Common, London SW4, is now up for rent.
The way of all London's bogs? This once splendid cottage-style public
 convenience on the north side of Clapham Common is up for grabs.
It will become either a ridiculously expensive nosherie or some
 bonused-up banker's stinky pied a terre. Whither our free
piddling places, I ask?
Time Out's Alexi Duggins uses his page this week to bemoan the decline of London's public toilets - reminding me of a blog post I started to write two years ago and never published.

As one who has (as if cursed to do so) toiled around the inner zones of London for most of the past four decades, I have an internal, instinctual map telling me when and where I have to alter my itinerary in order to find a place to pee.

This has become all the more important as age and the ripening prostate gland push up against the weakening bladder.

So I started a sort of widdler's guide to free peeing in zones 1 and 2. I will begin again, but with some very good news right from the heart of things - from Soho, London W1. In fact, the centre of Soho - the public toilets in Broadwick Street, near where it crosses Berwick St - are open again, and still free!

When they closed a year or two back I feared that they would never re-open and become yet another trendy place for a piss-up instead of a piss. If they did re-open I imagined they'd be the new fangled type with a turnstile and a charge of at least 50p, like all the now horrible toilets in all of London's railway termini.

 How lovely, then, to find these classic Soho toilets (well, the  gents at least - even for the sake of this survey I did not risk descending into the ladies) completely unchanged. Except that they seem to have removed the great slabs of sheet steel bolted between the stalls that were presumably meant to discourage cottagers taking peeks at their neighbours' bits.

Moving on towards Oxford Circus, there was another free underground loo, entered from the Regent Street traffic island on the north side of the junction. Is it still there?

If not, I would make for another good old fallback position - the toilets in John Lewis, easily accessible from the staircases on the Square side.

Moving south, I used to make frequent use of the gents in the subway of Piccadilly Circus tube, the exit that used to lead directly into the basement of the now defunct Tower Records flagship store. Such a useful convenience, this one was, allowing you to empty everything before prolonged browsing through the racks.

Now, I think, it has also gone. The door is still there but always locked.

On to Trafalgar and Leicester Squares - you pay through the nose in both for the horrible WCs. Instead, I make for the crypt of St Martin in the Fields, a great place for a cheapish lunch and a free pee, as well as brass rubbing and regular photography exhibitions.

It always makes me feel a bit guilty, entering museums and churches and shops and so on, just to relive myself - but it can't be helped. If only I had more nerve I would do what so many London flaneurs always did, and stride confidently into the poshest hotels to use the luxury facilities, precious fragrances and fluffy towels and knee-scraping flunkies and all! But I know I would be shooed away before I even penetrated those plate glass rotating doors.

With the sad changeover of the Covent Garden piazza toilets to pay-as-you-piss, I find that whole area now a bit of a piddler's desert. You can go to the British Museum, of course, or all the way up to Russell Square gardens where there's still a free loo beside the cafe. Likewise, I think, in Lincoln's Inn Fields….again, that is tbc.

Move a bit north, and there was marvellous old style public loo just by Coram's Field, but I fear that has now closed, just  like the magnificent old loos with glass cisterns by Chancery Lane tube station.  There are plenty of free loos in the Barbican complex, but getting out of there is always a gamble. Old Street tube station's subways are blessed with two fine things - a cut-price bookshop (Camden Books) and an old fashioned free London Transport bog.

I am pleased to report there's still a good subterranean  toilet in what remains of  Old Spitalfields market, over in the corner by the cashpoint.

The Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Hoxton area - use the pubs is all I can say. I'm sure these super-trendy areas have splendid community crapperies, but I have yet to experience any of them.

Angel is hopeless - I looked for a pisser in Chapel Market but it had gone. The Angel Bar - a reliably busy Wetherspoon's boozer - is a good place, and you can get a pint for the price of a piddle in some of London's more upmarket institutions.

Islington Green has one of those awful igloo things. Highbury corner, which looks so promising, seems to have nothing. I could've sworn the Overground station had a toilet once, but no such luck now. I've been known to leg it all the way down Roseberry Avenue to Sadler's Wells theatre to use their nice free toilets down the stairs.

Now we're out in zone 2, which is fast becoming a public convenience desert. Camden, Kentish Town, Maida Vale, Paddington, Notting Hill - where, oh where, are the toilets of yesteryear? Dalston,  you cry? Hackney? The town hall in MAre Street, I remember, had good loos. There must surely be a grisly market toilet in Ridley Road. Need to check out out. And something very organic on London Fields, one hopes.

Moving very swiftly south of the river, if you're caught short in Brixton head for Pope's Road behind the market, and there's a fine free Lambeth loo waiting for you there.

Excellent free loos in glorious festival of Britain style abound in lovely Battersea Park - yes, amazingly,  Wandsworth Borough Council must have forgotten about these very egalitarian poo-ing places.

By contrast, Clapham, once so well provided for, indeed famously a cottager's delight - now has very little. The bogs by Clapham Common tube are now a bar (WC, ho-ho!), and the one by the old Library (now an expensive arty place, the Omnibus) is closed and up for sale or rent. If stuck, head for Sainsburys in the High Street or the new library. But beware - the library's unisex loo is very well equipped for disabled people, so do not pull the cord thinking it will flush the loo - it sets off a very loud alarm.

Further south - give up. Either piss on one of the commons, or dive into one of the many pubs heaving with drunken yuppies.

And of course this crazy runaround has left many gaps, and missed out many hidden treasures of the world of public sanitation. If you can fill them, please do so. But do remember to adjust your clothing before you leave. Thankyou.

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