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 to pay.
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 find a 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 http://www.facebook.com/Jubiloo), 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 from the 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. On a side street near the Strand's grand Savoy Hotel, we gathered around an unassuming street lamp. In the 19th century, lamps like this lined the city, powered by biogas from the 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.
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 from the 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.
It was 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.
London Loo Tours cost 12 pounds (about $18) for adults. For booking and info: http://www.lootours.com.
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