‘A nation is judged by its toilets, it’s one of the first images tourists and visitors get and we should generally be ashamed in this country.” (Professor Greed)
I have been at the edge of disability for the past few years. If there were a spectrum I would be a 1 or 2 out if 10. I have had a Blue Badge for nearly two years now which has really helped and I use a radar key for those disabled toilets which operate that system. My own struggles to access toilets must pale into insignificance compared to those whose disability is much more profound. But I understand now just a little what a Herculean effort it must be to travel with such disabilities. My own issue is accessing toilets quickly enough when sudden unexpected onset demands. I would call them public conveniences but the word feels a misnomer today. I can recall as a young man if I needed the toilet I could drive into any village and there would see signposts to the public conveniences. They were not always high quality and particularly for men the cottaging industry made entry to some of them a little like walking into the unknown and of course there were no disabled toilets. But now it feels they are less and less in evidence. One statistic I spotted was that the UK had lost nearly 1800 public loos over the last decade nearly 40% and a further 20% have gone in the last few years. This comment illustrates what could be done:
‘People with urinary and fecal incontinence problems, such as the elderly, are particularly in need of public toilets to live and participate in their communities with dignity and confidence. For example, more than 3.8 million Australians are estimated to suffer continence issues, including families with young children. This represents 18% of the Australian population. The National Public Toilet Map in Australia helps these people to locate the closest public toilets easily.‘ (Wikipedia)
There is no legal obligation on local authorities to provide public toilets and these have simply been allowed to disappear, been privatised or increasingly been re-fashioned as cafes and other Art Deco spaces. In my experience going to search for such toilets will lead to frequent disappointment and more crucially vital time will be lost in a search, which for me and many others, is time sensitive.
As I still drive around frequently and have had to adopt different strategies to seek a facility which on average I will need every hour or so and/or completely randomly when urgent resolution is needed. There are four key targets – petrol stations; supermarkets; cafes; or in desperation, anywhere with a loo! I have been under the impression that petrol stations were required to have a public toilet but not sure if that was just the norm because today it is certainly not the case. If I spot a BP garage I breathe a sigh of relief because they nearly always have them and usually of good quality. Regular driving on the A1 feels safe because of BP. Such stations are my first port of call and I would love to see some 24 hour radar key accessible disabled toilets at petrol stations as I have been foiled when they are on night service and will not let you into the building.
My worst experience was in Pickering a couple of years ago when travelling with my adult children. I was needing a loo urgently and we pulled up to a petrol station and whilst my son filled the car with diesel I went into the shop and asked for the loo. The staff member said they did not have one, I explained I was in urgent need and could I use the staff toilet to which she replied it is against company policy. At this point my daughter arrived explained why I needed a loo urgently hoping for a bit of compassion but no change. I had to go across the road to a pub and have half a pint! I had the opposite experience in Sheffield more recently when the staff member saw the look on my face and allowed me to use the staff toilet and why not, decency prevailed!
The advent of supermarkets gives an anonymous space to nip in and use its facilities. I remain uneasy about doing this as I feel if I go in somewhere I should buy something. I have a lot of bottles of water from BP! But big supermarkets are anonymous and usually have decent facilities though they are variable. At the stage i have parked I have invested in my decision and just need to carry it through, choosing an alternative uncertain miles away is very risky territory. Some big factory shops B&Q etc will have loos but finding them can take time, time you may not have.
A more embarrassing outlet is a cafe which will usually, (though not always) have toilets for customers so I have cups of tea and more rather than just walk in and use the toilets. The exception is MacDonalds whose cafes are signalled well and I can go and use the facilities with little question of why I am there. The guilt is terrible nonetheless and a coffee or a smoothie may need to be purchased to ease my conscience.
When desperation has reached unreasonable proportions I have to try and use anywhere be it a pub, hotel, shop. I hate this because I feel as if I am doing something wrong. I recall a recent example in West Yorkshire when I was following a bike ride. It was very rural and none of the conventional places were to be seen. I had to drive into a town increasingly in trouble. I spotted a hotel. It was Sunday morning and eerily quiet but needs must. I walked in, spotted the disabled toilet and was ok. I came out, walked passed reception, waiting for the polite enquiry but none came. Back in car and on my way. I am sure just 20 years ago there would have been public conveniences even in the rural area I was in.
If I am on a familiar route I now have my own internal map of available toilets. (Be great to have a national map like in Australia!) It gives me a confidence which helps me relax. It is when there is a lot of uncertainty that anxiety is at its height. I had this when I visited Hong Kong recently. I wanted to explore a little more than I did when I was teaching but this involved going into the remote countryside. I checked with friends there. There are over 8500 public conveniences in HK and they are everywhere, even in the remote areas. They are largely very clean and hygienic, and it became a joy to travel around knowing there were easy solutions.
With public sector cuts and conflicting priorities for local authorities public conveniences are not a priority. Surely it’s a mark of civilisation that we provide adequate facilities or place a public duty on garages, cafes and hotels to open their doors. Some of my friends think I am obsessed about this but it is never far from my mind when travelling and this must be the case for so many people with such diseases as colitis, Krohn’s or IBS and many more. As The British Toilet Association’s Raymond Martin said: “It’s about public decency and public dignity.”’ They are private needs not to be discussed in polite company but need to be located in the public consciousness through the need for adequate outlets. It’s the absence which demands public attention.
In researching for this blog I have come across an interesting project:
‘The Great British Public Toilet Map was created by The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art. It was designed and built by Neontribe. It is funded by the Nominet Trust. It began as part of the TACT3 research project, funded by the New Dynamics of Ageing programme……..The map shows toilets that the public can use. This includes those in shops, cafes etc if they choose to let non-customers use their loo, such as those in Community Toilet Schemes. We try not to include those that are for customer use only. The data comes from councils, businesses, the OpenStreetMap project and YOU! The data will be available for others to use under an open licence’
Not sure of it’s availability or coverage but this would be brilliant because if it were on the phone alongside satnav it may highlight that facility you might need just around the next corner – bliss! I checked for my own village and it showed a toilet at the Mill Dam area. This is not actually the case and in fact it recorded a toilet which is in Blyth some 6/7 miles away, clearly this is a work in progress!
This topic may be dismissed as a private matter and on which many people find discussion difficult. I hope though this has made you think as I can finish no better than Stella Young who rightly puts it centre stage;
‘As a wheelchair user, I am utterly obsessed with toilets, and all my friends know it. A simple invitation to the pub is consistently followed by, ‘Do you know if they have an accessible toilet?‘
Must go, got to spend a penny!
A few photo highlights from this week.