A Discursive Post on British Plumbing

When the Romans occupied Britain around in the first century A.D., they brought with them their characteristic engineering genius. Around England, you can still see their straight roads and straight walls (Hadrian’s Wall). They even constructed a system of aqueducts which brought water from local springs into villages to be used for bathing and personal hygiene. When we visited Vindolanda in Northumberland, near Hadrian’s Wall, we could see ruins of the bath house with water of three different temperatures and the commander’s private home with heated water and plumbing.

Military bathhouse at Vindolanda https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vindolanda_bathhouse_-_2007-05-19.jpg
Military bathhouse at Vindolanda

The second century seems to have been the apex of British plumbing. The Brits have been trying since then to recover their former glory.

This week we will have been in the United Kingdom for 4 weeks. What adventures we have had in British plumbing! I took one look at our bathroom in Edinburgh, our first stop, and a flood of memories came rushing back from other England Term trips (pun intended). The sink had separate hot and cold taps — very common, even in updated bathrooms (Brits think “mixer taps” are unnecessarily modern). Washing hands or even one’s face in such a sink takes practice.

Then there’s the shower….Mixing hot and cold water seems to be the basic problem in plumbing here. Showers often go from scalding hot to freezing cold in a matter of seconds. In Edinburgh, the useable temperature range for the shower lasted about 15 seconds. This morning, in the lovely lodgings we are currently enjoying, the water was so hot I had to avoid the spray and keep dancing on my tippy toes to avoid being scalded. Truly.

To be fair, in both cases, the maintenance people were called and they managed to fix the problem. But this is a very common occurrence. The students and I puzzle over why any budget motel in the US can keep a shower in working order and even good quality accommodations here seem mystified by the intricacies of keeping water in a certain temperature range. Motel 6, please keep the lights on for us!

A larger than average British bathroom, separate hot and cold taps, faulty shower (toilet not pictured)
A larger than average British bathroom, separate hot and cold taps, faulty shower (toilet not pictured)

After my experiences with “modern” showers, I would much rather have a peaceful soak in the deep British bathtubs, a few of which still remain.

Then there is the size issue. Most hotels and bed and breakfasts have been retrofitted with bathrooms. Lodgings proudly proclaim all rooms are “en suite” which means each room has a separate bathroom. When we travelled in 1991, that was definitely the exception, with a trip down the hall to a separate “water closet” (toilet) or big bath tub room (bathroom!) necessary. Now you can have it all. Micro-sized.

We have had showers an overweight person cannot fit into. We have had showers where an average sized person cannot turn around. We have had sinks so small (6 inches on the diagonal) that even hand washing is a challenge, not to mention washing your face.

Our room in Oxford set a new record for teeniness. Imagine an average airplane toilet and sink. Now add a shower to the right. Within 4 by 3 feet, we had a sink, toilet, AND shower. Really.

I have now expended over 500 words on British plumbing. My family knows this is a topic dear to my heart. I am SO puzzled as to why such a civilized nation places such little value on standard, useable plumbing. WHY!!?!!?

Then I walk outside and see the beauty of the smallest, most casual garden. I see how seriously tea time is taken (even in the wards of the Royal Infirmary in Manchester — pain meds were sometimes forgotten but NEVER the tea trolley).

The British have their minds on higher subjects than plumbing — tea, delicious biscuits and gardens.


One thought on “A Discursive Post on British Plumbing”

  1. I also remember the unique plumbing scenarios we encountered on England Term. The separate hot and cold faucets were the most frustrating at times. I laughed when reading your descriptions and remembering the shared bathrooms & British plumbing craziness we endured!

    Erica Joy


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