On bathrooms

by Barendina Smedley

Browsing through estate agents’ particulars, there is no surer way of working out whether an old house has been ‘done up’ than by comparing the number of bathrooms with the number of bedrooms. The higher the ratio, the more radical — ‘brutal’ might be a better word — the renovation.

For a very long time in England, the vast majority of houses got by without any bathrooms at all. A jug of warm water and a basin, coupled with a chamber-pot and perhaps an outside privy, ensured that all the relevant biological and social needs were fully met.

Then something happened. Bathrooms appeared, their technology was gradually refined and they began to work their way down the social and economic scale, until it became vanishingly rare to find a living space without some sort of functioning bathroom.

As rooms go, bathrooms are, however, fairly modern. In our own house, I suspect that the bathrooms arrived as late as 1935, when the old rectory was purchased by a rich, forward-looking, practical-minded woman with a young family, an eye for modern technology and high expectations of comfort and cleanliness. She was, in other words, intent on making the place ‘fit for contemporary living’, as today’s interior design magazines might put it. So in went an extraordinary three upstairs bathrooms for the family and their friends, plus one for staff, while downstairs two loos were installed — the staff one, admittedly, outside in a shed.

As the house has twelve bedrooms, this actually counts as quite a radical intervention by the standards of the day. What’s more, the bathrooms were, themselves, rather forward-looking as well. Two of them were clad in vitreous tile, magnificently uneven, hence catching the light like a Byzantine mosaic. At least one Art Deco bathroom suite was yellowish-cream coloured, the height of fashion at the time. Another bathroom, this one meant for the children of the house, was lined with charming hand-painted tiles depicting sea-birds. The oak draining-board was carved with a star motif. The servants, for their part, had to make do with an enamelled tin bath shaped like a particularly long coffin — but  in 1935, not every house provided hot running water for servants, so perhaps we should not look askance at this.

For all the handsome detail, though, these bathrooms are, by present-day standards, absolutely tiny. There are no showers, either, at least if one ignores, as one probably ought to do, the ‘temporary’ plastic shower, advertised as ‘used in schools and prisons’, which we installed in the servants’ bathroom when we first had the house and which still remains there, modest yet resolutely functional, to this day. (For the avoidance of doubt, I should perhaps spell out here the fact that we have no servants. And even if we did, I doubt we could pay them enough to shower in that thing.)

So it was that when we first bought the house, everyone from our architect to our builders to miscellaneous well-wishers assumed that our first move would be to create more bathrooms, larger bathrooms, more contemporary bathrooms. Our architect, in particular, was quick to point out which walls could be removed in order to give us bathrooms of appropriate size and grandeur. This would, inevitably, mean losing a few bedrooms along the way, and of course altering the historic plan of the house, but what of that?

It was further assumed by all and sundry that, of course, the 1935-vintage sanitary ware would have to be replaced with all-new reproductions, although it would obviously be nice if we could keep at least some of the Art Deco tiles. Apparently — or so I was told later by my all-knowing site manager — most people have a ‘thing’ about using sanitary ware that has been used previously by other people. One wonders how these sensitive creatures cope with hotels, friends’ houses, cohabitation with their own families?

In any event, to the astonishment of pretty much everyone involved, we announced that the bathrooms, the floorplan, the tiles, even the pre-loved sanitary ware would stay. (Actually, we drew the line at the decrepit toilet seat in the east-facing bathroom, which had a bad habit of propelling the sleepy or incautious onto the nearby floor, but that was a rare exception.) We even decided to keep the 1950s, vaguely ‘Festival of Britain’ turquoise sanitary ware in Freda’s bathroom, although at the beginning my builder literally would not believe I was serious about that one. I think it was only when I spelled this out to him that he fully grasped the full eccentricity of his new clients. In truth, though, most people regard a turquoise loo as being about as acceptable as a particularly luxurious dry rot fruiting body, so my builder, as ever, had a reasonable point.

To me, conversely, the intact 1930s bathrooms had long been numbered amongst the most enchanting features of our house, even on our first visit to it, when we had to find our way through it with a borrowed torch and the estate agent was too frightened to come in with us.

Don’t get me wrong. Having grown up in amid civilised circumstances in a warm part of the world, I am every bit as thoroughly addicted to hot water and reliably plumbing as anyone else. In the morning, that first contact with hot water is a sensation pleasurable enough to be worth the effort of getting out of bed, only surpassed by the first gulp of hot tea. Showers wake me up, tidy up the dreamy maziness of the night before, cleanse me for the day ahead. At the end of the day, a quick hot bath prefigures the luxury of reclining comfortably under my duvet. In between, the bathroom is a place of utility and calm, sometimes even enjoyable reflection. So yes, I do like bathrooms. I like them to look good, and to work well too.

Also, I know all too well that when there are no working bathrooms about, one soon comes to miss them. For the first six months or so in our new house, we had no functional plumbing. As sundry debates raged or simmered — e.g., did we need all-new plumbing? would we have to dig up a long, beech-flanked drive in order to install mains water, or could the old well be made to work again? — we relied on our absolutely saintly neighbours for access to baths, showers, warm towels and day-to-day cleanliness, which was in any event hard to achieve on a working building-site.

Our more immediate needs were met by the builders’ portakabin, placed prettily by the front door, although as no one had yet figured out how to unlock the front door, evening visits to the toilet involved a long journey through completely unlit corridors and pitch-dark strange-smelling rooms, out into the cold of the night and around the side of the house to where the portakabin stood, rearing up at us beneath the brilliant vault of stars above. In time, in came to seem quite normal to us that my husband, son and I, as a family, would venture out together on these journeys, so that one person could hold the wind-up torch outside while another conducted his or her business in the portakabin’s scented, unlit confines.

This sounds ghastly, but with hindsight I would not have missed it for the world. The stars were beautiful, it rarely seemed to rain that winter, and as for the portakabin, it was nowhere near as squalid as I had feared it might be, although I have been reliably told by those who should know that the builders, realising it was being used by the clients as well as by themselves, went to no small effort to keep it in what constituted tip-top condition by builders’ portakabin standards.

Having said all that, however, there was considerable rejoicing when our site supervisor first surprised us with a bodged-together version of our first working, ‘indoor’ loo, then with a kitchen tap that produced potable water, and finally with the aforementioned ‘temporary’ plastic shower. In the rich west, we are spoiled about such things. We take them for granted. One of the minor joys of our new house, then, was the way in which it taught us to appreciate some of the daily comforts and conveniences that would otherwise pass unnoticed. I, for one, will never take a functioning bathroom for granted again.

Bathrooms, then, are a good thing. But how on earth does one fit a bathroom into the context of an historic house without creating something that jars, aesthetically and metaphysically? When we were still searching for a house, this problem confronted us everywhere. In most old houses, the bathrooms have been updated relatively recently, which is to say, in the 1980s or later. They work more or less well, but in the main, they are charmless places — too recent to be of any historic interest, rarely fascinating in their own right, usually very much out of sympathy with the older rooms surrounding them. Still, bathrooms are necessary things — few of us, I think, would want to forego basic physical cleanliness for the sake of historical purity. How, then, to square this messy circle?

I wish I could say that I’d figured it out before I first passed the sagging, creaking threshold of our new house, but in truth, I had not. The answer only came to me when I encountered those 1930s bathrooms. Once so ebulliently ‘modern’ in their own right, even in their wholly un-renovated form they offered most if not all the functionality one expects from an up-to-date bathroom — which is to say, a working loo, basin and bathtub — whilst at the same time, positively radiating historical interest and period charm. What’s more, due to the forward-looking efforts of my 1935 predecessor, there were, by my standards anyway, enough bathrooms to go around.

All of which takes us back to where we started — this strange business whereby every bedroom in a house is somehow supposed to be paired up with its matching bathroom, like the animals going into Noah’s Ark, two by two.

Try though I might, there are trends in home renovations which I simply do not, cannot understand. Amongst these, the need for an enormously high bathrooms to bedroom ratio comes very near the top of the list.

Even if one has a big family, and quite a few people visiting, how likely is it that a majority of them, let alone all of them, will feel driven to visit the various bathrooms all at one time? Why, barring the sudden onset of digestive disaster, or perhaps an attack of overwhelming grubbiness coupled with fastidiousness, would that ever actually happen? Is it really the case that people can no longer manage to walk a few yards from a bedroom towards a bathroom, but have to be able to stagger into the bathroom directly, without any intervening distance? Can I really be the last woman alive who still owns a working dressing-gown?

And while we are on the subject of bathroom-related rhetorical queries, why do bathrooms have to be so large now, equipped with strange and jarring interventions including multiple chairs, gigantic sideboards dressed with seashells and leather-bound volumes, even — in default of all known building regulations, although they still show up regularly in magazine features — glittering crystal chandeliers?

These last, I suppose, fall under the promiscuously all-embracing rubric of ‘personal taste’, where they join the equally-mystifying fashion for free-standing roll-top baths placed in the middle of the room, baths situated in bedrooms rather than bathrooms, and indeed ‘wet rooms’ full stop. Which is to say, I am sure they suit someone, somewhere, so good luck with all that. So, too, must the ultra-modern, gleaming, glass-and-steel, high-tech bathroom have its acolytes and adherents, even in the context of old houses and their restoration. There are undoubtedly contexts in which the execution of the new bathroom is so flawless, the sense of style so very real, that the conjunction turns out to be aesthetically galvanising, rather than simply mildly upsetting.

As for me, though, I’ll stick with the decisions made in 1935 regarding the bathrooms in this house. It is all very well, as the decorating magazines and estate agents’ write-ups would put it, to make something fit for contemporary living — but in the case of bathrooms, at least, I find that my basic needs are not, in fact, so very different from those of my pre-war predecessors.