The Loo

Bathrooms are a bit of a conundrum in England, as I discovered much to my dismay during the trip in the fall of 2013.

To start with, they aren’t called bathrooms, or toilets.  They are called “the loo” and no, I have absolutely no idea why.  But the differences don’t stop there, that is just the beginning.

First, they don’t have washcloths.  And no, I have no idea what they use instead. Nothing, I suspect.  Washcloths must be an American invention.

Thankfully, we were forewarned (thank you Katherine Borges and ISOGG) and brought some washcloths with us, leaving them sprinkled around hotels in England.  I expected most hotels would have them but they don’t.  I’m sure that’s the final “knife twist” for that pesky little insurrection we called the Revolutionary War.  And what’s worse, when you call the front desk to ask for a washcloth, they pretend like they have absolutely NO IDEA what you are talking about.  And I know, positively, every American who stays there calls the front desk and asks the same question.  I know they are all secretly laughing at us.

They could make a lot of money putting wash clothes in vending machines or offering them as room service.

Most bathrooms are painfully small, which is why they were initially referred to as “water closets.”  They, literally, were.  You can see one here or here in these rather, ahem, irreverent (but very funny) videos.  The first watercloset we experienced, in the Henry the 8th Hotel was literally about 3 feet by 5 feet and the shower was half of that.  We heard of another one where you sit on the toilet to shower.  Seriously!

By the time we got to the Stirk House, we had been in England for several days, and time after time, I was baffled by how some bathroom apparatus worked.  And once I got that one figured out, the next one was different.  There was no standardization.  Now I know how utterly ridiculous this sounds, being confused by a bathroom, so I’ll just share my morning with you.

Keep in mind, this was the morning after the DNA presentation that went to midnight, which was the day we visited Coventry, which was the morning after the fire alarm had gone off in the middle of the night in Cambridge, probably as a result of the drunken wedding party that kept us awake much of that night.  So, um, to say I was a bit tired and grouchy was probably an understatement.

In fact, this was me on the bus the day before.  Well, it was raining and the bus was rocking and we didn’t even get invited to the wedding party that kept us all awake.

 Me sleeping

At the Stirk House, we were in a new wing, so bathrooms were not an afterthought. You know, when many/most houses don’t have central heat, complaining about the size of a bathroom seems kind of, well, trifling.

I was glad to see a normal sized bathroom, but nothing else is normal at all, at least not for us Americans.  First, there is a towel warmer.  Now that’s a good idea!  We used to put towels over the radiator when I was a kid, along with our clothes.  I had never seen one in the US, or when I was in Europe in 1970.  This is the second one I had encountered in England.  I think it has to do with that no central heat thing.  It’s doggone cold when you’re buck nekked…

towel warmer

However, trying to figure out how the towel warmer worked was a challenge.  It seems that every electrical outlet in England also has a switch installed beside it – or sometimes not beside it…hidden elsewhere.  The red “on” light is always burned out, so you can’t tell whether it is off or on, and no, there is no standard position.  That is a ridiculous idea.  And the switches are always hidden behind a door by the baseboard in the lowest position possible, sometimes no place close to the item they control.  And sometimes, there are 2 or 3 switches together that control what?????

Whether the towel warmer works or not is really irrelevant, but other bathroom activities are simply not avoidable.  You have to figure out how those items work.  Thankfully, the toilet flush was always obvious, well, except for once.

The best kept secret, however, is how to make the shower work.  In fact, it seems to be a game.  I’m positive they have secret cameras installed to record what happens and we’re all going to see ourselves on YouTube one day.

Early on, I figured out that there were two knobs, one for temperature and one for water flow.  Ok, got that.  Some places have a button too.  Got that too.  So far, so good.  That’s three things to potentially go wrong.  What is wrong with one knob?

My husband, Jim, is a morning person and he loves breakfast.  Is there a gene for that?  I have absolutely no idea how the two of us managed to connect, because the beginning of my night is just prior to the beginning of his day.  So Jim hops right up at the crack of dawn, an ungodly hour.  I have no idea what he does at that hour, but whatever it is, he does it daily.  He could have an entire second family for all I know, and at 5:30 AM, I would not care.  Before noon, however, both the caffeine and the warrior gene, with a pinch of Scotch-Irish clan temper thrown in would have kicked in, and I’d be livid, so don’t get any bright ideas Jim.  Besides that, you can’t afford jewelry for two wives.

So Jim got out of bed, took a shower, then left for breakfast without waking me up.  While that may sound like he did me a favor, and it would be most days, it wasn’t THAT day.  He was SUPPOSED to wake me up, because we had to be on the bus by 8 AM.  I woke up, mortified to see what time it was, and hurried into the shower, only to discover I could not make it work, no matter what I did.  I turned dials, looked for hidden buttons, all to no avail.  How tough can this be, after all???


I waited for Jim, who I knew would be back shortly since he didn’t wake me up.  I thought maybe he had done something really nice, like went to get me breakfast….but no….he had forgotten entirely about me and was having a leisurely full English breakfast in the restaurant with the family.  My family.

Finally, as the minutes ticked by, I couldn’t wait any longer, so I put on dirty clothes and hurried to the restaurant to find him, complete with bedhead, and asked him how to make the shower work.

Jim, irritated at being interrupted, at first claimed he didn’t know but I KNEW he knew since he HAD showered.

So I asked him again to no avail.  Then I told him in my best “irritated wife” voice that he did SO know – because he HAD showered.  Suddenly, the room went silent.

He finally turned around and actually looked at me, surveyed the situation, looked me up and down, seeing my bedhead cowlick….and then the man first chuckled a bit and then began to outright laugh.  Yes he did!

Had he lost his mind?  Does he not recall that in addition to it being the middle of my personal night and me without coffee, that I have the “Warrior Gene?”  Albeit the female version, which is supposed to be the Happiness Gene, but when a woman’s not happy, it reverts immediately to warrior status.  You know that old saying…if Mama ain’t happy…ain’t nobody happy.  We invented the Warrior Gene.

And Jim supposedly carries the “avoidance of errors” gene….you know….the one that keeps you from making the same mistake twice.  I have proof.  See below – that’s his result on his Family Tree DNA page.  “More likely to avoid errors.”  So much for genetics.

Jim Avoidance of errors cropped

You’d think after leaving his wife in a lurch just 2 days before that he’d been none too eager to do that again.  But then again, genetics is not determinism….and obviously there is some other genetic factor or conditioning or SOMETHING else at play here, because Jim did NOT avoid the error of his ways.  My quilt sisters would call this testosterone poisoning which I guess is genetic because it is connected to the Y chromosome…but I digress.

By now, my cousins eating breakfast with Jim are no longer able to stifle their laughter.  It seemed to be contagious.  Finally someone asked if I pulled the chain.

I asked, “What chain?”  I figured they were pulling MY chain.  I could barely speak civilly at this point.

Some toilets in Europe flush by a chain, but what doesn’t have anything to do with the shower.

“The chain over the toilet.”


“The one with the red light over the toilet….”

“Isn’t that for handicap assistance or an emergency?”

“No, pull the chain over the toilet, then turn the water knobs.”

“Bloody Hell.”

“You’re not a morning person are you.”

What popped into my mind at just that moment did not come out of my mouth, blessedly.

Oh, and by the way, this gem of information did NOT come from Jim, who obviously HAD figured this out to take a shower, but from a cousin who took sympathy on me.  Or maybe he took sympathy on Jim, but thankfully, he took pity on one of us.

I figured this was actually a plot to make me set the fire alarm off or some such thing.  I knew they were all sitting over there just waiting…and stone cold sober in the morning too.  That kind of practical joke would be much funnier half in the bag around midnight.

However, out of sheer and utter desperation, I cringed and pulled the chain in the ceiling, waiting for the inevitable alarm.  Instead, the shower finally worked…. well, after I switched the water box to “on” too, and twisted the knob.


So, yes, I did get my shower.  I did make it to the bus in time.  I did not get any breakfast, nor did Jim bring me any.  I reminded Jim of that all morning.  My cousins snickered and guffawed all morning.  Indeed, it was the beginning of a wonderful day….someone had to provide entertainment and it was obviously my turn.

So, in England, when in doubt, pull the cord over the toilet to take a shower.  Yep, makes perfect sense to me.

Now I know why we revolted!!!  Bloody Hell!



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42 thoughts on “The Loo

  1. I lived in an apartment in Tacoma Washington that was a converted Victorian style house. The bath room was literally a converted closet. It had the kind of water tank that was almost touching the ceiling. The ceilings were ten feet high.

  2. Same thing happened to me in Paris. No washcloth! I have always used one. But I guess a lot of people use liquid soap and their hands. I did go down the street to a linen shop and bought one with the Eiffel tower embroidered on it. But saved it for a souvenir. Am I the only person to have a washcloth for a souvenir?

  3. Years ago when the maid emptied the chamber pot from the second story window, she first shouted “Guarde l’eau” so passers by could duck. Hence the name loo.   Wilda Obey— wrote:From: DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy <>To: jimobey@northlc.comSubject: [New post] The LooDate: Thu, 6 Mar 2014 17:53:38 +0000

    robertajestes posted: “Bathrooms are a bit of a conundrum in England, as I discovered much to my dismay during the trip in the fall of 2013.

    To start with, they aren’t called bathrooms, or toilets.  They are called “the loo” and no, I have absolutely no idea why.  But the di”

  4. I can tell you that I do not need eye drops today, as I laughed until I cried, then forwarded the article to my husband, who is of mostly English heritage – but has never left the country. Viet Nam does not count!

    I have been to England 5 times, and once to Scotland, where I stayed at Dalhusie Castle ( ) and drove from St. Andrew’s Golf Course, down to Oban. (An amazing country, could not understand a word of what they were saying and I had perfect hearing then). EVERY bathroom in the UK was in fact, different from the other, and I can relate to the article. I have traveled to many European countries, and no, the only place were there was a ‘washing mitt’ was Wolfganssee Hotel, a 5 star hotel in Austria by lake Wolfgansee. And yes, I brought home TWO Wolfgansee washing mitts, so I’m with you, Sandra Johnson!

    I was raised in Spain, and yes, we have installed towel warmers in the master bath here in Oregon. :-). Wonderful story, Roberta!

  5. loo = l’eau (water). Derived from gardez l’eau (look out for the water/liquid from my chamber-pot that I’m about to chuck out of the window onto the street below).

    I would expect to find flannels in a high-class hotel but not a cheaper one nor a b’n’b (bed and breakfast). But it’s not for use after using the toilet; it’s for cleaning your face (or other areas in need of a wash) and I’d always bring my own. After using the toilet: soap & water and a towel, paper towel or hand-drier (depending on what’s available).

    And showers? Not standardised anywhere — private or public here — in the UK. Nor in the States or Canada, in my experience.

    But in the UK, work on the assumption that (for safety reasons) electric on-off switches aren’t allowed where you might try to operate them with wet hands, and look for a pull-cord to turn lights and showers on/off. If there’s a switch, it should always be outside the bathroom/WC/en-suite/shower-room (toilets don’t usually need one because they only contain a… toilet… which generally has no power requirement.)

    • I have never found a motel or hotel in the US that did not have both showers and bath tubs. And they have wash cloths and towels.

  6. In NZ we call it a ‘Loo’ and my understanding is that it is short for lavatory. But if we are being ‘proper’, we call it a ‘toilet’. We also call it a ‘powder room’ or the ‘ladies’ or the ‘gents’, but we notice American tourists all seem to call it a ‘bathroom’ whether there is a toilet in the same area or not, whether there is a bath in the same area or a shower. And because loos are frequently separate to shower rooms or bathrooms, it can sometimes be a little difficult to work out whether they wish to wash or … As for wash cloths, as pointed out, it is either a ‘face-flannel’ or a face-cloth. Many places still supply them, but just as many do not because the guests keep stealing them. NZ imitates many aspects of the UK methods of showers, toilets and so-on, electricity switches and therefore, the UK is a 2nd home for me. I confess to struggling with American ‘bathrooms’. So was really fun, to read this – thank you.

  7. A “Loo” is short for lavatory.

    The word for washcloths is “facecloth”.

    The same terms are used in South Africa

  8. And has anyone else seen the “self-cleaning toilets” like I saw at a restaurant in Switzertland?
    Awesome. I took a video of it!!

  9. I’d like to attempt to correct a few misconceptions.
    Bathroom, toilet and W.C. are all commonly used words, probably more so than “loo” in England.
    Though not proven,“Loo” is possibly derived from the trade product name “Waterloo” which was cast into the mould of a popular cast-iron toilet cistern in the early 20th century.
    In England a “Wash cloth” is known as a “face flannel” or simply a “flannel” and has been in use by the English for at least as long as the Americans who probably took it from England originally,
    as with tooth brushes they are generally considered an item included in ones personal toilet kit, although the majority of hotels do supply them along with bath and hand towels or are available on request.
    A towel rail, or your “towel warmer” is pretty much standard nowadays in all English homes, in general they are part of the installed water filled central heating system, they are simply another type of radiator, occasionally they are dual water and electric so they can be used during the periods when there is no need for the entire central heating to be in operation and some are just electric.
    The one in your photo is obviously only water filled, it has copper feed pipes and two valves, there is no electric cable supply to the radiator.
    Unless it is installed in a two way circuit, all switches in England work the same way, on rocker type switches depress the top for off and the bottom for on, up is off, down is on.
    Regulations do not allow wall switches or power points in bath or shower rooms, lights must be switched by a pull cord inside the room or a wall switch outside of the room, electric shower main switches must be pull cord, plumbed in showers do not have a switch of any kind!
    Controls do vary with different makes of electric shower, like the one in your photo, but are normally easy to work out if you remember red equals hot and blue equals cold, same applies to plumbed in showers whether or not they are thermostatically controlled.

  10. Bathroom? Toilet? The ‘proper’ word is lavatory. Loo is apparently from ‘gardyloo’ which is short for the French “regardez l’eau” but sadly this was long obsolete by the time ‘loo’ came along. Electricity, which over here is a lethal 240 volts, is essentially banned from bathrooms (not strictly true). Electric Showers have to have a means of isolation from mains electricity, hence the ceiling switch – though why everyone insists on switching them off all the time is beyond me.

    Do the a English use bathrooms? Well of course we do. For one thing the bath is the place where we store our coal in winter. At other times it’s used for washing the whippet.

    • Agree with you Keith. The proper word for a ‘toilet’ is lavatory. A bathroom is the place where there is a bath, not the lavatory, although there may also be a lavatory in the bathroom. If there is no bath, only a shower, it is called a shower room.
      Face flannels are for the face, and are expected to be included in your personal wash bag, along with your toothbrush and toothpaste etc.
      And yes, no electrical switches allowed in bathrooms and shower rooms, except maybe a 2-pin razor point and pull cords. Light switches are not placed inside bathrooms unless they are also of the pull cord type.
      I am afraid the 2-pin electrical sockets often found in the USA, without an earth pin, always seem very dangerous to me.

  11. The more things change, the more they stay the same! It all sounds like my experiences in the UK in the 60s through 90s. I ended up buying a “face flannel” (aka washcloth) at Selfridges. Then there was the time I flooded my cousin’s bathroom after attempting to use her proud new shower. And on and on…

  12. Both of my grandmothers stored their coal in the basement. They had a coal chute fro delivery and a coal bin for storage. I have hear the terms, restroom, powder room, bath room, lavatory, latrine, out house, lady’s (men’s) room, but not loo.

  13. Just a thought, re “loo” the French “regardez l’eau” was used in mediaeval times and was defunct long before the invention of the “modern” w.c. and an even lengthier time before the term “loo” came into use during the 1940s

  14. Next stop, India! We’ll be your tour guide and provide you with all the necessary information for using all the necessary things that do not exist at all!!!!!

  15. Hi, Roberta, I’m glad that England turned out to be a series of good adventures for you. We’ve been visiting there every other year or so for a long time and never tire of its quaintness. About “… the loo” and no, I have absolutely no idea why. ‘Loo’ stems from the traditional English refusal to pronounce the French language as the French did. In the middle ages, when houses were taxed by their ‘footprint’, the owners solved that annoyance by simply building their second story overhanging the first, and placing their bedroom there! And, as streets were narrow, and the gutters were tucked under the shadow of the upper story, and people had no concept of hygiene, they tossed out of the windows the contents of their chamber pots, using the French expression for “watch out for the water”, Garde au l’eau, the pronunciation altering with time into ‘garda-loo’, or similar! After toilets were invented and had overhead water tanks (called water-closets) to discharge flush-water by gravity, the room came to be referred to as ‘the loo’. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Cheers, aye, Gary Smith

  16. Love it! Your best story ever! When is the book going to be released? Reminds me of when we were in a hotel in Berlin and could not find a washcloth. We used a pair of my socks and I figured the maid would think we were from Australia and our surname was Dundee. We did have some confusion about operating some of the waterworks as well. Picked up a tiny little box from beside the sink thinking that it might be a little sewing kit. I threw it in the guest room when we got home. Sometime during the winter, a mouse got into the room and gnawed on the little box. It was then that I realized THAT little box contained a little disposable foam washcloth. Have you ever seen those tiny foam sheets cut in to shapes and mashed into a gelatin capsule? Only square and slightly larger. Please keep writing. I enjoy your stories so much. BTW, I have already made the acquaintance of “Mrs.” Brown. Makes me laugh ’til I cry. I was thinking about “her” the other day.

  17. Re: towel warmers. Love them but they are an absolute necessity in such a humid country where towels would mildew and never dry if it wasn’t for the heated towel racks… some extent wash clothes suffer from the same issue…..a washcloth that doesn’t dry is a breeding ground for all sorts of things. Yes we have humid places in the US but visiting my son when he lived in England and Wales—gave new meaning to humidity. You did not mention the tubs but they tend to be longer and narrower….there’s an ocean of difference between us but when I have been in the isles i always feel at home.

  18. Wait to see some of the public toilets in France and Germany, and the purple toilet paper that’s used. One place had just a hole in the floor with two handles on either side to grab onto. Needless to say, I didn’t try it out.

  19. I spent several weeks in a country bnb one winter in the mts of southern France. I soon realized the true meaning of “stone cold”. The water closet had an overhead electric heater with a 20 minute timer. There was heat in the breakfast area for about an hour each morning but the rest of the time the entire place was “stone cold”. Especially the bed !!! I shopped until I was blue in the face for an electric blanket or heating pad to no avail. But finally in an ancient small shop I found a rubber hot water bottle – it was heavenly. I would heat my bed and then loan it to the folks in the other bedroom. Alas – no towel warmer though.

  20. The explanation I recently read was that on an early sailing vessel the toilet facilities included, or consisted of, a wooden ring over the water, on each side of the ship. For obvious reasons, one used the downwind or leeward (pronounced “loo-ard”) ring, which was thus called the “loo seat.” Apart from the pronunciation of leeward, I have no personal knowledge of the matter — and it was in a library book, so I can’t look up the reference now.

  21. I’m sorry Roberta, but you gave me THE best laugh! I have never travelled overseas but when I do get to the UK I’ll be sure to pull any and all cords in the vicinity 😀

  22. Roberta,

    As an American long-time resident of England, I found your article very amusing. BUT…the first thing I’ve got to say is that things that are different in foreign countries, even where they seem ridiculous to people who do things differently, usually have a good reason. First and foremost, washcloths abound in this country, but have a different name. They are ‘flannels’ here.

    I’d be surprised if hotels you stayed in didn’t have central heating. Towel racks are very popular these days, and usually replace radiators in bathrooms. Usually they run off the central heating. Sometimes they are electric.

    Your shower unit was electric, and has a safety cord to be turned on and off as need be. It is usually not placed over the toilet, but obviously was in your case. Usually it is placed near the door or near the shower itself. Some people leave them on all the time, some don’t. Being corrupted by now by the British, my two, in two different bathrooms, are always turned off after a shower. The unit itself is pretty simple, but probably takes a little experimentation by the novice, or innocent abroad.

    Just think how well practiced you will be on your next trip here!

  23. After so many travels to the UK, the need for a “flannel” comes up often when I travel with other people and I forget to tell them washcloths are rarely available. As for the loo, it’s French for garde l’eau, basically watch out for the water that’s about to come out the window to you down below.

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