Doctor On The House: Plumbing the depths of the basin

We may not have mixer taps, but would you want one of those Dutch toilets? Jeff Howell peeks into the pipes
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The Independent Online
Never mind European Monetary Union - a unified plumbing system would be a start.

A recent survey revealed that what European tourists find most disturbing about Britain is the state of our bathrooms. The lack of adequate showering facilities is a big gripe: "Do the British not wash?" I was asked by a German friend. Yes, well, er, maybe we've got a bit of catching up to do on that one.

Wash basins are another source of bemusement. Why do we not have mixer taps like the rest of Europe, so you can wash your hands under the running water? Good point - washing your mits at a British basin involves setting the hot tap flowing, soaping up while the water is still running cold, scrubbing as it reaches warm and then rushing to rinse before your skin gets scalded off. Or adopting a unique swinging motion of the upper body, using cupped hands to collect cold and hot water from either side, hoping to achieve a comfortable compromise. Not very 21st century, is it?

But before we start getting an inferiority complex, it should be noted that not everything across La Manche is rosy on the plumbing front. Some of those Spanish hotels may have showers in the rooms, but have you tried to get a decent flow of hot water out of them? French hole-in-the-ground toilets are a major turn-off for many, and as for those Dutch toilets - you know, with the platforms that allow a close post-operative inspection of the proceedings - well, most of us would rather not know.

It was all started off by the Romans, who introduced piped water right across their empire, so it may seem odd that plumbing systems across Europe now exhibit such diversity. Our system, it must be said, has developed its own peculiarities - like Australian mammals and American team sports, British plumbing has evolved in isolation, and produced an end product that we know and love, and think of as normal, but which can seem a bit odd to outsiders.

The fact that every British dwelling has its own cold water storage tank, for example, seems unnecessarily complicated - not to mention a potential health hazard - to many mainland Europeans, who are used to using their water direct from the mains. (The correct term, actually, is cistern - a tank is a sealed vessel, while a cistern is open to atmospheric pressure. So now you know.) All these cisterns provide a total water-storage capacity equivalent to several large reservoirs, as well as buffering the effects of pressure fluctuations at times of peak demand.

This accustoms the British to a decent flow rate to their baths or showers at any time of the day - the antithesis of the Spanish hotel shower problem. But it also accounts for the lack of mixer taps on our wash basins - we have mains pressure to the cold tap, so you can drink the water, but low- pressure cistern water feeding the hot supply. So if you clean your teeth using a mixer tap, you could be swallowing water containing dead pigeons or other unmentionables.

I once lived in a flat for two years before I had to investigate a problem with the cistern, and found that the plumber who installed it had left something behind - a packet of bacon sandwiches. The discovery made me feel quite queasy; give me a good old Dutch toilet any day.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: