Sleep tight ... in a British bed you've no choice

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They did things differently in Tudor times. The 1595 Great Bed of Ware, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is 10ft 8in wide, amply proportioned to accommodate four people comfortably.

Nowadays 80 per cent of British adults who sleep with a partner occupy a space a few inches wider than a baby's cot. A survey has found that our standard double beds - 4ft 6in wide by 6ft 3in long - are the smallest in the world. Only Americans, - surprisingly, given obesity levels across the Atlantic - share our sardine-can tastes. Belgian, Finnish and Swiss couples luxuriate in beds measuring 5ft 3in by 6ft 7in. Even the Japanese, not renowned for their stature, surpass us in sleeping space: 4ft 7in by 6ft 5in.

There was an initial thrill of excitement when the research was published by the Sleep Council, mouthpiece of bed manufacturers and retailers. Did it prove, perhaps, that our famous froideur was a myth, that we harboured passions so fiery that only the narrowest of beds afforded the requisite proximity?

Sadly, no, according to Kevin Morgan, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield. "There is a kind of iconography of the bed as a place for sex," he says. "But since most of the population is in the passion-spent bracket, issues of amorousness do not arise.

"Even those of the rabbit tendency will not spend hours every night utilising a full 6ft width of bed. Anyway, libidinous stimulation requires some kind of tactile contact, and the bigger the bed, the farther you are apart."

The truth, Dr Morgan believes, is more prosaic. "We live in small houses, with shoebox-sized bedrooms, so naturally our beds are similarly sized. We are also small-minded people, and take the view that if 4ft 6in was good enough for our parents, it's good enough for us."

Indeed, this attitude characterised reaction recently to news that Tony and Cherie Blair had celebrated their move to Downing Street by splashing out pounds 3,500 on a hand-built 6ft by 6ft 7in Swedish bed. Critics condemned them for rank extravagance.

Perhaps their example will help to liberate us from our quaint attachment to frugally proportioned divans. The hotel industry's announcement last month that single beds are to be phased out - due to lack of demand - suggests our tastes may be becoming more adventurous. Certainly, our miserliness infuriates Andy Hills of the London Bedding Company, proud owner of a 5ft-wide bed. "Size is essential for a good night's sleep," he says. "We need the space to thrash around."

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