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Contestants vie to join the loo roll of honour: Andrew Morgan joined a tour of inspection by judges looking for the best place to go when on the move

MOTORWAY service stations, so often vilified for their poor facilities, struck back yesterday when the Welcome Break at Fleet on the M3 in Hampshire won the Loo of the Year Award.

The lavatories (north and southbound) have attracted the attention of contest judges for the past six years, but have only now earned formal recognition. Their prize, presented in London, was a brass toilet seat for the wall.

In a further coup, Granada Services at Thurrock was named national winner in the disabled section. Sheffield Town Hall took the municipal title, while facilities at Carsington Reservoir, Derbyshire, dominated the leisure category.

Among the regional winners was the Bath Spa Hotel. Its impact was clear last month when the Independent followed two judges, examining some of the 1,300 nominations, to witness the assessment criteria.

The Bath Spa, named last year as the RAC's Five-Star Hotel of the Year, had some distinct toilet touches: a model bike, six inches high, with a basket full of free condoms. The bike has a sign: 'Buy Me and Stop One', possibly from a rag mag, circa 1972. There were five varieties of mineral water and some ear-cleaners on a stick.

'Best place in the world to go to the toilet? A five-star hotel,' whispered David Jackson, a judge from the Tidy Britain Group, working incognito. 'Very, very nice. Free condoms were a new one on me. Can't beat class.'

There was less in the way of celebration yesterday at East Street toilets in Bristol, attended by Ray Williams and nominated for being clean and 'free of perverts'. Mr Williams, entered in the municipal section, displayed his spotless cubicles, while the judges listened to his woeful tales of lingering glue sniffers. His toilets were impressive, complete with pictures of his grandchildren, but hanging baskets or plants might have helped. He was pipped for the area title by loos near the bandstand at Teignmouth, Devon. 'An attended toilet needs that little something to lift it,' Mr Jackson said.

Some nearby lavatories, unnominated, were closer to the norm: smashed windows, rafts of paper on the drenched floor, the Gents smelling of lukewarm beer. Such conditions contribute to Britain's reputation for having the worst public loos in northern Europe, apart, perhaps, from the pissoirs of Paris.

Disgust with the situation led Susan Cunningham to form the pressure group, All Mod Cons. She said: 'Many people don't drink enough liquid when they go out because they're frightened the toilets will be so filthy they won't want to use them.' Some even claim that it is more hazardous to use public lavatories than to use the roads.

Dr Philip Ross, consultant in medical microbiology at Edinburgh University, is sceptical of this but the state of public lavatories worries him. Just sitting on toilet seats, pulling chains or turning on the taps can lead to contamination with viruses. Poor washing allows the spread of microbes responsible for dysentery and hepatitis. 'Thumbs are missed by many people,' laments Dr Ross. 'Most public loos need improvement, but the spread of disease can be avoided with good washing technique.'

This is the mantra at Cheltenham General Hospital, with 200,000 out-patients a year, where David Jackson and his fellow judge, Fiona Chalmers, had a misty-eyed session in 13 toilets.

Gone were the boring cream emulsion walls, covered in naive sketches of male organs. In their place is rag-rolled red paintwork on walls, murals reminiscent of ancient Greece, and curtains run up in the hospital's fabrics department.

'Give people something smart to respect and they respect it,' said Zoe Greenwell, domestic services adviser, who was once confronted with faeces smeared behind cisterns. The loos were yesterday a regional winner.

There was no mention, though, for Stroud District Council offices in a converted mill, an optimistic contestant in the disabled section. 'Not enough bars or other aids,' sniffed Mr Jackson. 'A common fault.'

And the worst he has seen? 'Personal opinion, but some in a car park in Durham City. Tourists remember the awful toilets rather than a world heritage cathedral. A sad statement in modern-day Britain - but true.'

(Photograph omitted)