In for a penny, in for a pound

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The Independent Online
A UNIFORMED security guard patrols the corridor, barking into a walkie-talkie. A second security person is on the door, alternately checking IDs and talking to Higher Powers on the internal phone. Approved visitors enter through double doors to the outer chamber, where a third official paces anxiously, the last defence against intruders. She checks ID cards again and accompanies legitimate visitors to the inner sactum. Finally, an electromagnetised card is swiped through a panel on the door. You're in. Welcome to the new loo at Harrods.

The loo - officially titled the 'ladies luxury washroom' - opened on Monday, the first stage in a pounds 1m transformation of the four public conveniences on the store's first floor.

In this one, the floor is laid with two-and-a-half tons of Sicilian marble, in pale pink, beige and cream. The sinks are made of grey granite. The doors are light oak. The mirrors are wrought iron. The flush and taps work with the wave of a hand past an infra-red beam. There is a telephone, two armchairs, a hairdryer, and half a dozen perfumes arrayed on a marble shelf for complimentary squirting. 'It could be described as Italian in feel,' says Jill, the Harrods' spokesperson for loos.

Jill is probably referring not to the marble but the fact that visitors have to pay to use the ladies' luxury washroom, as is the custom in Italy. It costs not 500 lire but pounds 1 - as in, 'I need to spend a pound'. The exceptions to this strictly enforced rule are account holders, restaurant customers, disabled people and women with small children. However, the restaurant category appears to be something of a con, since the girl on the till at the adjacent cafe refused to give me a swipe card in return for my tea and brownie, price pounds 2.80.

The loo initiative has its own logic. Why, after all, should Harrods serve as a free public convenience for passers-by who have no intention of buying anything? The store strives to repel foreign language students and penniless InterRailers by covering every entrance with stickers: 'No rips or tears] No backpacks] No vest tops] No shorts]' These rules are enforced by a vast network of security guards. A bobby, lounging on the railing outside Knightsbridge tube, advises me to 'try Kentucky' (Fried Chicken) for there are no public conveniences in the area. Nevertheless, abuse of the Harrods loos persists.

Is a pound such a lot to pay in a store built around the notion of luxury? A mahogany gun cabinet, on display in a 'Father's Day' window, is priced at pounds 1,635; the cheapest item is a Giorgio Armani tie at pounds 49.95. Inside, there is almost nothing to be had for less than pounds 1 apart from a golden delicious class 1 apple at 95p, 10 English Breakfast teabags at 65p or a 100g box of Harrods' water biscuits, a snip at 55p.

The indications were, last week, that 'spending a pound' in Harrods will not catch on. 'I find it appalling,' said Jeanne, a New Jersey native in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. 'Our stores are just as luxurious and they're free.' Elizabeth, a middle-aged lady on a visit from Eastbourne, declined to relieve herself: 'I suppose they're out to make money.'

One problem is the other loos in Harrods for, though they go by the lowly title 'ladies toilets', at least two of them are beautiful, and all are free. On the fourth floor is an Edwardian chamber, a listed room which regularly wins best loo awards. There are cubby holes for making-up, with glass shelves, dinky wooden stools, etched glass lampshades and full-length mirrors. Unlike the luxury washroom, there is drinking water and real - bars, rather than liquid - soap. Another gem, hidden away next to cash and wrap on the first floor, has dark green cubicles, wooden doors and aquamarine, Art Deco sinks.

Then there is the new luxury washroom itself. 'It's meant to be a haven for ladies who have been shopping all day,' says Jill, the Harrods spokesperson for loos. 'They can spend 20 minutes to half an hour putting their feet up.' The store will have to do some rethinking, then, for at present it is a thoroughly unrelaxing experience.

Gaining entrance resembles, at worst, a visit to HM Holloway Prison, at best a visit to the VIP room at Studio 54. The inner attendant is thoroughly tense - understandable, given the security measures, not to mention the new system of toilet rotation. (Instead of a permanent site, attendants now spend a week in each loo before moving on.) What with the eerie lack of sisterly chatter, the cold tap of court shoe on marble, and the confusing infra-red tap mechanism (I had to show my neighbour how to use it), it would be impossible to put your feet up for half an hour.

Outside the store, pounds 1 buys 40 minutes' parking or nearly two copies of the magazine sold by homeless people, the Big Issue. John, originally from Manchester, has been working the back entrance with his alsatian, Major (emphatically not named after the PM), for the past month, having moved from his previous pitch

at High Street Kensington. He lives in bed and breakfast accommodation with his wife and four kids.

'It's this government,' says John, by way of explanation. 'I get more when I go to St Albans on a Wednesday and Saturday - pounds 120 in three hours. It's the working class, ain't it? Here, Major gets all the attention. Sometimes they bring out tins of dog food. I get me drops, though. Got pounds 500 once from a French geezer. Went to Stringfellows. Had steak, champagne - everything.'

I buy a copy of the Big Issue. Any more of his story - in the spirit of the luxury washroom - requires further payment.

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)