I read the other day that the outside toilet “once a sign of social deprivation, now adds value to the price of a property” (see the article here). Oh do come on, get real!
I grew up in a village in the country, with an outside toilet in a shed 10 yards or so down the garden path. Until the 1970s it wasn’t even a flushing toilet and it left a dark shadow of discomfort that still haunts my dreams.
You might say, though, that like many things in those days, it did bring me closer to nature. The shed was made of brick with a slate roof and the interior walls were unpainted and the rafters open, so the place was always full of cobwebs.
It had no electric light (nor gaslight nor oil lamp, come to that) so at night we would take a torch with us. Many were the trips down the garden path at night, even in the snow and rain, as there were certain things for which we would just not use the big china chamber pot under the bed.
Sitting in the gloom on the loo with a bare bottom, knowing I was surrounded by spiders, is probably the experience that still makes me cringe at the sight of a big house spider (Tegenaria duellica) – although admittedly we used to encounter plenty of those in the house itself as well.
The door was made of wooden planks painted green but you could still see the raised grain of the wood through the layer of gloss.
There was no bolt or lock on the door but there were gaps between the planks so you could see if someone was approaching and make sure you coughed loudly. This is another phobia I have – I always lock loo doors!
The door faced away from the back of the house, so it faced south and in the summer the sun baked down on it – at least giving some light through the cracks.
On the outside of the door were a colony of spiders I didn’t mind – in fact I thought they were rather cute. These zebra spiders (Salticus scenicus) were very small and black and white, as the name suggests. They are “jumping” spiders and had a fascinating way of moving around in a jerky sort of way, like a low quality stop-start animation.
The loo walls were also the place to look for chrysalises in winter. We would pick one off and keep it in a matchbox, inspecting it regularly for signs of change. Finally the day would come and we would go outside and watch the butterfly emerge and pump up its limp wings and fly away. Usually it was a cabbage white butterfly (Pieris brassicae) but occasionally a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae).
But back to the loo itself. Until we had a flushing toilet, paid for by a council grant in the 1970s, we had what might be called an “earth closet”, although it was really just a metal bucket, without any contraption associated with a real earth closet.
There was a wooden bench with a hole in the middle and the bucket underneath. The wood was soft and warm and made smooth by decades of wear, like the handles of the shovel and spade that hung on the wall.
We always used hard Izal toilet paper – really not very absorbent at all – and it had a slight smell which was either pine disinfectant or carbolic.
I also used the perforated sheets of the stuff as tracing paper when I had a school project, for tracing maps and that kind of thing. Only small maps, of course.
The bucket didn’t empty itself, so probably once or twice a week, when it got full, one of us had to “bury the old man” as we called it. I took my turn from the age of about 10, when my brothers had both left home. I always chose a time when no one was around to see.
It was awkward to carry without slopping it around and I had to take it 100 yards down the path to the rose garden – not much of a garden, really, but row upon row of rose beds with gaps between. We had about 150 hybrid tea roses. We had lovely roses – they were well manured…
I always had to choose a place that hadn’t already been used recently, to dig a deep hole in the black loam with a spade. My overriding memories are of the smell, and of the colour – there was always a hint of that sick yellow you see on dung flies on a cow pat.
Look, I’m sorry if this all seems a bit lavatorial, but with hindsight, this system was much more environmentally friendly that the flushing loos we have today. Not that I have any plan to give up my modern “luxuries”…