Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ty Bach, Cachdy, it’s All Welsh Toilets to Me!

1st Place Toilet Sign Winner
Raglan Castle, Wales
I have to admit it. I became obsessed with latrines in Britain. First of all, when one is traveling, the lavies or toilets--or in Wales, ty bachs or cachdys--are a major concern… especially when the national drink is tea and lots of it. I have noticed that, at every big house or castle I’ve been to, each car spills out its people, everyone puts on a jacket, and off they rush to the toilets. Imagine what extraterrestrials must think, if they watch this phenomenon each day, all day.

While we’re on the subject, the Welsh government is cutting back in all ways economic and it appears public toilets are taking the brunt of the knife. Age Cymru, a charitable organization which fights for the rights of seniors and the elderly, have taken up the cause for the public ty bach. They aver these must be saved and kept in good and sanitary working order, because they allow older adults more freedom and independence to travel. I suggest that in the name of all travelers, elderly or not, these toilets must be available for all of us—imagine your five-year-old after a fizzy-pop or two, and yourself, when a pint of ale finds its way down the tube. Up with Toilets, I say!

But, my obsession is not necessarily spurred by this perpetual habit of the species. It is the intrigue of the latrine itself, which first dug its grungy claws into me when I visited Tintern Abbey, in South Wales. This was a marvelous opportunity for learning, because there is so much evidence of different rooms and many explanatory plaques…which is how I came to understand this abbey’s system of waste disposal. It was quite basic. Water from the hill above Tintern was routed through a large, deep gutter, which first ran past the kitchen. They just dumped any scraps into the rushing water, which swooshed along, past various latrine areas (monks, laymen, infirmary, Abbot and guests). The water continued along its way, into the River Wye. This worked better, I think, than the system used by the Italian Venetians, as there was no evidence to contend with (in the immediate vicinity, anyway). One interesting notation to make is that the Abbot entertained many traveling dignitaries and visitors, and guess what was the first rocky room on the left, inside the front door…?

Now, what I’m about to say can go no further than here…the National Trust is a power I don’t want to contend with. In my enthusiastic sight-seeing frenzies, my growing audacity becomes frightful. On a visit to Wales' Croft Castle, I got to view a slightly more dignified style of latrine, just off of the receiving salon, below the stairs in what might have been a maid's closet. The National Trust forbids ‘filming’ of any inside areas, unless one receives special permission from a higher-up…but, oh, I was so tempted. Two tourists came in behind me and it took some creeping about, but I returned and got that shot. Oh my.

Now, what I’m about to tell you can’t go any farther…at the wonder-full North Wales estate of Erddig, I saw a seated chamber pot that Queen Mary had used beside a sumptuous canopy bed…I couldn’t resist. I knew there was a docent somewhere close by, so I cleared my throat, as my camera turned on. (I hadn’t yet figured out how to turn off the music or even that it was possible.) But I know it was the flash that did it…that woman ran in lickety-split, as they say, but the camera was gone. She looked around me, as in wonder that she had missed the culprit. This good little two-shoes said penitently, ‘Oh, I really just wanted to get that toilet.’ She scolded vehemently, ‘No, no, no!’

Queen Mary's Pot
 I vowed that ‘I will never do this again, and that I will ask permission’…but what if they say no? Don’t let your children read this—I am definitely a bad example.

I won’t go into the humanness of our curiosity about these things…but I do believe it is quite natural to be interested in all aspects of our excretions. Children are unselfconsciously motivated to explore. I find the toilets of the UK unsatisfactory for this exploration…one must examine ‘things’ to know the condition and results of one’s daily nutritional intake and in Britain, ‘things’ simply disappear in their modern apparatuses (not to mention garderobes of olde) once one has completed one’s processing. It is disconcerting, to be sure.

A misconception that I formed from some of the badly-ruined latrines in castles is that there was no comfort or consideration for the need of position, for expediency. For instance, at Tintern and others, there is just the open gutter or shoot down the side of rocks, to water. I finally realized my error in thinking, when I got to other castles in better condition. They actually had a little rocky or wooden seat and all results found their way into the moat or below to the medieval manor’s spring-fed gutters.

And though some castles with thoughtful builders even had a window and sometimes a few seats lined up for quiet reading pleasure, a copse of trees might have served as a more inspiring, not to mention less rank, experience than in the average claustrophobic stone garderobe.

Some fun loos I found have great views of mountain, sea and bay. These are at Castle Conwy, in North Wales. Ten open 'conveniences' had been built into the curtain wall, all lined up one after the other, that were used by the sentries. Everything simply landed outside the walls…talk about a way to protect your stronghold.

This all leads to a conversation I had with the police, in Tintern. I was actually looking for a laundromat (very difficult to find there, which again demonstrates priorities). I asked about their method of disposal of ‘things’. They said that for many years now, they have had septic systems. I told them about the labyrinths of failed septics in my tiny mountain town of Crouch. Though these police officers and their ancient village sit right next to the beautiful River Wye, they had no concern and laughed that I had even brought it up. It seems to me that we cannot afford to be embarrassed by these things any longer.

In honor of all of the old toilets that for hundreds of years provided rest and relief to lords and ladies and lesser mortals, I have provided a photo of my loveliest toilet sign winner, with the greenery of vines growing out of 600 year-old mortar. Take a gander at some of my favorite Welsh toidies and while you remember your own moments in the throes of need and there was no help to be found, give a hip-hip-hurrah for the ty bach and Age Cymru.

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