Thursday 26 June 2008

Bicester Village Toilets Offer Up New England Modernity and Style in Old England

Bicester Outlet Shopping Village
50 Pingle Dr
United Kingdom

Where is it?

After parking, head for the shopping area's central boulevard, which cuts between the two lengthy rows of buildings and shops. Once there, look for the Pret a Manger cafe. The bathrooms can be found down the corridor to the right of that business front.

What's it like?

This tourist-filled shopping outlet, located about 10 minutes away from Oxford, features plenty of high-end retailers, selling everything from designer fashions to bedding to perfume to cookware, among other things. While set in the picturesque English countryside, the look of the place is more like upper-class New England, especially Gloucester or Martha's Vineyard, with the buildings carrying a strong nautical theme and painted in muted pastels, than England.

The bathrooms extend the New World upper-crust feel of the place, thanks to their classy and decidedly modern design. Glossy wooden panels cover the walls. Elegant black tile covers the floor in a way that reminds me of the wonderful toilets experienced at Sensi in the Bellagio. Clearly, the designers wanted to impress people here and I thank them for that.

A row of urinals with black dividers sits against one wall -- very chic in appearance, though the barriers were set a little low for my tastes. In the back is a set of three toilet stalls, each with the same elegant wood paneling comprising its walls and door. Very comfortable and quite possibly the most stylish and private-feeling stall (set in a mass-service bathroom) I've been in since my visit to the Wynn Las Vegas.

Opposite the urinals, the vanity features a black marble (to match the floor) and four in-set sinks, as well as a stretch mirror hanging over it. Though the faucets aren't automatic (which reminded me some of of the Delta Crown Room Toilets at JFK) they are not the old-school variety of push-button faucets (like in the aforementioned Crown Room).

Even better: The hand soap used here is Gilchrist and Soames -- and you feel the luxury in the choice the instant it makes contact with your hands. So silky......

Marks out of 10:

9. Easily the best public toilets visited while in England, and some of the best mass-service facilities experienced outside of Las Vegas and Orlando, to be honest.

Comments to the Management:

Nearly perfect. The only change I would make would be to life the urinal barriers some, which would enhance the privacy factor some.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Don't Sit on the Seats at Blenheim Palace Indoor Toilets

Blenheim Palace
Indoor Toilets (near cafe)
United Kingdom

Where is it?

From the outside, round the main palace building and head towards the Water Terrace Cafe, which is on the back side of the palace (if coming in from the Woodstock entrance), overlooking the majestic Water Terrace gardens, which feature many sculptures, topiary and waterworks displays.

To get to the toilets, enter the cafe from the exterior entrance, pass through to the hallway on the other side of it, and follow the signs from there to the toilets. You'll go downstairs eventually and enter a humble corridor filled with various artifacts. In that hallway, you'll see a sign reading "Ladies and Gentlemen Toilet" -- with an arrow pointing to your left.

(This sign, of course, gave me quite a laugh because, taken at face value, it serves both as a directional and a declaration -- as in, "Ladies and Gentleman, I present you with TOILETS!" Pretty amusing, I thought.)

What's it like?

These are slightly smaller facilities than the palace's outdoor toilets, however they are also more ornate and more traditionally English in spirit than that other set.

The walls here are covered half in white tile and half in green-painted drywall. The floor is covered in beige tile. The back wall houses three urinals, all hooked up to a single pipe system that enforces an automatic flush mechanism on them (like how it's set up in the outdoor toilets). It also features two pedestal sinks on the side wall, and two toilet stalls in the back, one small and one set for handicapped persons.

The toilets here are similar in design to the ones found in the outdoor toilets, in that they are white porcelain models with wooden seats. However, the stalls here are a cut above the outdoor toilets in that they are roomier (even the small one is roomy) and they feature unique pocket doors instead of the standard hinged door you find at so many other places.

The pocket doors, I must admit, make a nice touch and infuse the place with a big of traditional English elegance. However, the bathroom itself was quite a mess and somewhat smelly. So much so that it became unpleasant to be there. No doubt this is because these facilities are heavily visited, whereas the outdoor toilets are not used as much.

On my first visit, a group of schoolboys stopped in before I did, and they were ramshackled the place. There was water everywhere, as well as plenty of mis-directed urine. This was most noticeable in the stall itself, where I found the floor and toilet seat covered with pee. Also, the smell of urine here was very sharp.

On a second visit, about an hour or so later, I had hoped to find the placed cleaned up but this wasn't the case. It was still in a considerable state of disorder and pee was still covering the toilet seat and stall floor. Needless to stay, I opted to walk to the outdoor toilets to do my business and found them in perfectly acceptable condition.

Marks out of 10:

4. A nice, old-fashioned design, but that fact gets lost in the mess I found here. A good place for a pee but not for much more, at least not until they are cleaned properly.

Comments to the Management:

Clearly, you need to figure out a better schedule of maintenance, since leaving the place in such a state isn't acceptable. (No doubt there's a reason no one used that stall in the hour or so that passed in between my first and second visits.) Also, some air freshener would be much appreciated. Quite a disappointment, since the outdoor toilets made for such a nice stop.

Monday 23 June 2008

Outdoor Toilets at Blenheim Palace Far Superior Than Indoor Ones

Blenheim Palace
Outdoor/Garden Toilets
United Kingdom

Where is it?

From the Woodstock side, walk along the entrance road about 1/2 mile, paying for admission at the gate when you come to it, and head towards the palace entrance that faces you. Once there, skirt around to the right of the building. You'll see signs leading you to the toilet once you do -- and the toilets themselves will be around that first corner, about 200 feet down.

What's it like?

Home to the Duke of Marlborough, as well as the famous Spencer-Churchill family, whose decedents include Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, Blenheim is a majestic estate boasting gardens nearly as extravagant and vast as those found in Versailles, and a sprawling central building that rivals Versailles in opulence.

That is no coincidence. According to our guide, the palace was designed in the 1700s to rival Versailles. After the French Revolution in 1793, Versailles was ransacked and its contents put to auction. The Duke of Marlborough purchased a number of artifacts from the palace for use in his home at the time, many of which are still on display inside.

Blenheim also is the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and a quarter of the house is filled with a large exhibit cataloging his military, diplomatic and artistic efforts. The exhibition culminates in a tour of the room where he was born, outfitted in the original turn-of-the-20th-century furniture used at the time.

Inside, visitors can tour select halls and rooms where the Duke and his family still currently reside. They can also get a glimpse into the building's complex 300 year history by way of guided tours and an animatronic show. It's very lavish, art-filled environment and a great way to spend the day if in the area.

The toilets described in this review are the ones allotted to the people who prefer to walk the expansive palace grounds instead of heading inside. (A review of the indoor facilities can be found here.) Though you expect the indoor ones to be more luxurious in quality, the outdoor ones are actually the better choice for use, no doubt because they are not visited as regularly as the ones inside. These are clean, functional facilities that are perfect for a needy stop.

The setup is simple: The outside wall houses two pedestal sinks, soap dispensers and air dryers. The back wall houses a row of four urinals, each hooked up to a single pipe system that performs automatic flushes on a given time table. On the inside wall are two toilet stalls with green stall dividers. The stalls are roomy and the seats are made of wood, to give them an added touch of elegance (nothing too exotic, however).

The walls are covered in simple beige tile, the floors are black-linoleum covered concrete -- again, all very functional. It's clean, with some spots of wear and tear visible but nothing too bad or alarming.

The walls are devoid of decorations for the most part, except for a few signs indicating upcoming functions at the estate (why people don't do this more, I don't know, since it's such a simple addition and adds some quick personality to the environment).

The place smells faintly of urine, but nothing too awful -- about on par, if not a little better, with what I experienced at the British Museum and far better than the ghastly and putrid toilets experienced at the O2 and the Oxford Railway Station.

Strangest part of the visit: The sign hanging between the two sinks, reading "CAUTION! Very hot water." Something tells me the place has had a few incidents that rival the now infamous McDonald's coffee lawsuit.

Marks out of 10:

7. A good, clean, functional, proper toilet. Good show.

Comments to the Management:

A few more pieces of wall art or ornamentation might make the place more a little more personable, though as it is it's not too bad. Do consider one of those mounted air fresheners though, just to ensure a stink-free visit (see the Monsoon's toilets for ideas).

Thursday 19 June 2008

Oxford Train Station Toilet Remarkably Filthy, Crammed

Oxford Railway Station
Park End Street, Oxford
United Kingdom

Where is it?

In between the ticket counters and the train gates, on the back wall of the complex.

What's it like?

This is one of those standard train terminals with a central sitting area, a selection of various vendors (book store, walk-up cafe, sandwich shop, etc.), a ticket counter area, toilet facilities and such. It's a few blocks away from central Oxford, which makes it a good place to start your tour of the city. Other than that, it's a pretty bland location.

The toilets here are very Teutonic and not very clean, with blue walls and concrete on the floor. They are small and somewhat crammed, and when I visited there were so many people in there that it felt like a subway station at rush hour.

(In fact, it was so crowded that I couldn't even snap any good pictures -- besides not being given the chance to be discreet, I didn't have room to stretch enough to take out my camera!)

The urinals are lined up against the front wall. Behind them is a row of toilet stalls, about three or four. Maybe 2 feet separates the former from the latter -- which, of course, doesn't give you much room to breath here. The sinks are at the front, and if you walk in while someone's at them, you get stuck in the doorway because of the lack of room to move around.

The urinals all had these bright orange urinal cakes in them (more cylindrical in shape than the traditional hockey-puck-shaped ones I'm used to), which emitted a strong chemical stench. That unpleasant aroma mixed poorly with some sharp urine smells, as well as some horrid fecal smells.

The toilets were no better, as the two stalls I visited (the first was too gross to use) looked like they'd not been cleaned in the better part of two weeks.

Marks out of 10:

2. Just a disgusting experience. I wanted to shower after leaving.

Comments to the Management:

Space-wise, you may want to consider a better layout, since the one you have now makes it difficult for more than two people to use the place at once -- quite a setback for a place that should accommodate 10 easily. Also, I realize this place is visited by a lot of students, many of which could care less about cleanliness, but just because they don't, that doesn't mean you have to as well. I realize it's hard to clean such crowded restrooms, but there has to be a different way -- if airports can do it, why can't you?

Monday 16 June 2008

Monsoon Restaurant Bathroom Has Lots (and I Mean Lots) of Pink Toilet Paper

The Monsoon Restaurant
78 Brick Lane
London, United Kingdom

Where is it?

This is one of those places that is much longer than its narrow width store front. Like Angelo's in New York City, the restaurant stretches back some from the main street and it's dining room is split into multiple parts, including a bar area in the back, a casual cafe up front and another dining room upstairs.

To get to the toilets from the front entrance, walk in and head towards the bar. With the bar on your left, look for doors on your right leading to the toilets. Pretty simple, really.

What's it like?

This is a friendly, unassuming little Indian restaurant (I learned later that it's specialties are Bangladeshi cuisine) with friendly service and decent food. A bit crammed inside, mostly because it is such a narrow place, but still good nonetheless. Not the best Indian food I had while in London, but certainly not the worst either. I found the curries here to be sweeter than expected, which I wasn't quite prepared for.

We went in because we were walking along Brick Lane, searching for a place to eat, and one of the proprietors came out and coaxed us in -- which, I learned later, is the custom on this block -- and also because the place's front window had lots of accolades from local papers, which, seeing that I was a tourist, carries some weight. I have a feeling that if I'd ordered more traditional Bangladeshi dishes instead of more standard UK-inspired Indian food, I would have enjoyed it more. Still, I thought the food wasn't bad at all, though my companion was hoping for something less sweet and Thai-influenced.

The dining room here, as stated earlier, is tight, but it's clean and the service is friendly and welcoming. The men's bathroom is equally tight (my companion said the women's toilet was very spacious and comfortable), mostly because it's a standard European-sized toilet, made smaller because of a somewhat low ceiling. Not as low as say Pizoodles but still low enough to make you feel like you're auditioning for a role in a Marcel Marceau picture. This was one of the smallest bathrooms I've been in since my trip to Russia, where I experienced such confining places as at the Petro Palace lobby or the SkyBar.

The place doesn't offer much to look at. Beige tile covers the floor and walls. The toilet is set in the back of the closet, with a small glass shelf hanging overhead. The sink, a small one with separate hot and cold faucets, jets out from the wall near the entrance, with an air drier fixed above it and a soap dispenser hanging nearby. The grout connecting the sink is pretty worn down but nothing ghastly. It's a clean little place, and not smelly at all, which surprised me because of the cave-like atmosphere here. (Note: The small exhaust fan set up above the door really did the trick. Couldn't see the model, however.)

The highlight is the massive amounts of pink toilet paper found here, especially on the back of the commode tank. There were six roles here, as well as a few more on the paper holder, which made me a bit curious. Also, all the rolls were used to some degree, some nearing the end, some just starting, some halfway finished. Why?

Furthermore, why didn't people just use the rolls hanging on the holder and use those up before reaching for the one's on the toilet tank? Very strange.

Also strange was that the glass shelf above the toilet held two bottles of generic hand soap, even though there was a dispenser next to the sink. Was the hand soap not as good as these? Why have the hand soap there at all, if that's the idea.

Or maybe the concept here is to offset the small space available here with a surplus of strangely colorful items?

Marks out of 10:

6. It's clean and small and has lots of pink toilet paper. That's about it.

Comments to the Management:

I'm imagining that because the building is somewhat old you cannot do much to make the bathroom larger in size -- like the supposed size of the women's room. Given that, you can add some more mirrors to increase the lighting to the place, which could help make it seem bigger. Also, consider storing stuff elsewhere. Finally, lose the pink toilet paper -- that's just weird.

Friday 13 June 2008

The O2: Chic Surroundings Don't Forgive Stinky, Smelly Bathroom

The O2
Peninsula Square
United Kingdom

Where is it?

Leave the Underground exit and follow the signs to the O2 center.

Once there, head inside and make your way through the many restaurants lining the interior of the place, heading in the direction of the movie theater located in the center of the complex, on its second floor.

Once in the vicinity of the movie theater, look for a restaurant called Frank and Benny's, a New York-inspired Italian joint. The bathrooms are to the right of that restaurant, just underneath the escalator leading to the movie theater ticket office and behind the building's enormous support beam.

What's it like?

The O2 is a state-of-the-art convention center/mall located in the far east end of London, right next to Greenwich. It's a mammoth complex that in a way looks like the world's biggest circus tent.

Inside you'll find dozens of restaurants, bars, exhibit halls, performance stages and more. It's a very clean environment filled with plenty of entertainment options, both upscale and casual.

Given that, you expect the toilets to be quite high-end, or at the least somewhat technologically impressive -- the food quart toilets at the Mall of Millenia (our pick for the Best Toilet Experience of 2007) or those experienced at the London Eye.

Sadly, that isn't the case.

These are somewhat tight facilities with white tiled floors and walls. The walls were pretty clean but the floor wasn't (see below).

A set of urinals has been set up on the back wall, with a stretch of toilet stalls opposite them. A vanity area, with two sinks, sits in the front of the place, with the two areas connected by a short, somewhat narrow passageway.

Nothing very spectacular or worth seeing here, unless you consider the sinks in the vanity. These are white porcelain sinks with long candy-cane-shaped chrome faucets that are somewhat confusing to work.

The sinks themselves look like they are caught between being pedestal sinks and free-standing bowls but can't decide which. Because of that, they manage to be both good for keeping running water inside the bowls (because they are deep) but also hard to manage and reach. Go figure.

Also, the faucets work on a three-way directional system, in that water flow is controlled by pushing the level backwards and forwards, and the various temperatures are controlled via left and right motions.

Because this isn't straightforward, the management has posted a laminated set of directions on the wall to help people -- but unfortunately, that doesn't help either. You pull and push on the faucet continuously -- sometimes you get water, sometimes not; given that, temperature control was not as important as getting the soap off my hands.

The urinals and toilets were nothing special -- both white porcelain. Urinals were on an auto flush system, whereas the toilets had a push-button flush.

However, the floor around the urinals was dotted with urine and the toilet seats were lined with urine as well.

In addition to being pretty gross (especially if you're there to go #2), it hints that perhaps the size of the bathroom doesn't equal the draw.

And speaking of urine: The place reeks of it, and of poo too. Very bad odors here, which seem to be made all the worse because of the close quarters and lack of strong ventilation. The stink just seems to sit heavy in the air here. Very gross.

Getting out of this place felt triumphant, as did that first breath of fresh mall air. Ick.

Marks out of 10:

3. Smelly, dirty and stuffy -- a very disappointing experience.

Comments to the Management:

Lots of work needed here. First, seriously consider expanding the place some -- you're obviously getting too much traffic to accommodate the space. Second, get some better ventilation and some air fresheners in here -- very putrid and stifling inside.

Finally, clean the place better. What I mean by this: I noticed that there was an attendant station next door to the toilets, and I even noticed an attendant in there, and she even passed through the toilets once to clean them while I waited for my companion to finish her duties.

But I made "before and after" visits in that time and that didn't see much of a different. The obvious messes were mopped up, but much of the rest wasn't. Perhaps it's time to implement a new cleaning system or more aggressive tactics. This place surely needs it.

Monday 9 June 2008

British Museum Toilets Showcase Cold Mix of Old and New World Design

British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3D
United Kingdom

Where is it?

On the first floor, in the hallway in between the China/South Asia exhibit hall and the north lift elevators. Of course, you'll need a map to find out that location, but once you get there.....

What's it like?

This mammoth museum is one of the great cultural experiences in all of Europe, housing a plethora of exhibits drawn from the British Empire's once prominent rule over much of the world. Artifacts here include outstanding exhibits on Egyptian mummies, recreations of the Parthenon, medieval coins and metal work, modern art projects, Islamic and Indian artifacts and much much more. It's a sprawling complex packed with people of all ages -- and best of all, it's free!

The toilets visited here take a while to get to, because of the size of the place. Still, they are a worthy stop. As with most museums, the best bathrooms tend to be in areas that draw fewer people. While most head to the terrific exhibits on ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece, this one (next to the Asian artifacts area) seems more removed from the main action and as a result it was empty when I arrived and stayed that way throughout my visit.

It's a standard multi-use facility, with urinals set up on the back wall, a wide central area allowing for easy passing to the vanity and stalls (good if the place ever gets too crowded) and a set of stalls positioned along the front end of it, with full doors and walls as dividers (instead of standard stall walls) to maximize privacy.

The floors are standard concrete, and the walls are covered with white tile with purple highlights. Not sure if I agree with the purple part, since this place isn't trying to appear hip and cool like the London Eye toilets. It makes the whole place look like some failed PO-MO art experiment. Maybe a good idea for Soho and the Tate Modern, but not here, if you catch my drift. Here, I was hoping for something classy and a little bit more traditional. Though I admire the effort taken.

The place was clean, relatively odor free (again that looming hint of urine, but nothing too bad) and quiet. The vanity features four sink stations, all set in a gray marble counter (with a similar-looking mini-tile backing), and a large stretch mirror hanging overhead those stations. Sinks are automatic, though the soap dispensers are manual and a bit dated in design.

Visitors dry their hands by automatic air drier, the latter of which has you place your hand into a small hole that's about the size of a shoe box and then blows air on your hand. A bit awkward to use, but certainly unique. A nifty add-on and different than what you'd see at many other public restrooms, but as hand driers go, it's not even close to being in the same league as the one experienced at the London Eye toilets, which is just downright cool.

The toilet stalls themselves were roomy enough and I like the fact that you're surrounded by full walls and a full-sized door. They are similar in size to what I experienced in Westminster Abbey, only with more privacy and without the nearby attendant. Also, I liked the stainless steel toilet paper holders, which stack the rolls on top of one another and serve both as a dispenser and storage bin.

On the flip side: While I found the place clean and comfortable, it was also a bit on the cold side (meaning that it took a while to feel welcome here). I understand it's supposed to be a bathroom and nothing more, but in the end the design kind of turned me off.

Marks out of 10:

7. It's a place that tries to reach beyond its Teutonic nature, and I must commend it for that, but it doesn't always succeed in its attempts and sometimes feels like the attempts have backfired.

Comments to the Management:

I like that you're trying something different here with what essentially is a stuffy museum bathroom. Still, not everything works aesthetically, and as a result I often felt like I wasn't welcome there. Consider warming up the place some with some wall decor or some warmer colors, like yellows and browns. Might want to consider looking at the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah for some inspiration.

Thursday 5 June 2008

London Eye Ticket Office Toilets House Coolest Hand Driers Ever

London Eye
Riverside Building
County Hall
Westminster Bridge Road
London, United Kingdom

Where is it?

No, the bathrooms here aren't on the Millennium Wheel itself -- though that would be impressive. Instead, they are in the ticket office located across the plaza from the entrance line to the tourist attraction.

To find them, head into the ticket office. About 50 feet down, you'll see the ticket counters, with tellers and such, as well as a wax figure of James Bond (looking like James Bond, not like one of the actors who played him in the movies) brandishing a gun and sort of guarding the start of the queue (not really sure why).

At that point, turn right and head down a hallway another 50 feet. You'll pass a cafeteria/cafe on your right. A stairway leading downward will open on your left, with a sign above it saying the toilets are down that way.

Go down. At the bottom, turn right and the toilets will be on your left, first the men's and then, a little further down, the ladies'. Just look for the bright yellow entrance doors.

What's it like?

The London Eye attraction itself is a wholeheartedly entertaining experience, in which you take a 30-minute ride on one of the world's largest Ferris wheels and get to see some supreme views of London (provided the weather is accommodating). The ride isn't fast -- it's a casual trip and so you get absorbed in the ever-changing view that you sometimes even forget your moving.

The ticket office itself isn't much of a draw, outside of that wax figure of James Bond and other bits of cheeky decor here and there. The toilets, however, are very hip, perhaps some of the hippest I've ever seen.

The place is covered in purple tiles, from gleaming purple tiles on the floor and walls to sheer purple paneling behind the row of urinals found on the front wall to purple dividers separating the toilet stalls along the back wall. In between the urinals and toilets, taking up the middle of the place, is a vanity area holding about four sinks per side (one side faces the urinals, the other the stalls). The vanity has a black marble top, automatic chrome faucets and pump soap dispensers.

The highlight of the bathroom here is the hand drier, which is made by vacuum giant Dyson. While traditional driers have you push a button and then blow air down upon your damp hands, the ones here have you place your hands inside cylindrical chambers (one for each hand) and then ask you to pull your hands out slowly, during which the water is sucked off your hands via a powerful vacuum.

Not only was it the most effective hand drier I've ever experienced (hands were spot dry) but also it was the most enjoyable. I actually liked the experience so much I went back and washed my hands again, just to repeat the fun. (Yes, I'm unique like that.)

Cleanliness-wise: It was a pretty clean place. I saw some spilled water on the floor and on the vanity (clearly, the hand drier technology had not been implemented into other areas of the bathroom -- how's that for an idea!), and some bits of mis-thrown trash, but seeing that the London Eye had lots of visitors that day, as did the bathroom, I didn't see this as much of a setback. Tourist attraction bathrooms do get busy, after all. Despite this, the place was still pretty clean, so you get the idea that it's probably immaculate on a slow day. (Plus, the purple tile makes it hard to spot any mildew or other grime, if there is any.)

Smell-wise: Like the toilets I experienced at Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, the smell of urine was somewhat sharp here. (The Tower of London toilets seemed to be the best about covering up this quality.) Again, nothing as excruciating as what I found at, say, Pulkovo International Airport, but it was definitely noticeable.

Marks out of 10:

8. Even with the urine stink, it's one cool bathroom to visit. And the hand drier here may just be the best add-on I've ever experienced.

Comments to the Management:

This is a stretch, but it would be totally cool if you incorporated the hand drier technology into all other facets of this bathroom, from toilet flushing to air fresheners. Seeing that that's not exactly realistic, then some well-placed air fresheners should do the trick to drop that urine smell some.