Thanks to London’s current housing boom, every inch of the UK capital counts as prime real estate. Even, as it turns out, disused lavatories. 

In February 2013 in London’s fancy Fitzrovia neighbourhood, coffee shop The Attendant opened in an underground Victorian public toilet. During the two-year restoration (and cleaning!) process, business partners Pete Tomlinson and Ben Russell saved original fittings of the Foley Street Toilets, which were built in the 1880s for traders at the former Great Titchfield Street Market, located above. A row of six urinals was furnished with a wooden countertop to create tables, and the tiles, brass piping and even hand dryers all remain in place. The irony? The converted lavatory is now too small to have its own loo.

Also in an underground Victorian public toilet, art gallery Artslav in Kennington, South London, held its first exhibitions in October last year. Local residents run the venue, which has hosted concerts, poetry readings and interactive art installations; plays and cinema screenings are also on the agenda. “We’ve kept the old marble urinals, which are really quite beautiful,” said proud next-door neighbour Jon Davies. “There’s so much history here.” One “regular”, according to Davies, was Joe Orton. A renowned playwright and intellectual of 1960s London, Orton wrote about “cottaging”, or using public toilets – one of the few places where gay men could meet others in relative secrecy – for homosexual escapades.

Meanwhile, another lavatory, located in the Crystal Palace district, also received a facelift – this one to make it suitable for living. When architect Laura Clark decided to turn a former public toilet into a cosy one-bedroom flat, even she sometimes questioned her own sanity. The scrupulous conversion, completed in summer 2012, cost a total of just £65,000, lease included.

Over in Westbourne Grove, one converted 19th-century loo is so locally beloved, it has a nickname. Sitting in a roundabout that was built around the toilet in later years, it was redesigned in 1993 as a small shopping complex. The building has been dubbed Turquoise Island due to its colour.

Loo tours
If the “extreme loo makeover” is part of London’s current zeitgeist, then toilet enthusiast Rachel Erickson has clocked (or ballcocked?) in on the trend, too. Originally from California, Erickson moved to London in 2011 to study theatre. On the side, she became a tour guide, and launched Loo Tours – the only lavatory-themed tour in the world, as far as she knows – in January 2013.

“Experiencing London as a tourist on a budget, I developed an obsession with free public conveniences,” she said. “I was going to do a Shakespeare tour, but then started researching and found there are a lot of things to know about toilets in London.” Twice a week, Erickson leads groups of up to 24 on 1.5-hour tours of London’s conveniences, her (thankfully unused) “plunger of power” held aloft. 

“The great thing is, everyone has a toilet story,” Erickson said. During my tour with her, one woman described how the top of a toilet fell, near fatally, on her head as a child, sparking a lifelong interest. I realised that even I had a story: One of my first published articles was about a New York public toilet that automatically cleaned the seat between sittings.

Erickson’s loo tours cover a mix of unusual toilets in operation as well as historic, unused loos. We kicked our Waterloo to West End wander off at the Jubiloo on Southbank. Built to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012, the public toilet is splashed with the Union Jack – the flag colours cover both toilet seats and hand dryers.

Next, Erickson stood inside a steel circle on the ground near Embankment station. “Turn a key and a urinal will literally rise up right here,” she told our group, turning a key in the ground. The so-called Telescopic Urinals pop up in the evenings outside pubs in areas where inebriated men may be tempted to relieve themselves of their recently consumed pints, and can be accessed any time from 7pm until 6am. The Dutch-designed devices keep approximately 10,000 gallons of urine off the streets a year.

We also stopped at the Cellar Door, a Victorian toilet in Aldwych that is now a cocktail bar. Supposedly frequented by Oscar Wilde for cottaging purposes, the slick space is designed to invoke a smouldering Manhattan bar, with black and white movies projected on the wall and stools topped with red lip-shaped cushions. It is also home to its own quirky toilets, with doors that flick from transparent to opaque, depending on whether the cubicle door is locked.

As well as tips on where to find free public loos (head to the basement cloakroom in the Royal Festival Hall to dodge the queues on the other levels); industry info (Erickson is a member of the British Toilet Association); and which elaborate London convenience she would like to get married in (the one in the Knight’s Templar Pub on Chancery Lane, which even has an aisle), Erickson provided reams of interesting bog-related history during the tour.

She also shared quotations. One came from a Victorian sonnet written in ode to Crystal Palace’s first public toilet, which cost one penny to enter and was the origin of the English phrase “spend a penny”:

“A penny opens the gates to heaven’s mercies… when seated at convenience… with rapturous ease men’s cares flow away.”

Renovated restrooms may be all the rage right now. But London’s love for lavatories, it seems, is hardly new.