Running Hot And Cold

Melissa Garrison Elliott 


© Copyright 2002 by Melissa Garrison Elliott

Photo of the cottage in Cornwall.

My cousin Kirsten and I had planned a trip to Cornwall, in the southwest corner of England, after reading a magazine article about the National Trust. The National Trust preserves landmark properties in Britain for posterity, funding this activity by renting out certain of the properties to vacationers who desire to stay someplace more imaginative than the local Best Western. The article had waxed lyrical about Scottish castles, Welsh lighthouses, farms in Wiltshire, cottages in Cornwall. After extensive perusal of the catalogue, we were headed for one such cottage in late April of 2002.

I was newly sensitive to America's image as a result of recent world events, and all too aware that I could be stigmatized for what our government's policies have put in motion. I therefore went on this trip determined that I would not play the Ugly American, demanding that everyone around me conform to my ideas and desires. I would embrace new and unusual experiences. I would put my expectations aside and live in the moment. I would not wear a baseball cap or a fanny pack. I would not complain about the cloud of cigarette smoke in the pubs. I would not look at every different way of doing things and compare it loudly and unfavorably to "the way we do things at home." I would not demand coffee in a nation devoted to tea.

I almost succeeded in fulfilling these vows, at least in public. But there was one small thing that defeated me. It wasn't even anything of great significance. It was minor. Miniscule. Wee. But it bugged me.

It was the faucets.

Whitstone Cottage is a charming 200-year-old cob and thatch house that used to belong to the blacksmith on the Penrose Estate, located between the market town of Helston and the fishing village of Porthleven about 12 miles north of Lands End. We were delighted with the place on first inspection; it was clean, tidy, and well furnished, quaint but comfortable, with adequate heating, plenty of dishes, hangers and towels. The caretaker had left a vase of flowers on the table and a pint of milk in the fridge. We lugged our suitcases upstairs, each claimed a bedroom, and then looked around.

The bathroom was actually divided into two rooms: one with the toilet and a basin, the other with another basin and the bathtub. As we stood in the second room, Kirsten said, "There's no shower. How are we going to wash our hair?" I have thick curly hair that hangs to the middle of my back, and Kirsten's is waistlength.

"Under the faucet in the tub, I guess, like we did when we were kids," I replied.

"Think again," said Kirsten. "¬Look at the faucets."

Two handles, two spigots. Hot, cold.

"Well, maybe we can wash it in the kitchen sink," I said. We headed downstairs for a look. Two handles, two spigots. Hot, cold.

So, for the week we were there, we washed our hair in the tub. I ran a tub of water, got in, wet my hair, lathered it, rinsed it, drained the tub of the soapy water, ran another tub, rinsed it again, applied conditioner, rinsed that, drained the tub, and then ran a little more in which to wash the soapy, conditioner-laden residue off the rest of me. As a native of southern California, where water is perennially scarce, I felt guilty. But with no combo faucet, there was no other choice.

In the 10 days we stayed in England, we visited a minimum of two different "facilities" per day, in the course of our travels to local attractions. In every toilet we entered, there were two handles and two spigots, hot and cold. Two choices: Freeze or scald. Want warm water? Put in the plug, run a sinkful of cold and hot and swish it around. I finally did find one bathroom in that corner of Cornwall with a combo spigot: the public pay toilet behind the Guild Hall in Helston. But I could never figure out why the technology wasn't more widespread; there have been combo spigots in the world for at least 60 years. I also couldn't figure out why nobody but me seemed to mind.

In our cottage was a guest book, in which each of the visitors not only signed their names but left comments about the furnishings, the tourist attractions, the local restaurants, the idiosyncrasies of their stay at Whitstone. There were riffs that began with one entry and were continued and enlarged upon by subsequent visitors; for instance, in November of 1990 someone wrote, "Please add some cushions for settees and armchairs." Two months later, someone else agreed that "Cushions would be beneficial." The next guest said, "Didn't miss the cushions," while the one after him said "Very cosy and comfortable EXCEPT for lack of cushions!" and so on, until some cushions finally arrived in August of 1995! There were comments on the over-sensitive smoke alarm, the over-loud bathroom fan, the lack of oven gloves, the low rafters in the sitting room. Kirsten's favorite was: "Avoid leaving knickers on the line, as they can be stolen by local perverts or animals. Didn't like the cushions, chips were underdone. Tin opener was a bit sticky, stairs a bit creaky, tea was too sweet, locals hostile." But in not one of these comments, over a period of eleven years, did anyone complain about separate hot and cold faucets! About 90 percent of the guests to the cottage were British. Are they just too stoic as a people to mind about the lack of warm running water? They absolutely must have cushions for their tender bums, not to mention heated towel racks, but would just as soon their washwater was icy? Or is it just a case of never missing what you've never had?

When we made the tiring trek back from Cornwall to London-the bus, the train, the tube to Heathrow, the bus to our hotel-we had five hours to sleep before our 11-hour plane trip back, and we were already exhausted. We had booked at the Holiday Inn by the airport so we'd be on time for our 7:00 a.m. check-in. We dropped our suitcases, kicked off our shoes, and took turns in the bathroom, Kirsten first. After a moment, she yelled through the door, "Guess what! The sink has a combo spigot!"

"Great," I said, not really caring at this point in the trip.

A minute later, she started to laugh.

"What's so funny?" I asked.

"Come in here. You won't believe this." She opened the bathroom door.


"Hold your hand under the faucet," she instructed. "Do you feel that?" she asked as I stuck my palm under the running water.

The spigot looked like a combo faucet, and the hot and cold water did indeed both run through it, but inside there were apparently separate smaller pipes-one for the hot and one for the cold. When you held your hand under the running water, you could feel that the water on the left side of the flow was hot, and the water on the right side of the same flow was cold. We laughed so hysterically that I feared neighboring guests would complain.

This is a country full of people who pay enough attention to the small amenities that they carefully rinse out the teapot with hot water to warm it so as to brew the perfect pot of tea, yet the concept of warm running water never comes up. Does the persistent separation of hot and cold water say something about the character of the British people? Does it highlight on the one hand their extreme reserve that is often read as coldness, and on the other hand their passionate enthusiasm for those things quintessentially British: cricket, gardening, etc.?

There is a website called "" with a directory of public restrooms worldwide, complete with ratings. On the website is a section for people to post essays about their bathroom experiences in various countries. After reading about the horrors of dank closets whose floors slope down to a central hole, and open trenches in the middle of the street surrounded by plywood booths, I felt ashamed to complain about the lack of a combo spigot. But I couldn't help myself, I kept coming back to it. I am afraid that regardless of what the separation of hot and cold reveals about the British, my picayune carping about the lack of warm water in England all too plainly brands me as a spoiled native of my own country.

I wonder if they have combo faucets at Buckingham Palace?

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