I moved closer to find out what the fuss was about: it transpired that the store’s toilet was for some reason temporarily closed.
I stepped in and escorted the women – four friends from Nottingham on a day out – to another toilet in a nearby department store. They fell over themselves with gratitude.
I could have sent them to the one set of public toilets I know of in the heart of York, a city badly served by public conveniences. It too was nearby but it would have set each of them back 40p – which is a scandal in itself – and it’s grim.
Not long before this incident, I had sought help myself after looking in vain for a public lavatory in the North Yorkshire town of Thirsk.
“Go in Wetherspoons, everyone else does,” I was told by a local, who gave me what turned out to be a very accurate description of the pub’s layout.
The town’s public toilet was, she told me, in a car park beyond the town centre.
Public toilets are of vital importance to most people having a day out. I certainly take public loos into account if I am away from home. At our regular haunts I know where most of them are, including those in supermarkets.
I’m nowhere near incontinent, I just like to know that if I need to go, I can. It makes me feel more relaxed and comfortable.
According to estimates by the British Toilet Association, which campaigns for more and better-equipped toilets, the UK has lost half of its public toilets in the past decade, with the closure of hundreds of public loos made worse by toilet shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For those who regularly need access to a toilet due to medical conditions, the situation must be near intolerable.
A 2018 study by the University of Sheffield found that poor public toilet facilities often impacted directly on people’s lives, including preventing them from leaving the house, avoiding food and drink when out, not taking day trips or holidays and feeling socially unrecognised and unwelcome.
My mum was just like me. She always wanted to know where the loos were. The first thing we did on visits to Whitby was pop to the toilets near to where we parked.
I don’t know if it’s more a female thing: my dad and my husband are like camels – they never need to go. My dad, especially, could drink two or three cups of tea, a glass or two of water, and sometimes even a half a bitter on a day out, and still not need to visit the toilet. I remember once when he did use the lavatory, in Lealholm, on the North York Moors. It was such a rare occurrence that I took a picture of him coming out.
Across the country, so many toilets have closed that so-called ‘wild toileting’ has become a problem, with people looking for spots in which to relieve themselves, such as alleyways, parks or even behind parked cars.
I get it that local authorities and parish councils lack funding for public toilets – last week the Liberal Democrats called for the establishment of a dedicated public toilet fund in the wake of a decline in the number of facilities – so come on government ministers, help them out, and in turn help the public enjoy days out.
Across Yorkshire, it’s not all bad news for us toilet-obsessed folk. In Haworth, a £130,000 scheme to refurbish and reopen a village’s public toilets was completed this summer. In the first six months of this year more than 7,000 people used the two sets of public toilets in the Bronte village – doesn’t that say it all?