A question of drains

…tales from Reading Uni, part two…

During my time at Reading University in the early-1990’s, I had the pleasure to share a house with some truly wonderful people, most of whom remain good friends of mine to this day. Unfortunately, because of a problem with the landlords, who suddenly decided to come back from India after a fifteen-year absence right at the start of the new term, the beautiful, four-bedroom, detached house, in a fantastic suburb of Reading that we had arranged to rent many months in advance was brutally snatched away from us and we ended up in something far less glamorous.

The house in question, was your typical mid-terrace, semi-detached affair, with a living room and kitchen on the ground floor and two bedrooms, one front, one back, on the first floor. However, our particular house had some unusual and I suspect, not completely legal modifications, in order to maximise the amount of space available to house poor unsuspecting students. So, from the top down, we had:

  • A loft conversion, yielding two bedrooms (one biggish, one small) in the attic space.
  • Two bedrooms (both large) on the first floor. I had one of those, so was rather smug.
  • A living room on the ground floor (no surprises there).
  • A bedroom (mid-sized) on the ground floor where the kitchen should have been.
  • A small and damp cellar space for storage that was excellent for cultivating mould… one of which, a botanist friend identified as Aspergillus niger, a potentially toxic fungus.
  • An extension containing a small kitchen and thankfully, a separate bathroom and toilet.

A question of drains - The house of horror. Rob Gregory Author

Our house, in the middle of the street.

It is on this last area, the extension, that I will concentrate because this is where most of the action took place. For those not in the know, most, if not all houses, in the UK at the time were required to have walls two bricks thick, with a gap (cavity) between them to provide insulation and protection from the damp. In our case, the walls of the extension were only a single brick thick, with the result that not only were the kitchen and bathroom extremely damp, they were also bitterly cold during the winter months. This meant that while cooking was generally tolerable, as long as you stayed close to the burners, visits to the bathroom and toilet were excruciating experiences that would have been more at home on a Japanese game show, rather than in suburban England.

A question of drains - Leaning tower of Reading. Rob Gregory Author

There’s something not quite right with this extension.

As I mentioned above, there was some shared suspicion among my fellow housemates and I that the extension was not totally legal. The single-skin walls were one clue and the fact that the extension was not square with the rest of the house was another slight give away. However, it was not until later in the year, when our solitary toilet became blocked, that our suspicions were confirmed.

At first, the problem was minor and as all good students would, we simply ignored it. Okay, so it took a bit longer for the toilet to flush, but well, that was just part of being in student digs. However, over a period of weeks, the situation worsened to the point where action was required, so we called the landlord… who wasn’t interested, despite his legal obligations. Stuck on our own, we resorted to employing a plumber to unblock the drains… who failed spectacularly and then the local chap from ‘Dyno-Rod’, who even with his special, flexible drill-thingy, was unable to clear the blockage. Finally, in desperation and with photographic evidence of the scale of the problem, just in case we should get the brush off, we called the city council.

A question of drains - The problem. Blocked toilet. Rob Gregory Author

Spot the ball? Note, lovely well-cared for skirting board.

Wow! Talk about action. Just one mention of blocked drains and a possible public health issue, and the very next day, a whole team of sanitation workers arrived on the doorstep, complete with the biggest water tanker I have ever seen. As they marched into the house, one of them unfolded a map of the drains running under the house and began looking for the toilet. Initially, I think that they assumed that it was just a bunch of students getting up to no good, but after a few minutes of fruitless searching, one of the guys came up and asked where the toilet was. When he was finally shown the offending article, there was much scratching of heads amongst the council workers, as they compared the map with the reality before them. After a significant pause, the map holder turned to us and said: “Your drain and rodding eye have been concreted over. This thing shouldn’t be here,” referring to the bathroom and by extension, the extension itself (excuse the pun, sorry).

A questin of drains - Map of the drains. Rob Gregory Author

Unofficial map of the house and drainage system.

There then followed a brief but very serious sounding conference between the workers crammed into the tiny bathroom space, before one of them left and returned with a sledgehammer, which he used to smash the toilet off the soil pipe below. Having secured an access point for himself, a thick rubber hose was brought through the house and shoved unceremoniously down the drain. Other rubber mats were put down around it to prevent splash-back and the whole system was abruptly pressurised using water from the tanker. It took several goes, but I have to say, the council got the job done and in less than forty-five minutes they were packing away and for the first time in ages, we had unblocked drains again.

There was only one small problem and that was where we once had a toilet, there was now just a hole in the ground. While I have since found out that this is an entirely acceptable solution in some countries, in England in the early nineties it was not. Thankfully, one of the neighbours had called the landlord, obviously out of concern for the commotion that we were causing in the street outside and he came marching in, demanding to know what was going on. He honestly couldn’t have done it better if he were Basil Fawlty himself. After being informed about the situation and the need to buy a new toilet by the foreman of the group, he point-blank refused, at which point, the said foreman pinned him up against the living room wall and made it extremely clear, using words of one syllable, that if there wasn’t a new toilet put in the bathroom, free of charge to the tenants, by the end of the day, then the following day the entire extension would be pulled down by him and his workers. Needless to say, that settled the argument and we did indeed get a nice, shiny, new (albeit cut-price) toilet fitted in place before the sun went down that day.

A question of drains - Outdoor toilet anybody? Rob Gregory Author

Outdoor toilet anyone?

As for the old toilet, well, being students, we simply put it into the back garden, resting against one of the walls to make it look as if it was plumbed in. And you can imagine the hubbub it caused among the neighbours and visitors alike when we invited them to use our ‘outside loo’!

A question of drains - Outdoor toilet! Rob Gregory Author

The outdoor loo in close up.


Enjoyed this story? The why not check out ‘tales from Reading Uni, part one’.