A question of drains

A question of drains

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’.

A peek down memory lane. Kodak Ektra photos

A peek down memory lane. Kodak Ektra photos

A peek down memory lane

… old photos of Reading University…

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog called ‘A walk in the dark’. The cover image for the blog was a scan of a photograph that I’d taken while I was studying at Reading University, back in the mid-1990’s, on my old Kodak Ektra slimline camera. No built-in flash, no manual focus and certainly no telephoto function, this was ‘point and press’ photography at its most basic. And yet ever since I stumbled upon that image, sitting in a forgotten envelope at the bottom of a box file in my study, I can’t help but feel that it is truly beautiful.

Lone student walking past the Palmer Building at Reading Uni c.1995. Kodak Ektra. Rob Gregory Author

A lone student walks past the Palmer Building at Reading University c.1995

Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but I love the graininess of the image, which makes it look more like a painting than a photograph. These days, we live in a ‘High-Def’ world and are bombarded by crystal clear images everywhere we look. Seeing this makes me realise not only how far we have come, but what we may have lost in the process. It is often said about movies that what you don’t see is better than what you do see and I think that the same is true here. We’re now so conditioned to look for the detail in images we see that sometimes we forget to look at the picture as a whole. Certainly, you can’t see individual blades of grass in any of these photos, the 110 films just didn’t have the resolution, but nonetheless, you certainly get the impression of grass, that is for sure.

Then, there’s the colour rendition. Maybe the images have matured and softened with age, but I absolutely adore the contrast between the moody, grey Reading sky and the orange AMS tower peeking up cheekily from behind the chocolate brown brick of the Palmer building in the foreground. Similarly, the lone student who happened to be walking along the path when I took the photo (and I have no idea who it is, before you ask), contrasts beautifully with the rest of the image, his blue T-shirt subconsciously drawing the eye off the mid-line of the photo, then up the vertical, concrete pillar of the Palmer building and ultimately into the cloudy, summer sky above.

Now, I know as well as you do that it’s only an old photo, a single moment in time, as indeed all photographs are. But I hope that you will agree with me, that for whatever reason, it is a beautiful image in its own right, which deserves to see the light of day again, after having been hidden away in darkness for so many years.

Below is a selection of other images of Reading University, circa 1995, taken using the same Kodak Ektra 110 camera. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I do.

AMS Tower at Reading Univeristy. Kodak Ektra. Rob Gregory Author

AMS Tower at Reading University c.1995


AMS Tower and Palmer Building at Reading University c.1995. Kodak Ektra. Rob Gregory Author

AMS Tower (left) and Palmer Building (right) at Reading University c.1995


Palmer Building at Reading University c.1995. Kodak Ektra. Rob Gregory Author

View of the Palmer Building, Reading University c.1995


Plant Sciences Building at Reading University c.1995. Kodak Ektra. Rob Gregory Author

Rear of the Plant Sciences building at Reading University c.1995


Reading University Botanical Gardens c.1995. Kodak Ektra. Rob Gregory Author

View of the botanical garden at Reading University c.1995


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A walk in the dark at Reading Uni

A walk in the dark at Reading Uni

A walk in the dark

… tales from Reading Uni, part one…

As those of you who have spent any time on my website (www.rob-gregory.com) will doubtless already know, I spent some time back in the early nineties at Reading University, where I studied Biological Sciences. Such was my level of devotion to the subject that I was often to be found in the Student Union bar, conducting elaborate experiments on the effects of alcohol on the major bodily organs, using myself as a guinea pig (no animal testing here, I can assure you)! And because I was trying my hardest to be a respectable and professional biologist, these experiments had to be performed both concurrently and consecutively, in other words at the same time and one after another. This might sound impossible on the face of it, but can, in fact, be achieved by cleverly mixing your drinks and lining up several rounds in one go.

Anyway, one evening in the bar, myself and a small group of friends were sharing the heavy workload of diligent scientific enquiry, by each quaffing as many pints of larger, bitter and anything else vaguely liquid that came our way as we could. At the end of the evening, the bell for last orders rang out and the bouncers dutifully waded in, helping everyone present make their way into the night, predominantly by means of snatching away any half-empty glasses and shoving us out into the cold. Needless to say, with more than a few halves of ale inside us, we were in good spirits and began to head back towards our Hall of Residence, laughing, singing and joking as we went.

I don’t know who suggested it, but at some point on the journey back, a wager was proposed that I couldn’t walk home with my eyes closed. Always one to rise to a friendly challenge, I accepted the bet, confident that I could indeed navigate successfully without the aid of vision. How wrong I was!

Not many people walk around with their eyes closed, no matter what we might think about our politicians and others in positions of power. Even fewer try to do it at night, when visual acuity is even more heavily limited. So, I may have actually found myself in a rare minority of one, had I realised it at the time when I tried to walk home both sightless and ‘half-cut’ as we say in the UK.

Needless to say, my friends found it highly amusing to watch me wobble off down the path from the Student Union, narrowly avoiding the myriad of trees and bicycles that now seemed to litter my route. It was only when I stumbled and bounced off a thorn bush that they came to my aid, still giggling in the way that only drunken students can. Still, undeterred and with the promise of several more beers as my reward, I set off again, only this time I ended up wandering unsteadily down the main driveway of the University campus, eyes still firmly clamped shut. No problem, I thought, I’ve walked down this road a dozen or more times and nothing ever comes down here at this time of night.

Suddenly, there was a frightened scream from one of my friends, the sound of a car horn, an angry shout and an unexpected gust of air, as a car sped past. Thankfully, in my unsteady and somewhat inebriated state, I fell into the gutter, rather than the road and picked myself up to see two red tail-lights disappearing into the night.

You might be pleased to know that I walked the rest of the way back to the Hall of Residence that night with my eyes wide open and heart thumping with fright, all thoughts of my alcoholic reward completely forgotten. Since then I have grown older and I hope, a little wiser, and have never repeated that particular feat again. Periodically, however, I do find myself reflecting on the incident and how, but for the fact that everyone leans to one side or the other when they walk with their eyes closed (try it if you don’t believe me), I could so very easily have ended up under the wheels of that car, rather than being here today to tell you about it.

A sobering thought indeed…