Monday, 30 June 2014

Public drinking fountains in Europe

Returning from another trip to the continent, I was reminded of one my my pet peeves in Britain - the lack of access to free drinking water.

Now, before I get accused of being the ugly American expecting everything to be the same as in the US, I would like to point out that, while I do often miss the ubiquitous American water fountain, I have been a UK resident for over 10 years, and now when I do my comparing I hold the UK to higher, continental standards.

Also, I generally try to focus on the positive when travelling. Instead of bemoaning all the familiar things I can't find in a foreign country, I usually come back from a trip wondering why things at home can't be more like abroad. And when it comes to free public drinking water, the UK could definitely learn some lessons from her neighbors.

I'm not talking about getting free tap water in restaurants. Despite the complaints of some travellers, in my experience this is not at all difficult to achieve, though you might want to remember the translation for tap water to avoid confusion.

I'm talking about drinking water fountains. Travellers to the continent should note, drinking water is not usually dispensed from an American style fountain (and Americans, can you PLEASE stop asking if you can drink the tap water in Europe? Seriously, people already think we are a bunch of ignoramuses, don't give them more proof). Water bubbling from an attractive piece of street ornamentation is fully as potable as water from a fountain spigot. Probably more so - some of those American style fountains require you to get so close, I wouldn't trust them not to be slobbered on by someone.

When I'm out and about on holiday, I don't want to have to stop in a café every time I get thirsty. I usually follow a pretty intense sightseeing itinerary, and don't have time to sit around gawking at passersby. I sit around enough at the office - and if I do need a rest, I'd rather take one on a park bench. So I'm always happy when I can refill my bottle instead of wasting money and plastic buying bottled water.

We encountered a couple of lovely water fountains on our last trip to Germany, where they were much appreciated, as the weather was a scorching 30c.


Boar fountain in whimsical Marburg

Robber baron Friedrich von Hattstein's fountain in Limburg.
Water is supplied from a hand spigot on the side.

And in Paris I have learned to keep an eye out for the elegant, green Wallace fountains. (For sparkling water fans, the city has actually begun installing 'eau gazeuse' fountains!)

Public drinking fountains designed by Charles-Auguste Lebourg

Imagine my surprise to learn that these fountains, of which 80 of varying sizes are scattered throughout the city, were financed by a 19th century British resident and philanthropist, Sir Richard Wallace. It makes me wonder - where are Britain's water philanthropists of today?

Perhaps the British feel their country is generally not hot enough to require public drinking fountains, but personally, I find visiting museums and theatres to be thirsty work. I was quite apoplectic the last time I attended the National Theatre in London - we came out at intermission quite parched, but of course there were no water fountains, and the pitchers of water put out by the bar quickly succumbed to the scrum of thirsty concert goers. I went to the toilet to try to fill my water bottle, but as is invariably the case in British public toilets, the tap water was so scaldingly hot I could barely wash my hands, much less drink it.

Airports are also bad at providing water to their customers, which seems very mean, considering we can't take full water bottles through due to security regulations. Though I did manage to find a fountain at Stansted airport before our flight to Germany.

I sometimes think that if they ever changed the British naturalisation process and included an additional requirement of community service to the citizenship test, I would get involved in a campaign to improve public access to potable water. Perhaps starting with the scalding water in public toilets, which seems hazardous as well as being inconvenient. I understand health officials believe that hot water is necessary to wash hands properly, but I wonder how many people are doing only a perfunctory wash or eschewing washing altogether to avoid burning their hands. In any case, due to the prevalence of separate taps for hot and cold water in Britain, most people are probably washing their hands in cold water at home anyway. Of course, if British sinks were built like American and European ones, with both cold and hot water running from the same tap, you could chose your preferred temperature. But the British seem impervious to reason or change on this issue, so they are probably best left to their own devices.

There might be more potential for progress in the area of public fountains (and anyway, these are preferable to getting water from public toilets). The Drinking Fountain Association (originally the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association est.1859) might be a place to start, though their website gives the impression that they aren't currently very active. There is also the Fountain Society, but they seem to focus mainly on decorative fountains. Perhaps they could be convinced to add practical to their mission of "campaigning for the creative and artistic use of water for the public and private good". The city of London seemed to have a plan to install a number of drinking fountains in the Square Mile, but the last report I could find was from 2008, so perhaps it has been abandoned. There are some design competitions for public fountains, but generally there doesn't seem to be much public concern about the state of drinking fountains in Britain.

This is sad, considering the ridiculous number of plastic water bottles we consume, compared to our forebearers, with their community-minded construction of public fountains. I would start my activities by campaigning to restore the Walton Well Road drinking fountain in Oxford, erected by Oxford Mayor William Ward in 1885. It is nicely located to serve all the walkers and picnickers on Port Meadow.

Public water fountain. According to the plaque
it is located on the site of a former spring 

While making an effort to reduce the proliferation of plastic bottles, we could ensure that the work of Britain's former water philanthropists doesn't go to waste.