Finding a spot to throw back a quick pint is pretty easy in London. But quenching your thirst with a refreshing gulp of tap water? That can be trickier than you might think.
London, much like other older European cities, is a city with public drinking fountains in its DNA. The British water fountain “movement” began in earnest in 1859 following the establishment of the Metropolitan Free Drinking Water Association and the installation of London's very first public water fountain on the outer gate of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate church.
Founded “against a background of a filthy river Thames full of untreated sewage, rubbish and effluent from factories, water borne cholera, but most importantly inadequate free drinking water,” the association changed its name to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1867 to promote animal welfare. (Nowadays, it’s known simply as the Drinking Fountain Association.)
Over the decades, however, these Victorian era bubblers — some ornate in design — have fallen into decline and are now rather sparse in certain areas of the British capital. Per drinking fountain data collected by The Guardian, while some London boroughs such as Lambeth have a decent number (25 in total) of public drinking fountains located in parks and other green spaces, other boroughs have none with no plans in the immediate future to install any. All and all, London’s 32 borough councils oversee a paltry 111 publicly accessible drinking fountains and refill stations.
Nineteenth century public cattle troughs sure do make for attractive modern-day planters. (Photo: Christopher Bulle/flickr)
London’s woeful water fountain drought, however, may soon be coming to an end.
In an effort to curb the egregious waste associated with single-use bottled water consumption, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has expressed interest in debuting an extensive network of public drinking fountains and water bottle refill stations across the city, paying special mind to boroughs where free tap water for drinking is a scarcity.
“The mayor wants to see a reduction in the amount of single-use plastic bottles and cups across the capital and has asked City Hall officers to examine the feasibility of a pilot community water refill scheme, or other interventions,” a spokesperson for Khan tells the Guardian in a statement. “Sadiq supports boroughs in identifying suitable locations for water fountains and bottle-refill stations during the planning process in new or redeveloped public spaces, such as town centres, shopping malls, parks and squares.”
Kahn’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, had similar plans to expand the presence of drinking fountains across the city. However, as a spokesperson for Kahn explains: “Under the previous mayoralty, several proposals for providing water fountains and water bottle refill stations were explored but there were concerns over high installation costs.”
In addition to installing new fountains and refill stations, Kahn also aims to launch an initiative in which parched Londoners and visitors could more easily mosey into local business — restaurants, pubs, shops and the like — for a free refill in lieu of chucking a spent water bottle away and buying a new one. The initiative is largely inspired by Refill, a successful app-driven campaign that launched in Bristol during its reign as European Green Capital in 2015 and has since spread to other English cities and even further afield into continental Europe.
There are reportedly no plans to install sparkling water fountains a la Paris given that Londoners’ love of bubbles isn’t quite as fervent as it is across the English Channel.
A somewhat rare working historic public drinking fountain in Chiswick, London. (Photo: Maxwell Hamilton/flickr)
A push from Parliament, too
It’s not just Kahn who wants to keep residents healthily hydrated while putting a dent in plastic bottle waste levels.
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has vocalized his desire for a countrywide expansion of public drinking fountains. Outside of London, it seems that the drinking fountain situation is even more regrettable. The Guardian notes that all councils in the heavily urbanized metropolitan countries of Manchester, South Yorkshire and Merseyside reported having zero working drinking fountains in parks and high-traffic public areas.
“Across the world, more than a million birds and over 100,000 other sea mammals and turtles die every year from eating and getting tangled up in plastic waste,” said Gove in a recent statement. “We have to make sure that we use fewer plastic bottles, recycle them better and, most crucially, stop them from ending up on our beaches and riverbanks, in our seas and rivers, causing terrible damage to wildlife as well as blighting the landscape.”
A survey conducted earlier this year by YouGov and Keep Britain Tidy found that 70 percent of British consumers believe that free drinking water should be more easily accessible. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed signaled that they’d be more likely to regularly use a reusable bottle if refilling it while away from home was easier and, well, less embarrassing. One-third of respondents were admittedly timid about going into a random restaurant or pub and asking for water without purchasing anything else even though, by law, businesses where alcohol is served and consumed must provide free tap water upon request. It's the glass they can charge for.
According to English environmental charity Recycle Now, the average U.K. household uses 480 single-use plastic beverage bottles every year. Only an estimated 44 percent of these bottles are put out for recycling. Taking into consideration all U.K. households, this means that more than roughly 16 million discarded plastic bottles are being landfilled each year. If placed end to end, the U.K.’s non-recycled bottles could stretch around the world 31 times.
Cultural institutions take the plastic-eschewing lead
While both City Hall and Parliament mull over financially feasible ways to provide parched Britons with the wet stuff, some organizations have gone ahead and put the kibosh on bottled water. In November, London’s publicly funded Natural History Museum announced it would halt the sale of single-use bottled water as part of an effort to “reduce the deluge of plastic into our seas.” The museum, which welcomes 4.5 million visitors annually, previously stopped providing plastic drinking straws at its on-site cafes and coffee shops. It plans to install additional drinking fountains and refill stations to compensate for the shift.
As reported by The Times, the London Zoo and venerable department store Selfridges have also both stopped selling bottled water and installed additional public drinking fountains.
One organization that doesn’t seem keen on doing away with bottled water in favor of public water fountains is Network Rail, the government-owned entity that operates a large bulk of the rail network throughout England, Scotland and Wales. It’s safe to assume that Network Rail’s hesitation is rooted in the fact that doing away with bottled water sales on trains and in stations would be detrimental to vendors whose livelihoods rely on thirsty commuters. However, in response to a recent query put forth by the Guardian, a Network Rail spokesperson offers no firm rationale behind the organization’s anti-fountain stance, only stating: “Water fountains are not a facility we currently have in stations and there are currently no plans to do so.”
In the meantime, if you have a trip across the pond planned for the near future, it’s a fine idea to pack a reusable bottle. Or, better yet, pick up a souvenir one while you’re there. And if ever in need, don't be shy about heading into the nearest pub and asking for a tap water refill.
Inset image of early 20th century London drinking fountain: Paul Martin/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images