If you’ve ever been travelling before, you’ve (hopefully!) had the pleasure of washing your hands abroad. And if you were paying attention, you might have noticed that instead of separate hot and cold taps like we’ve got over here, there was a single mixer tap that let you mix hot and cold together, offering a nice warm stream of water instead of alternately freezing and scalding your hands. Amazing!
Many who visit the UK from abroad find this one of the (if not the) single strangest quirks about our country. The UK is one of the world’s only countries to have this set up. Many visitors are left scratching there heads as to why we got to the extra effort of fitting a second tap just to keep hot and cold apart.
Theories range from a preference of traditional designs over practical use – we’re happier to either freeze or scald our hands if it means having that stately two tap look in the bathroom – to simple ignorance of the fact the rest of the world has moved on
So why do we insist on having two separate taps? It’s actually less to do with style and know-how than with the law.
It was (and still is) a legal obligation for a household to have access to drinking water. In many older buildings, hot and cold water came from two separate sources.
The cold water came straight from the mains and was considered safe to drink. The hot water was stored in a cistern in the loft, and because of this was considered unsafe (which makes sense – who’d want to drink water that had been sitting around in the loft for however many days where it might have been gathering silt or rust?).
The law on clean drinking water went so far as to say that the two streams had to be separated to avoid cross-contamination. Hence a hot tap and a cold tap. (It was even suggested that the hot tap be placed on the left wherever possible to make sure that the visually impaired didn’t accidentally drink potentially contaminated water.)
Most modern houses have moved away from keeping a cistern in their loft, meaning that hot water is as safe to drink as cold. But old habits die hard, and as far as we’re aware, separate taps will continue to baffle our international cousins for years to come.