21 September 2012

on bathing

"...and then my wife being busy in going with her woman to a hot-house to bathe herself, after her long being within doors in the dirt, so that she now pretends to a resolution of being hereafter very clean. How long it will hold I can guess."  Samuel Pepys Diary, Tuesday 21 February 1865

The latest part of the radio dramatisation of Pepys diary has been on Radio 4 this week, and I especially enjoyed the episode where Elizabeth Pepys' pays a visit to the hot-house.  She was very pleased with her bath and decided that she would to wash once a week thereafter. Samuel was not only sceptical, but very put out as his wife insisted on sleeping separately so she could stay clean, leaving him cold and grumpy alone in the marital bed.  

I entirely understand Elizabeth's delight. There is nothing quite like a bath. In the flat I lived in as a child, our bath was hidden under a table top in the kitchen and bath night was once a week. It was something of a treat - hot water gushing out from the geyser in the corner, palmolive, talcum powder, dry off by the fire, telly, sweets, clean PJs, flannelette sheets, hot water bottle.  Sweet. On reflection, I'm surprised at how many other bathtimes I can actually remember: being made to go and  wash before our little gang was allowed in the swimming pool because we'd got covered in coal dust while we were sitting outside waiting for opening time; a tin bath in a hop-pickers shed in front of a giant fire of hop-pole larch wood, as memorable for the draughts as the relief from the aches of potato lifting; the intimacy of washing my best friend's pale and freckly back on the morning of her wedding; the day my son was born, how lonely I felt in hospital in a cast iron bath, so huge that the hot water ran out when it was only a few inches deep.

These last few weeks I've been reliving one of my favourite bathing experiences.  On our Great South Coast walk years ago when we slept rough for weeks on end, we washed in streams using a  bar of expensive Roger and Gallet lily of the valley soap completely at odds with the austerity of the rest of our supplies. Whenever I smell lily of the valley now it brings back the memory of stripping off and washing in a small pool surrounded by dripping greenness.  The pleasure of being shiny and clean after trudging up hills, cooking over smoky fires, sleeping under hedges and swimming in salty seas was unforgettable.  

I bought some lily of the valley bath essence and soap a couple of weeks ago.  It's not quite the same, but I can just close my eyes and pretend it's still summer.  I'm not quite ready for it to end and if I'm lucky I'll be able to squeeze another week out of the bottle.


Val said...

A lovely meditation on bathing :0)
It's fascinating how evocative scents can be..instant memory prompts.
Must go listen to Pepys...I love the passage in Kilvert's diary where he describes a cold bath that involved breaking the ice!
Dec 1870
"Sunday, Christmas Day

As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a
sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I sat down in my
bath upon a sheet of thick ice which hroke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge
and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of

colleen said...

Val - thanks so much for the Kilvert extract. Who would have thought that frost could mimic bells? Wonderful! I'd forgotten that you were a fan of Pepys. Hope you enjoy listening in.

Rattling On said...

Oh, I remember that first bath after having a baby. How tired I was! When I was small one of the boys on my road was quite delicate (he's a bruiser now) and used to bathe early each evening, curtailing his playing out. Often I would go and sit on the side of the bath and chat to him while he soaked.
I can also identify with Pepys, growing up we had no central heating and in winter the toilet was often frozen over. Fortunately we had a back boiler so at least the bat water was hot- but you had to be quick!!

Liz said...

I well remember the tin bath (which was kept in the backyard) we used weekly and then the luxury of that first bathroom when we were moved (I was 18) to a newly built council house. The big yellow bowl of Kiku talc my brother had bought me looked so much better in there than in the kitchen! Still prefer baths to showers. Still use Pears soap.