Last month our washing machine broke down. It wasn’t worth having it repaired so it had to be replaced. While we were waiting for our new machine, we had a few days without one. The last time this happened was in 2006, just after our daughter was born, around the time of our son’s second birthday. Back then we let the washing pile up until our new machine was fitted. We had dozens of vests and baby-grows, so we didn’t come close to running out, and we were using disposable rather than washable nappies. This time round we had a much smaller supply of day-to-day items, such as school shirts and PE kits, and it was a week or two before half-term. Rather than hand-wash the most urgent items, we explored the world of Laundrettes, which our American friends call Laudromats.
The only previous time this century that we have used a Laundrette was on holiday in Ireland before our daughter was born. Our son was a year old at the time, Between us, he, my wife and I had generated a sizeable heap of washing by the time we got to Skerries in County Dublin about a week into our trip. We decided to get a service wash at a Laundrette around the corner from where we were staying. As you probably know, a service wash involves taking your laundry to the shop and getting a member of staff to do the work for you. This could be a simple wash and fold, so you still have to dry your clothes, or a wash, dry and fold. We went for the latter, which was billed as “fluff and fold”.
Regular watchers of BBC soap opera “Eastenders” will know that the Laundrette in that show has been staffed over the last three decades by, among others, Dot Cotton (played by June Brown) and Pauline Fowler (played by the late Wendy Richard). As I recall, the build-up of service washes was a regular source of stress to Dot Cotton in particular. After making enquiries at the Laundrette in Skerries we referred to it simply as “Dot O’Cotton’s”. It was a name we hadn’t used for many years until last month, when my wife asked, “When was the last time we used a Laundrette?” Me: “Ireland? Dot O’Cotton’s places in Skerries I think.”
Having never used any of the local Laundrettes here in West London, I wasn’t sure which of them were still in business. I used to pass two of them on the High Road on my way to school, back in the 1970s, and was pretty sure that they had both closed down. They had. It turns out that there is one beside the Irish bar at the other end of the High Road and I made enquiries there. If you want to use a machine yourself and wait for your washing (maybe while enjoying a pint or two next door) you will pay £5 for a standard-sized machine or £7 for one of the heavy-duty ones. I opted for two service washes: a white load and a dark load, including drying, running concurrently. For this you pay by weight, something like £11 for a 5lb load, £13 for 6lb, £15 for 7lb and so on. I’m generally okay with weights and measures. I can convert pounds into kilograms and miles into kilometres without needing a calculator, but applying it to the weight of a load of washing caught me out. What I assumed was a 6lb load turned out to be more than double that (6kg) so our services washes cost nearly twice what I was expecting. Still, it all felt rather exciting, the idea that you could drop off the equivalent of four cycles in a regular household washing machine and collect it all a couple of hours later, ready to be put away. It felt less exciting rushing back to the shop before it closed, having to park a few minutes away and walk back to the car in the February rain with several bags of clothing.
The last time I used any kind of laundry room in this country was at college in the 1980s. It was in the basement of the staircase opposite my rooms, so some students just had to walk downstairs to wash their clothes. I had to cross a courtyard, which was no big deal. These heavy-duty washing machines cost 30p a load (3x 10p pieces, exact money only). The driers were 5p for 20 minutes. A cupful of the non-branded soap powder from the dispenser in the corner was 2p. One of my more grown-up friends refused to use the college facilities, and took her washing, and her chosen brand of soap powder, to the public Laundrette on King Street. She was also the first person I met at college who made coffee in a cafetiere. Most of us felt sophisticated if we used Nescafe Gold Blend granules rather than Sainsbury’s own-brand instant coffee powder. She bought her freshly ground beans from a coffee shop, also on King Street.
As I type these words, at the end of March 2020, even mundane things like washing your clothes have to be viewed through the restrictions that are currently in place because of the COVID-19 strain of Coronavirus. The UK has been in lockdown for the last seven days. Our new washing machine has been purring away since mid-February at its usual rate of 8-10 loads per week, so much quieter than its predecessor. We are grateful. It is unlikely to break down any time soon. But if it did, would we be able to get a man in to repair it? And if not, are the Laundrettes still open? And are Dot O’Cotton and her colleagues still doing service washes?