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A thatched cottage, just like the ones all British people live in. (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A thatched cottage, just like the ones all British people live in. (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A thatched cottage, just like the ones all British people live in. (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Wherever you may go around the world, it’s easy to conclude that if a home has four walls and a ceiling, everything else must be broadly the same. Well, even if that were true (and it’s not) there are still tiny differences between a house on the other side of the world and the house you normally live in that can be quite unsettling the first time you encounter them.

So, having conducted extensive research into American and British households (by comparing notes between the traveling experiences of Anglophenia writers) what are the things that are commonly recognizable to most British households that will come as a surprise to most American visitors?

Here are some possibilities, be prepared:

Pay As You Go meters
To avoid getting stung by unexpected bills for gas and electricity, some British households use a system whereby they go to a local shop and have credit placed on an electronic tag called a PayPoint key. Just as a pay-as-you-go phone gives you a set amount of credit to make and receive calls, so the PayPoint key gives you a certain amount of gas, electricity or even water. This is just a modern update on the old system which relied upon putting coins in a meter.

No light switches and plug sockets in the bathroom
Due to a healthy fear of electrocution, British bathrooms don’t tend to be wired up for electricity, as it does not play nicely with water. The noble exception to this rule is the two-pin electric shaver socket, which can either be wall-mounted or part of the light over a mirror. Some bathrooms don’t even have the light switch in the room: It’s out in the hall or landing, just by the door. It’s worth checking this before you find yourself feeling a wall in the middle of the night while busting for a pee.

“The bathroom”
This is worth getting right before you’re in too much of a hurry. Should you need to use the conveniences, ask for a bathroom and you may be directed to a room with a bath in it, but no toilet. The Brits are terribly literal like that. By all means, ask if you can use the toilet, or the lavatory, or the loo, and they will immediately direct you to the nearest room in which you can do your business.

No sinks in the toilet in some homes
Not true of every house, but sometimes there’s just a toilet and no sink. Sometimes the sink is in the bathroom, where there is no toilet. It’s best not to think about the logistics of other people’s hand-washing too much when in a home such as this.

Separate hot and cold taps, with no mixing tap for warm water
As we’ve discussed before, the reason why the Brits used to be very keen on keeping their hot and cold water in separate hot/cold taps is a little unsettling. We’ll let Tom Scott explain why, because it’s gross:

Anyway, there are still sinks with separate hot and cold taps, but probably not because there’s rat water in the loft any more. Should you wish a nice mix of both to wash your hands, you’ll have to do it in the sink.

The ground floor
Just in case you’re staying at an apartment or flat and have received instructions as to which floor to go to; in Britain the ground floor is at ground level and the first floor is the one upstairs, which contrasts with the American system whereby the first floor is at ground level and the second floor is the one upstairs. If someone says their flat is on the third floor, that’s three stories up from the entrance level, not two.

Three-pin plugs
British electrical sockets have been designed to be safer than any other, and the three-pin plugs on electrical items are designed with this in mind. The longer pin at the top of the triangle is earth, and it’s longer so that it removes the safety hatches over the other two pins, the ones that deliver the electric current if you were to be unwise enough to stick a pin or a tiny wet finger in there. Just be aware that the sockets don’t work if you don’t push the plug all the way in, or if they’re not switched on at the wall.

Of course, none of this is of any use if you visit Britain and don’t take the right travel adaptor with you.

Air conditioning
Not a common feature in British houses, even in the summer. Open a window!

Basements, garages, cellars and sheds
It’s not common for British houses to have basements of the sort you could set up as a TV room or a den, and the buildings that do have that kind of thing—especially in cities—are often divided into flats. What you do get more often is cellars, which are pokier, damper and more the sort of place you’d keep wine or your galoshes than gather en masse. If you wish to find somewhere to escape by yourself, you might wish to consider the shed: basically a treehouse for grown-ups to do hobbies in or store the lawn-mower. The garage (pronounced “garidge” like “porridge”) is unlikely to be big enough, or uncluttered enough, for teenagers to start a band in either.

Tea cosies

Four people who are old enough to know better, acting the goat. (Pic:  Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Four people who are old enough to know better, acting the goat. (Pic: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Nothing about this scene is typical to a British household, have no fear. But those things on their heads are not hats, they are tea cosies, to be placed upon teapots, for the keeping warm of tea so you can have a second cup directly after the first. Yes, it’s tempting to wear one on your head, but it’s not a good look if you’re actually going out.

See more:
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By Fraser McAlpine