The Strange Decline of the English Cottage


We are filming our documentary - The Strange Decline of the English Cottage - a light-hearted, irreverent, look at sex in public places and gay history. Some great interviews in the can from Peter Tatchell, Brian Paddick, and Dr Matt Cook (among many others).

We're looking for cottagers, cruisers, sauna-goers, polari speakers and also a few people who use Gaydar who want to talk on camera or off about their experiences. If you would like to offer a video diary that would be even better.

We now need your cottaging stories for the narrative spine of the film. Please get in touch if you'd like to share your memories and experiences. Anonymity assured.

If you are interested send me an email, some info about yourself, how you are interested in participating and some form of contact info that you feel comfortable giving out so that we can get back to you.

Graham Kirby
Twitter: @English_Cottage or @grakirby

Article in Vice Magazine


I went into the cubicle to take a piss; lingered a bit before leaving. As I washed my hands, I had that impression you get of being watched so turned my head slightly to see a man standing in the cubicle doorway, looking at me. He had his cock out. As he looked, he rubbed it. My first reaction was the thought that I had never seen one so big; my second was of slight discomfort at the intensity of his gaze. My third was an erection.

It seemed like an eternity but eventually I followed him into the cubicle. He closed the door.

A gentleman never tells: suffice to say when I left I wasn’t a virgin. I then walked to school to pick up my GCSE results.

The spring in my step as I walked home wasn’t because of academic success.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t know these things happened: I’d loitered looking at the graffiti and explicit scrawlings. This was my first experience of cottaging – in the States they call it the “tearoom trade” – the act of procuring or having sex in a public toilet.

From then on, I looked for sex in toilets whenever I could. In the mid-90s it was easy and cock available pretty much whenever.

Not all sex happened in the cottage itself. Toilet walls were messaging boards of interests, times and phone numbers. Sometimes you’d find a secluded spot elsewhere with a guy you’d met in a cottage. But for me nothing beat sex in the cottage itself. Risky – the local bus drivers patrolled the toilets – but I wasn’t exactly thinking with my head. Who wouldn’t take a few risks for an easy fuck? That was its appeal: the lack of emotional involvement, of ulterior motivation: its honesty. Sex for sex’s sake. Nothing else.

I soon became adept at spotting cottaging “rituals” – the sideways glance from the guy at the urinal as you walked in, how he felt his cock as you stood next to him, that he wasn’t even pissing. The tapping of a foot under the cubicle door was a known sign. I could devote a whole article to glory holes. Some people say they used to take a shopping bag for a second pair of feet to stand in to avoid detection by police looking under cubicle doors. I never saw that but I did pass messages written on toilet roll between cubicles. But mostly it was that look held for just a few seconds too long. Then you knew.

It gained me my best friend at university. His first words to me were, “I have a place.” That afternoon I rimmed him for hours in his room, only stopping when his girlfriend knocked on the door.

Pointing Percy, a 1994 documentary about cottaging in London

We became lovers, then cottaging friends. Sometimes we would go away for the weekend, pay for a night in a gay sauna and cottage by day. Every town had a cottage. You could spot it by the graffiti or just instinct. Bethnal Green, Hyde Park, Carnaby Street: I’ve sucked, rimmed, fucked, been fucked, or more in all of them. We judged success by whether we got our trade figures into double figures. (Wanking off someone at the cubicle didn’t count.) “Trade” was sex. As I said, nothing emotional. Just cock.

Gay men don’t have a tradition of handing down their history. No father shows his son the spot where actor John Gielgud was arrested, or says, “One day, my lad, you’ll grow up to be just like Joe Orton.” My mum’s take on George Michael’s arrest wasn’t exactly inspiring.

All three are cottagers, of course.

Gielgud was arrested in 1952, entrapped by a “pretty policeman”. It landed him in court and the Evening Standard. The surprising sympathy for him indirectly led to The Wolfenden Report, which recommended homosexuality’s decriminalisation. Orton was a playwright, murdered by his lover in 1967. His diaries chronicle his rampant libido and cottaging. They are probably the most honest account of gay sex at the time. For some, Orton’s death was a crude morality tale. For a lot of gay men he was inspirational.

George Michael needs no introduction.

It is difficult now to appreciate how different things were. Toilets were often the only place where men could meet other men. Older gay men have told me about orgies in the cottages near their local gay pubs. How they always carried a tub of Vaseline on them. How a dozen men could be arrested at any one time by overtly homophobic police.

The public toilets in Pond Square, Highgate (Photo via Wiki Commons)

Times have changed. But the gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has estimated that between the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 gay or bisexual men were convicted for cottaging offences. That was probably why I started to make a documentary about cottaging. Someone needed to make a record.

I have a theory that most gay men have a defining cottaging story. That experience which explains why. Mine happened when I was studying for my first-year exams. On my way home from the library – a wreck, kept awake only by caffeine and nerves – I stopped off in a cottage to take a piss. Habit took me to the cubicle. As I left, the most stunning man – ripped, tattooed, chiselled jaw – passed me, grabbed my hand and dragged me back into the cubicle. Within seconds he had thrown my glasses off and my shirt as he stuck his tongue down my throat. He pushed me to the floor and shoved his cock down my throat to face-fuck me. The intensity was extreme. He fucked me there until he shot his load. He said nothing until, “You’re awesome.” He left and I never saw him again.

The toilet where I met James had been demolished and turned into a shopping centre; councils had installed “anti-cottaging measures” and CCTV, and some – the best ones – simply closed. As one old gay said to me, he felt like a survivor in a nuclear winter. Okay, it still happens: not all towns have a scene, some men are still too afraid to come out but cottaging is no longer acceptable. And it was. Sort of. Cottaging was as unobjectionable as having a Gaydar or Grindr account is now: not everyone has an account, you might not admit your profile name, but there’s nothing wrong with having one.

The internet has had some influence but isn’t the full story. At some point the gay community lost its confidence and romanticism. These days so many of my friends have two Gaydar accounts: one for looking for a relationship, the other for when they’re horny. Tuesday night they sit in with a bottle of poppers and wank off with some twink. On Wednesday, they go around to their boyfriend’s to cook linguine and pesto. Our aims have changed.

Maybe hypocrisy is an inevitable sign of maturity. The gay community grew up and became respectable. Or appeared to. What changed? The 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis gave rise to massive homophobia, a moral crisis and Clause 28, the law that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. The gay community was on the back foot. In response, the new gay movement placed an emphasis on easy issues of identity, such as equalising the age of consent, and we became willing subscribers. Radicalism, perhaps naive, eventually withered. Whereas once we gave a two-finger salute to straight society, now we wanted to be just like them. Being accepted meant compromising and becoming compromised. The victim was the cottage.

And fuck, man, do I miss it.

Graham Kirby is currently filming a documentary, The Strange Decline of the English Cottage. You can follow him on Twitter @grakirby.

Pointing Percy

Gay Victorian London (and other things)

This week we interviewed Dr Matt Cook, Senior Lecturer in History and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College. Matt is one of those people (surely) whom it is necessary to interview for a subject like cottaging so it’s a good job that he’s a fluent interviewee (makes my job much easier).  He is also the first person we have interviewed who can shed some light onto the origins of cottaging, public sex and what it was like pre-20th Century to be a gay man.

One thing struck me that while there are many, many obvious differences between now and then - technology, decriminalisation, greater acceptance of homosexuality etc. - but there are also similarities. It was during this time that the West End and Soho grew as a commercial or entertainment areas with shops and businesses next to cottages, rent boys and prostitutes. Not so different to today really.

And there is another similarity: the press. I guess with the Leveson Inquiry it is tempting to think of press intrusion into people’s lives and readers’ interest in scandal as a new thing. Alas it was ever thus. Of course then most people would not have had any friends or known anyone who was openly gay and most of their knowledge with the subject would have been linked with reports of offences in the press so these reports in the press were one of the ways that gay men found out about cottaging and soon they learned that certain cottages were known for different sorts of ‘trade’, as it were.

A lot of our interview was concerned with changing public attitudes to public sex and homosexuality as well as the change of the terms of reference of the debate. The other point I am dwelling on at the moment which was implicit in Matt’s interview is that complexity is not vice. Very often we talk in general terms but usually things are a lot more complicated than generalisations can portray.

Matt related a story of a gay man from Yorkshire, a coal miner who was caught cottaging and convicted. Now so often such a conviction could lead to divorce, humiliation, loss of a job, rejection by friends but not in this case…

Oral History


Every gay man has a cottaging story, don’t they?

So we’re now looking to put together an oral history of people’s cottaging stories. So whatever age you are, wherever you grew up, whether you used to cottage regularly or went just once, if have a story you wish we would record and use either in our documentary or in some of the extra material, email me

It doesn’t matter if your story is funny or sad but I think its important to get as many perspectives as possible on what cottaging was like - the risks, the thrills etc -  what you remember about it (someone was telling me recently that he remembers the dried spunk on the walls!) why you enjoyed it…

We’ll use voice actors to record your stories if you like and, of course, respect your anonymity.

Thank you.

I’m writing mine now…

Law and Sexuality

This week we went off to Central Station near King’s Cross Station not for the reasons most would but to interview Chris Ashord of Sunderland University about cottaging, the law and many other things. We have been in contact for a number of months he kindly made the trip down to London especially for the interview. Over a number of hours we talked to lots and lots of thing in what was an extremely wideranging and interesting interview. From glory holes in Melbourne sex clubs to the Sexual Offences Acts (2003). We also talk about the definitions of what constitutes a public space (your bedroom, a urinal in a cottage, a locked cubicle, a park, you get the idea) and the law punishing people for consensual acts (a recurring theme). There are a number of points he brought up that I think are worth dwelling on here. First, and perhaps significantly for our documentary, the distinction between sex and sexual identiy. One of the truisms of politics has been that the last Labour government had a postive impact on gay rights in this country with the abolition of Section 28, lowering the age of consent and the introduction of civil partnerships. All true and all fine. But on the reverse side of the coin they were not so “progressive” (Nota bene Sexual Offences Act). The second is the image driven, commercial nature of the gay community. I think to some extend we just shrug our shoulrders and say that it was ever thus. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is perhaps undeniable is that the internet (with the ubiquitous Gaydar and Grindr) has increased this. We haven’t yet had a chance to review and edit the footage but we’ll try to put some clips of it as we do so. Also it is worth saying that he is an extremely nice guy and enjoyable company! You can see his blog here.



Interviewing Leonie

Making a documentary about cottaging would be possible without at least a cursory reference to Joe Orton, the playwright. Yet it was witha little bit of trepidation that I emailed the Joe Orton Society and asked them to put me in touch with Leonie, his younger sister. Over the next few weeks and months, we email, with us telling her why we were making the documentary and who else we had lined up, and her telling us how she takes parts in events related to her brother.

Between you and me, it was rather delicate as obviously our main interest in Orton for the moment was his leisure pursuits rather than his plays but there was also another angle: over the last forty years since his murder, Orton had become a gay icon, even though it was not until his death that it was known publically that he was gay. As Leonie said, the family didn’t know he was gay and assumed that Halliwell (his lover and murderer) was just a close friend. A sign of the times.

Yet, of course by hislifestyle and writing Orton was a gay man and in a curious sense came out through his writing.

So one Saturday morning we journeyed from Liverpool Street to Cromer in Norfolk, managing trains and provincial taxis to at last (and late) get to our destination. The first thing I would like to say is that Leonie was wonderfully hospitable as were her two wonderful Irish terriers, Finn and Dora. She made us feel very much welcome.

Our interview - thanks to her putting aside far more time than I had asked for - became rather wide-ranging not just looking at Jode Orton the man, but also looking at her perspective on his work. She was still quite young when Entertaining Mr Sloan was first performed and didn’t understand it but found it funny. Over the years seeing many performances she has got to know his works better and is a brilliant proselytiser for his work. Also what interviewing her brought out was how much a public mask can deceive: she really emphasised how kind and generous a brother (and also person) Joe was. I think it was the first word that she used to describe him. It is not a negative reflection on his plays or diaries or the man to say that this would not be the first word that many people would come up with.

I hope that the interview will add a different take on Orton, will give some insight in what he was like beyond the icon and some of the social conventions he opposed both in life and in writing.

The article that started it all…

It is perhaps inevitable that within the vagaries of English slang a word so redolent of the English village, Miss Marple and vicars cycling to give evening sermons, should come to be associated with acts so unspeakable and perverted that they are morally repugnant to your average citizen. Yet on the fiftieth year since Lord Wolfenden, a man so repulsed by the deviancy of the homosexual act that his report found it necessary to recommended its legalisation, the fortieth since the death at his lover’s hands of the eminence grise of the cottage, Joe Kingsley Orton, it is perhaps appropriate to consider what has happened to this most Anglo-Saxon of leisure pursuits.

It is an activity once favoured by playwrights, pop stars, politicians and Republican Senators from Idaho, allegedly with codes of its very own. Yet it is also in sad decline.

Here, I must declare an interest as a homosexual, whose formative years were spent throughout the land in, or within spitting distance, of such places of deviancy, perversion and undeniable pleasure. For cottaging has through its long and honourable history (since 1729) remained a purely gay pursuit; partly because of the puritanical attitude towards sex than has always existed in the English social body, but mainly because the idea of unisex public lavatories never caught on. There was a cottage in my village, which from an early age my parents told me to avoid, although no reason was then given. Such was the seriousness of their warning that I frequently underwent humiliating journeys home to visit the toilet until one day, aged fourteen, I ventured into the grimly painted forbidden zone with the purest of motives, but left with intentions to revisit for quite a different purpose. This early encounter, such as it was, was the beginning of almost ten years of intense, almost obsessive devotion, I may even say love, of the English cottage. From such origins came many encounters, some of them quick, some more fruitful, but none of them dull, and all of them enacted with a sense of risk that is now lacking from my life: being fucked in a cubicle by a student from Leeds University as my train left for home is a memory that sticks in my mind with a certain fondness.  For cottaging is addictive, like heroin, except less expensive and easier to get hold of. I even met one of my best friends in a cottage, in a small university town. The building has since been knocked down and turned into a shopping centre. But we remain friends. He is now an illustrious academic at a respected institution over the Herring pond, but on his rare visits to perfidious Albion, we remember – over a bottle or four of Veurve Clicquot  - times idled away in various provincial towns of England and  London, looking for cock.

The intervening decade has been kinder to him than I. He still claims to be roughly the same age, I have aged eight years, taken up new hobbies – bridge, fine wines, crack cocaine – and almost verge upon the respectable. That is not to say that even when cruising on Hampstead Heath or Clapham Common, I do not hanker for the old days of sideways glances at urinals and the cautious half opening of a cubicle door. But the sad fact is that although successful, I was never any good at cottaging: I was by my friend’s feckless standards too nervous and unobservant of slight signals. Of course, he now has two convictions for gross indecency, whereas I do not.

And there perhaps you have at least part of the reason for this tragic decline but not all. In London alone the cottages of Bethnal Green (always highly recommended) and Pettycoat Lane to those of Hyde Park, Carnaby Street and Oxford Circus have either closed or been sanitised to prevent extra curricula activities for the homosexual.  It is now with fond nostalgia that one recalls the cottage in the old British Library, where upon the cubicle wall was affectionally ascribed: ‘I had David Starkey here’.The cottage has been across cities and towns been replaced by units that act as lavatories and act against the cottager’s inherent interests.  Of course, such places do still exist: I am told that in the toilets University College London remain a rare paradise in barren desert and I am sure that some remain in the more remote parts of these Sceptred Isles. But it is rather like living in the last days of the British Raj: some of the magnificence is still there, but the glory days are far behind. If you’ll forgive the puns.

Of course, like many an English tradition, modern technology and social advances has played a role in its demise. Yet logging onto one’s Gaydar, and GayRomeo, lacks an equal frisson to shoving one’s knob through a glory hole in a cottage in Peterborough, Kettering or some such God-awful place. If you ask me, the advance of the internet as a tool for the homosexual  is welcome, yet its role in the death of cottaging is evidence of not only the laziness of the average sex-addict, but also of the creeping bourgeoisation of homosexuality. The current liberal, tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, greatly welcome though it is, has correspondingly led to the de-sexualisation of the homosexual in the public mind: he must be well-dressed, coiffed to perfection, witty and preferably totally, publically neutered. Of course, promiscuity itself amongst gay men is far from on the declining: my accidental entrance to the FIST tent some years ago at Gay Pride proves that. Yet, like the decline of the Liberal Party after 1909, in its finest hour, the gay community has cunningly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and submissively accepted the demise of the most public actualisation of its inner self.