Red phone boxes: what happened next
- Credit: Archant
Iconic red phone boxes have been disappearing from the British countryside as we all favour our mobiles. We put in a call to Kent folk wanting to save these well-known British landmarks
They hold a special place in our hearts and have become a world-famous symbol of our nation. But red telephone boxes are disappearing from our streets thick and fast. The problem is we just don’t use payphones as much as we used to. There are 12,000 telephone boxes – especially those in rural areas – that take just 60p a week because we’re now able to make calls from our mobiles when we’re out and about.
This is why BT has slashed the number of kiosks from 92,000 to 58,000. Another 1,500 are to disappear this year. Given this threat to our favourite street furniture, some communities in Kent are prepared to put up a fight when their nearest iconic phone box is earmarked for removal.
Even when it’s been disconnected, the hope is that the shell of the box can remain to add aesthetic value to a street. And who knows – maybe an alternative use can be found that gets the public swinging open that heavy red door once more.
An agreement in place states that BT must always leave a decent number of phone boxes across a wide geographical area. That is something some communities cling on to in the hope that their phone box will remain. It’s worth remembering, however, that these now-famous items were often seen as a blot on the landscape when they were first installed; some people even wrote to their MP to complain about them. These days, they’re all about nostalgia and a desire to leave them be.
When an old phone box in Wye had to be moved a few metres down the road to allow the restoration of an old medieval undercroft, it was going to cost an estimated £9,000, not worthwhile for a payphone taking less than £1 a week in calls.
It was then that Wye-with-Hinxhill Parish Council took the decision to adopt the old K6 red kiosk on Upper Bridge Street for the nominal amount of £1 under the BT Adopt a Telephone Box community scheme.
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Councillor Richard Bartley says he believes the old red boxes are popular with the public because many of us have memories of making an important call to friends or loved ones.
“They were a lifeline, and this is the case particularly with the K6 model. As a piece of street furniture many of them are sad looking things that can easily disappear into the background, but if you give them a new coat of paint, they do look good and provide a focal point.
“Now they are often reduced to quirky community benefit uses, but there are relatively few left and as each disappears, there is a piece of history that goes with it.”
The red icon in Wye is to become a site for a life-saving defibrillator when the undercroft restoration project is up and running and the kiosk is once again hooked up with electricity. Wye’s telephone box is near the local library, but there are plenty of small villages without that facility.
For some places without a bookshop or a library, it is the old telephone boxes that are standing in to provide a fantastic literary resource for keen readers.
This has been the case in East and West Langdon, two villages close together that between them boast not one but two community phone box book specialists.
They might be two of the smallest-ever bookshops, but bookshops they are – and they stock a range of good reads for young children, teens and adults alike. You’ll even find a selection of magazines and knitting patterns in there to browse through.
The stocks are donated and the shelves are maintained by local residents who live nearby. They are also responsible for cleaning the kiosk and allowing people to drop good reads off at their homes.
Bibliophiles having been thriving on this unusual service and are asked to leave 50p every time they take a book. It’s proving to be a popular use for the former call box, not only for locals but also for holiday makers who hear about it and pop by for a page-turner while on vacation.
It’s not a year-round public service; the bookshops have to close during the winter months to stop the contents getting damp as the wind, rain and snow hammers the kiosk. But the fifty pences add up and as much as £100 has been taken during a summer of book reading as locals leave their donation and take away a story.
Converting condemned telephone boxes to alternative uses is admirable, but some communities are fighting hard to make sure their red telephone box is never removed – no matter what the use.
A campaign to give the red beacons listed status is well underway, with a box at Sandwich recently becoming the 100th to be given protection. As Town Mayor, Councillor Paul Graeme, says: “The red boxes are an iconic example of days gone by and give people of a certain age comfort when they look back over the years.”
Protecting a red telephone box is a process carried out through English Heritage, but there are strict criteria on which kiosks are suitable because of the sheer number potentially involved.
To stand a chance of getting the coveted listed status, there have to be two listed buildings nearby whose character the red phone box enhances.
But the world of antiquated payphones is not all cream teas and cricket on the village green. Some are prone to vandalism and being used as a toilet – even those that have been adopted for community use.
Fiona Sheriff, who oversees community adverts put up on Margate’s Harbour Arm, admits: “It gets vandalised constantly to the point where we are sick of it. I wish we had never taken it on because it looks an embarrassing mess, which reflects badly on us.” But not all the kiosks share this fate.
The red telephone box holds special memories for most people over the age of 35. I can remember asking my first girlfriend out on a date from one, a few months after getting turned down by another girl in another phone box.
I called my dad from one on my first night away at university. Many readers will have their own significant calls that they’ve made from a phone box.
Thanks to the enterprise of several communities, these bright red kiosks will continue to have an impact for many years to come. n