Britain's red phone boxes get new lease of life

Britain's red phone boxes get new lease of life

3rd May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Villages across the UK are stepping in to save their iconic red phone boxes, giving them new functions as mobile phones render them obsolete.

Waterperry – Britain's iconic red phone boxes have become obsolete in the age of the mobile – but villages across the country are stepping in to save them, with creative flair.

Whether as a place to exhibit art, poetry or even as a tiny library, hundreds of kiosks have been given a new lease of life by local communities determined to preserve a quintessential part of British life.

In Waterperry, a small village near Oxford, the 120 residents have filled the phone box next to the old manor house with a pot of hyacinths, piles of gardening and cooking magazines, and plastered poems on the walls.

They took control of the kiosk when telecoms operator BT said it was going to pull it down, an announcement that sparked such uproar that one local woman threatened to chain herself to the box to save it.

"I'd have done it," insisted Kendall Turner. "It would have been heartbreaking for the village."

Local councillor Tricia Hallam, who came up with the idea for the phone box's makeover, said "quite a few people" would have joined her, adding: "We couldn't let it go because it's a landmark, it's part of our heritage.


A local roadsweeper passes by the creation of sculptor David Mach, who found a way of creating civic art for the residents of Kingston, England, from retired telephone boxes


"We need to keep it here, it's an iconic thing, a British icon."

Only three feet (90 centimetres) by three feet wide, and standing eight foot three inches (2.51 metres) tall, the kiosks were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in 1936 for the 25th anniversary of the reign of King George V.

Painted in ‘Post Office red’ to match the post boxes, they were once a defining image of England and the backdrop to millions of tourist photographs.

Eight years ago there were about 17,000 across Britain, but today, in a country where almost everybody has a mobile phone, 58 percent are no longer profitable and ten percent are only used once a month.

"On average, maintaining them costs 800 pounds a year per kiosk," said John Lumb, general manager for BT Payphones – about GBP 44 million annually.

Some phone boxes have been converted into kitsch showers or mini-bars, available online for between GBP 1,300 and 3,500 (USD 2,000 and 5,400, EUR 1,500 and 3,900).

But BT needed a bigger solution and, two years ago, wrote to local authorities to inform them the boxes were going to be dismantled.

"We probably had 100 letters back from the councils asking if they could keep the red kiosk... There were just so many people saying that in small villages, it had been part of their landscape for years," Lumb told AFP.

"The red kiosk is just well recognised within the UK, just like the black taxis. There are quite strong feelings about it in many picturesque villages."

In response, BT launched the ‘Adopt A Kiosk’ programme, allowing local authorities to buy their box for a symbolic one pound.

Since August 2008, 1,118 have been taken over, with a further 4,000 scrapped, and such was the enthusiasm that a competition was launched for the "best adoptive parent".

Last year's winner was the village of Great Shelford near Cambridge in eastern England, whose box is located in a conservation zone between a cemetery and centuries-old thatched cottages.

A mannequin created by the local primary school stands guard inside, changing each month. This month's occupant is the Greek goddess Hera.
A phone box converted into a library, Westbury-sub-Mendip, United Kingdom

Westbury-sub-Mendip, in the southwestern county of Somerset, has also lavished attention on its local phone box, turning it into a library – "the smallest in the world", according to the 800 proud residents.

"The concept is delightfully simple," says parish councillor Bob Dolby, explaining how residents use it to swap books any time of the day or night.

The box "now houses a different form of communication having moved from the spoken word to the written word", he said.

"In this way the kiosk, which has served the community well for many years, will continue to serve it for years to come."

AFP / Expatica

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