One of the great joys of cycling is discovering the world you miss by travelling in a car at 70 mph on main roads. My own travels through local villages have revealed many surprises, none more so than a British icon enjoying a reinvention and a stay of execution.
That very British icon is the distinctive red telephone box. Post war these structures housed our advanced method of instant communication but personal mobile technology has overtaken them and with telephones removed many served only as impromptu urinals but now local heritage has rejuvenated the boxes to serve the community again.
Whether by accident or design BT have left a lot of the structures in place and with the true British spirit of whimsical folly local communities have found alternative uses for these iconic structures.
I first became aware of this rebirth when cycling a regular circuit that I had done hundreds of times before. I punctured a rear tyre and took advantage of a seat next to the red box to act as a bike stand and to my surprise noticed shelving and books inside. My curiosity raised I spoke to a local passing dog walker who told me the local community had put in shelves and donated books and videos and it was now used as a library and book exchange.
That first encounter in Farringdon in Hampshire now has me looking at every phone box I pass and in true British eccentricity and with a touch of irony I photograph them with my i-phone. Can you imagine the reaction you would have received explaining that scenario to somebody in 1945.
Research tells me that most of these boxes are designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who in 1924 won a competition to design a box suitable for use in London and came up with the K2 design. Over the next ten years various models were tried and in 1935 to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V he came up with the iconic K6 design of which 65,000 graced every village in the UK as well as Malta, Gibraltar, Bermuda and former British colonies. The paint colour used is known as “cherry red” and is defined by a British Standard, BS 381C-539.
Local parish councils have now taken ownership of many redundant boxes and with volunteers have now given the K6 another lease of life. Boxes are being used as libraries, exchanges, information points as well as housing defibrillators and a few even have a telephone still installed.
It is quite heartening to see how many people have taken an interest in preserving these icons and without doubt they do add a bit of character to villages that is not noticeable with the modern BT glass kiosks. It is also nice to see that local interest and effort has been rewarded without attracting the vandalism that seems prevalent against boxes in our inner cities.
My light-hearted appreciation of this piece of British history has now resulted in texts and tweets from fellow cyclists telling me of locations of similar boxes so I am not alone in appreciation of the K6.
Suggestions that I need to get out more are noted and acted upon. The bike will be on standby to pay a visit to any new additions to the collection. The Observers Book Of Phone Boxes will not be published any time soon but I wonder at what point these icons will be considered worthy of a heritage listing.