Monday, 26 January 2015

Red telephone boxes

What could be more British than the red telephone box? And yet they have been disappearing for years. The mobile phone has been killing them off. BT has a yearning wish to be rid of nearly all of them. They may earn their keep in central London, or at city stations and important airports, but elsewhere they are generally so little used that they have fallen into decay, costing more to maintain than the money they bring in. You can see why BT would like to take them away.

In remote spots, far from a decent mobile phone signal, there remains a vital public service need. In an emergency, it really wouldn't do to have no reliable means of calling for help. So those telephone boxes are safe from removal - for now. But in a county like Sussex, where there is countryside aplenty but none of it desperately far from a mobile phone signal of some sort, the fate of its remaining public telephone boxes must be in the balance. It's becoming rare to see one.

On my way back from little Frensham Pond, I went by way of Gospel Green. This is a green with a cottage on it, and a farm and a few other buildings just up the road, but really nothing else. You could hardly call it a hamlet. But it has a red telephone box. It stands in splendid isolation, set back from the road along a short path. In the summer the foliage of the nearby trees must make it hard to spot, unless you already know it's there. I don't think it is lit at night. I stopped, and took some photos of what it presently looks like:

There are clear signs that somebody is keeping that path well-tended, and is wiping the red paintwork - otherwise one would scarcely expect this box to look so near-immaculate. Inside were the torn-away remains of a Closure Notice. A little research on the Internet established that in January 1999 the parish council made an application to get Listed Building status for this phone box. It was clearly an issue that rumbled on for a long time. You can imagine the box being a cherished local landmark, and a campaign being launched to save it - in the same spirit that local people once tried to save little-used rural railway branch lines.

But by May 2006, the application had been refused. Perhaps it was then that BT pasted up its Closure Notice.

Well, the phone box had survived. How, one wonders? Maybe the cottage-owner close by had made it a nightly duty to phone someone, anyone at all, to bump up the usage statistics. Maybe The Ramblers Association were roped in to encourage their members to make a call whenever walking past. Maybe ET phoned home from here. At any rate, there has been a stay of execution.

A payphone needs some way of paying, and this was a phone that took both cards and coins - 60p minimum. How the charge has gone up! I picked up the receiver - a big, rather heavy affair by modern standards, very twentieth century - and was almost shocked to hear a healthy dialling tone.

I didn't call anybody. It was enough to establish that this telephone box was still alive and kicking. A contender, defying BT for another year.

How old was it? If you know anything at all about phone box design, you will see that this is a 'K6 kiosk', the most ubiquitous type, found all over the British Isles, although not invariably painted red. But most are red. Once home, I consulted my impressive collection of old Ordnance Survey maps, and established from the survey dates that this box had been installed some time between 1932 and 1960. My guess would be during the war, when local soldiers in local pill boxes, guarding woods and fields and ditches against The Enemy, might need to ring up the local HQ to say that 'Private Timpson was sneezin' awful bad, an' could 'e cycle off to the village an' buy some aspirins?'

But the box could equally well date from the 1950s. The K6s were such a timeless, classic design that they were made, and installed, from the mid-1930s to the late-1960s. They were everywhere, over 70,000 of them eventually adorning towns and the countryside through the land - and on every Scottish island.

When I first became acquainted with them, as a user, I was only twelve. It was in 1965 on a Cornish holiday, at Treyarnon Bay near Padstow. In those days the call charge was 4d. You required four old pennies, those big copper coins with Britannia and a little lighthouse on them. If I remember this correctly, you picked up the receiver, fed the coins into a slot, pressed Button A (which was a large chromed button), and then dialled the number (assuming it was possible to dial direct, and not via an operator). Once connected - if you were connected - you pressed Button B (confusingly identical to Button A), the coins would make a loud dropping noise, and you could speak. 'Hello! Hello! Is that you?'

Why Dad had given me the money to make that call, I can't remember. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to phone anyone myself. Not at twelve, not even years later. The whole telephone business was intimidating. I was frightened of the phone. And I remained frightened of it for a long time. I did of course have to use it once I started work, but I never learned to regard it as a handy device that was the very first resort if you wanted to consult anybody. I always found - and I still do to this day - that speaking to a disembodied voice was odd and disturbing. So I have used the phone only with great reluctance. It has played very little part in my private life, and scarcely any part at all in my early attempts to make a connection with someone I thought I loved. I looked instead for face-to-face alternatives, so much easier to handle.

And nothing has ever changed. I still dislike 'chatting over the phone'. I vastly prefer to be in the actual presence of the other person, when expressions and body language can be seen and read, when the contact seems truly meaningful.

I digress. The Gospel Green phone is a good example of a locally-loved phone box that won't be lost without a fight. You can be sure of it. But there are some boxes around that are not much loved. They will be found gone one day, and nobody will mourn them. For example, this overgrown and subsiding box near Sampford Courtenay station in central Devon, with its door that won't shut, that I saw last year:

Oh dear! Peeling paint. Ivy taking hold. The glass all greenish with mildew. And an offputting 'Coins not accepted here' notice. Cards only, then. The station - not the original, which has been mostly demolished - is but a platform on a singled line that nowadays gets only a few trains on summer Sundays.

It cannot possibly provide business for this phone box. The adjacent letterbox gets more use. It will outlive the phone box for sure. Inside, the phone apparatus itself was clean enough, and working, but otherwise it was dirty and cobwebby.

Who, except hardened lorry-drivers, would want to spend any time in this? BT are letting it rot. It's doomed.

Back to Sussex. Some years ago, in 2004, I found a good-condition K6 at Ebernoe. Ebernoe is hard to find. It's vaguely halfway between Northchapel and Kirdford, on a narrow road deep in the well-wooded and remote-seeming West Sussex countryside.

That was my old car - the blue Honda CR-V - in the middle picture. Nothing else passed by. There were houses near this phone box, but they were hidden in the woods, and were for the well-heeled who didn't need a public phone box at all. This phone box was much sprucer than the one at Sampford Courtenay, but its lack of constant use was obvious. It was being encroached upon by the ferns and roadside weeds. Inside, it was still OK:

Ah, but that was 2004. What is it like now, in 2015? I feel very inclined to go back and see for myself. But I expect to find it either gone, or reduced to a sorry state of disreputableness. Sigh.


  1. I'm loathed to correct my dear friend, but for the sake of historical accuracy, needs must. On those old phones you...
    1) inserted your 4 old pennies
    2) dialed the number
    3) when the call was answered, you pressed button A. If there was no reply, you pressed button B to retrieve your money.

    I recall a funny episode of Dad's Army in which Cptn Mainwaring taught his platoon how to make a call. I think it only cost them 2d in those days.

    1. Hi Lucy I enjoyed reading your post about phone boxes and I fondly remember using the box at the top of the street to phone my boyfriend and I used to have a piles of 2p pieces, we weren't allowed to use the phone at home it had a lock on it that I later learnt to pick with a hair grip.

    2. I knew I was doing something wrong at the time! Phoning always got me flustered.


    3. Thanks, Leah! I hated making very personal calls either at home or in a public phone box. No doubt I wasn't by any means the only one. Texting and other forms of instant messaging - easy to do, and nobody can overhear - would have been wonderful back then.


    4. Do you remember the pips when your money was running out.

    5. Only vaguely. I haven't used a public phone box for St least thirty years. I did use more modern public phones with number keys at stations until I got my first mobile phone in early 2001, but with a phone card that didn't run out of credit.


  2. In on of my local villages the phone has been removed but the villagers installed shelves in the empty box. They put books they no longer want inside so it has become a sort of library or book exchange. I think that's a lovely idea. When I was in the Brownies we always had a ten pence piece in our "be prepared" kit so we could call home! (Late 80's!)

  3. Yes, the box itself can be put to other use. I found one at North Stoke that was stocked with South Downs tourist leaflets. I wrote a post about it.



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