The Courier & Advertiser (Perth and Perthshire Edition)
Second A calling
As mobile devices ring the death knell for the red phone box, Caroline Lindsay finds many are enjoying a new lease of life
Every six months or so, Steve Cumming rolls up his sleeves and prepares to give his local phone kiosk a good clean. It’s a chore he relishes.
Steve, a solicitor from Bendochy in Perthshire, bought the classic red K6 box from BT for just £1 seven years ago under its Adopt a Kiosk scheme.
Once the lifeline of local communities, the trusty phone box faced being consigned to relic status as the growth of the mobile phone industry triggered a dramatic drop in use.
Nearly half of the phone boxes in the UK have already been removed. However, rather than lose their local landmark, many communities have opted to give them a new lease of life by “adopting” them from BT. Since the Adopt a Kiosk scheme was launched in 2008, more than 3,500 places across the country – including 155 in Scotland – have seized the opportunity.
When Steve discovered the Bendochy kiosk was up for grabs, he wasted no time in swinging into action.
“There are only about 20 houses in Bendochy and they’re quite spread out so the phone box has always been a useful landmark for visitors. We tell them: ‘We live a mile down the road from the phone box’ and then they know how to find us,” he smiles.
“None of us wanted to see it go so we adopted it and decided to use it as a mini book and DVD exchange.”
No money changes hands – people simply leave their unwanted books and take a couple of new ones home. With the nearest main library in Coupar Angus a couple of miles away, the book box is a handy commodity.
Upkeep is a community effort and locals are happy to share the responsibility as much as the benefits.
“I go out and wipe it down every so often and give it a coat of paint when it needs one,” says Steve, clearly proud of the acquisition.
“The community council have given us a hand with funding to look after it and one of the residents put shelves up for the books.”
This is not simply a redundant symbol of a bygone age that’s being preserved; it’s an important part of British heritage.
The first standard public telephone kiosk was produced in concrete in 1920 and imaginatively named K1 – Kiosk number 1.
In 1935, the K6 was designed to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V. It was the first red telephone kiosk to be extensively used outside of London and was made in cast iron rather than concrete.
The K6 was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. If the name rings a bell, it is probably because he was the architect behind Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station.
The kiosks’ distinctive domed tops were inspired by a memorial in London’s Old St Pancras churchyard, erected by Sir John Soane in memory of his wife Eliza – Scott was a trustee of Soane’s museum.
At their peak in 2002, there were 92,000 payphones across the UK; today there are fewer than 50,000. With more than 200 kiosks in line to be removed from Courier Country alone over the next three years, there’s one phone box at least whose future is secure – the original concrete K3 to be found in the Perthshire village of Rhynd is Scotland’s oldest working phone box and its white exterior makes it unique.
Another 63 of the kiosks due to be decommissioned have been snapped up for adoption and will continue to play a part in their communities – just like the one in Monikie in Angus.
When the chance to adopt their local phone box arose it was a no-brainer for the Monikie and Newbigging community council, as chairman Iain Richmond
None of us wanted to see it go so we adopted it and decided to use it as a mini book and DVD exchange
explains: “The telephone box is situated right in front of Monikie War Memorial Hall and when one of our committee members spotted a notice inside, offering it for sale for £1, we felt it was too good an opportunity to be missed.”
By that stage, the kiosk was in a dilapidated condition with a couple of broken windows and the paintwork had faded to pink, rather than the familiar bright red. The community council hired local painters who took advice from BT on the correct paint to use (currant red) and it was soon restored to its former glory.
It was decided that the phone box would make an ideal information point and a notice board was installed.
The original “Telephone” sign now reads “Community information” and has been decorated with a poppy motif, in keeping with its proximity to the memorial hall.
Iain feels the new-look box has enhanced the village.
“We did pretty well for the initial outlay of £1,” he grins.
In the pretty Fife village of Letham, residents have a defibrillator installed in their K6 kiosk.
John and Karin Vaughan’s house is situated directly opposite the old phone box and when community council member John read about the idea on the Community HeartBeat Trust website, the seed was sown.
“Installing one was seen as a wise precaution, particularly in areas that are remote from the NHS and ambulance services,” says John.
First the money had to be raised to buy the defibrillator and this pulled the whole community together.
“We held an afternoon tea with a cake competition for the school pupils, and a shiatsu practitioner and her colleagues gave their time free on a Sunday to do massage for donations,” recalls John.
Over the months, the fundraising total crept steadily towards, and then past, the target figure of £2,000 – in the end the residents raised nearly £3,000.
Fortunately the defibrillator hasn’t been needed yet but it has brought peace of mind to many in the village.
Enthusiasm for the project has also rubbed off on the younger members of the community – not only have they received training in how to use the defibrillator and in CPR, the device made an appearance in the schoolchildren’s Christmas pantomime story.
Some communities are so keen to hold on to their BT phone line that they go to great lengths to make the box attractive to ensure it’s kept in constant use.
The kiosk in Cellardyke, Fife, is brightly decorated with local children’s artwork, shells, a fairy house, and brimming flower pots, while a water bowl caters for thirsty pooches. Inside, there are stickers and balloons for children to take away and little packets of seeds for them to plant. Truly a kiosk that ticks all the boxes.
Elsewhere, phone boxes have been adopted but have yet to find their true calling. When John Emery was chairman of Torryburn and Newmills community council in Fife, he was approached by a local resident Charlie McVicar who wanted to tidy up what had become a run-down looking kiosk.
“I made inquiries and discovered that the best solution would be to adopt the phone box,” John recalls.
Charlie duly repainted it in the correct colours, turning it from an eyesore into an asset for the community. At present it serves as an attractive noticeboard for the village while Torryburn and Newmills Development Trust waits to hear if its application for funding to use the phone box as an art gallery is successful.
“The plan is to hold shows of paintings by local artists and primary pupils and link it with art lessons in the village hall,” says John.
“It’s important not to totally forget the past, and preserving some of our old phone boxes is a way of doing it.”