For as long as we can remember, the red telephone booth has been a much loved part of all things Britain. By far, the most popular model, the K(iosk) 6, was designed in 1935 by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to mark King George V’s twenty fifth anniversary. The K6 was a darling. Close to 70,000 units were throughout the United Kingdom.
Now, however, the glass-and-cast-iron kiosks are seen lesser by the day. Starry-eyed post-card inspired travelers look around corners to spot one of these and you hear mumblings of “What’s happening to the old red British telephone boxes?”
Mainly gathering dust, thanks to mobile phones. Thousands have been removed and stored in rusty environments, many sold abroad as unusual objects of art or pieces of bric-a-bracs. They have been used as everything from movie props to outdoor showers. There are some however, who are indeed trying to hold on to them. Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset, for instance, claims to be one of the wolrd’s smallest libraries. The community in North Yorkshire have converted their booth into an art gallery which even got a royal opening – Queen guitarist Brian May playing notes from the “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
The old red ones are going places and not all of them see the light of the day
When learning about these old timers, the first signs of their existence that I came across were on ebay. The prices were anywhere from £18.50 for stripped-off parts of it, like the “telephone” placard to a “Fully Restored British Red K6 Telephone Box” for £2,650.00. I wasn’t looking to buy. I dug further. I found businesses giving “some ideas on how to use an English red phone box”. They were about using it as a bar or a shower cubicle.
The revival through art
Thankfully, these red iron boxes are putting up a stronger fight than other sentinels of history. The most common places things like these land up are at private collector’s underground dungeons or inside overly lit museums. Not the red ones though. Last year, a series of old-fashioned telephone boxes were placed around London over the summer. These boxes – close to 100 in total – did not have phones in them and neither were they red in colour. Instead, they were be painted over and decorated by artists and designers which they then sold off to raise money on the 25 year anniversary of the charity Childline.
In another instance of revival through art, Scottish sculptor David Mach created the permanent public work Out of Order in 1989 in Kingston, London made from K6 telephone boxes. Twelve telephone boxes, first one upright, the rest gradually falling over like dominoes. It was originally intended that the first upright box was to contain a working telephone.
The communal book revolution
Contemporary artists might have taken to the telephone booths but art renovation does not adopt too many of them and neither does everyone consider changing the look of these red boxes so drastically qualify as “saving” them. To save one old tradition, you need another with even deeper roots – books.
The Dorset Village
About a year and a half ago, Kington Magna had at the disposal, one decommissioned telephone box but no communal library. Together with the Buckhorn Weston Parish Council the telephone box was bought from British Telecom for £1 and just over twelve months the phone-box turned into the village’s first library.
There are about 300 books in total, ranging everywhere from crime to thriller, books on gardening and some Earnest Hemingway too. There is usually an overflow of books and the ones on the shelves need periodical change. There is however a scarcity of children’s books.
In Great Snoring:
The villagers here have rallied around to restore their own little cast-iron friend to its old red glory and it is now called the Great Snoring K6 Library.
Like the one in Dorset village, the book lovers browse through the shelves inside the booth which holds books donated by the community. There’s one key difference in these tiny libraries when compared to their larger variations – you are never fined for not bringing the books back. It is rather encouraged to exchange them with your own books. For a village this tiny with no pubs or even shops, the library holds a kew social point of contact.
Reed Bowden, the librarian, says,
“You cannot have a derelict icon like a K6 without doing something about it. I know people elsewhere have made them into information centres or art galleries, but we thought we would go down the library route.”.
From Edinburgh, Bellfield Street
Bellfield Street had the task of reviving two phone boxes have been transformed, one into a “Book Nook” while the other is turning into a “Light Box” art gallery. The same novel idea applies here: “Choose a book and leave another here! Don’t delay chose one today.”
The lending library was started by the local Krystyna Campbell, who used her own books to get the project started. “The village is very small – just a street really, with a telephone box on it. We’re a very close community and people were already very much in the habit of lending each other books” says Krystyna.
The Porty Light Box which sits at the junction of Portobello High Street and Bellfield Street, is gearing up fast to become the local hub for public street art. It is the pet-project of forty six year old architect Steve Wheatley, who adopted the red box from British Telecom last year. Steve says:
“We raised about £1500 for the conversion through donations – some bizarrely coming from as far afield as Australia – but the actual physical work is being done by a very small team, so it’s taken some time.”
At Christmas last year, they town-folk wrapped the box up like a present and spray-painted details of the Portobello Christmas Festival on it. In January, a mystery knitter made a telephone out of wool and hung it up inside. Over the summer, the box had tried out too many clothes to count until local genius Tim Warren decided to induce some lighting inside just by using a cardboard tube, aluminium foil and some LED rope light.
It’s a small light of hope for these big red oldies.
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