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Thinking outside the box

PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 January 2015

The Yatton phone box after its transformation

The Yatton phone box after its transformation

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A surge of public affection for the old red kiosks is seeing phone boxes used in a variety of new and inspiring ways. PETER NALDRETT puts in a call to people fascinated by this vivid British icon to see what the appeal is.

The age of the payphone reached a peak in 2002 when there were 92,000 of them up and down the country, located on public streets and at private sites like railway stations, airports and shopping centres.

Most people over the age of 30 have fond memories from some point in their life of making a call from a phone box, be it ringing home from university or asking a potential partner out on a date.

But that golden period for this giant among street furniture has long gone. BT has been undertaking the removal of telephone kiosks, meaning that the total figure has been slashed to 58,000 – another 1,500 will be removed over the next 12 months. Just one in six of those remaining are the classic red telephone boxes.

So why have we seen the famous red boxes disappear across Somerset?

The main reason is probably not too far away from you right now. The growth of mobile phones has been phenomenal over the past two decades and it’s simply meant that people don’t need to find a phone box to make a call when they’re out and about.

Calls from BT payphones have fallen by 80 per cent in the past five years to current levels of 60,000 chats every day. The number of minutes spent on public phones is dropping by 21 per cent a year and 70 per cent of all the kiosks lose money. There are actually 12,000 rural telephones out there that are used less than once a month.

It’s from this backdrop that BT made the decision to slash the number of street phones – but the people of Somerset, like elsewhere in the country, kicked up a fuss when they thought the bright red icons could disappear from their idyllic villages.

Residents of Pilton hit the national news after complaining about the removal of their red telephone kiosk, calling it an ‘icon’ and recalling how locals have many memories of the landmark. Pilton Parish Council had decided not to take up the £1 Adopt A Kiosk offer launched by British Telecom to give phoneless boxes a new lease of community life. And away the Pilton phone box went.

Other parish councils though were more embracing of the BT offer to keep the boxes on the street in exchange for a pound. In the deal, which has saved more than 2,000 of the traditional red boxes, responsibility and care switches to the community and a whole range of innovative uses have been thought up across Somerset.

Don’t expect to see a phone when you open the large iron door, but you might find an information centre, book exchange, historical facts – and even a life-saving defibrillator. After the little-used public phone at Yatton was stripped out of its kiosk, the red shell stood empty and vandalised for years before nearby book-lover Martin Gray came up with a novel way of bringing it back into community use.

Owned by a local shop that used to be the Post Office, the iron giant was in need of restoration and its peeling paint and broken windows left a lot to be desired. But Martin took on the restoration and over the course of a few months had the Yatton box back on its feet, giving it not only a new lick of paint and windows but also a Twitter account.

From day one Martin encouraged the public to get involved and play a part, setting up a website and updating people via @YattonRedBox on Twitter.

He says: “These old red telephone boxes are part of our heritage, they are a British icon and with so many disappearing it needs to be used not abused. Many other villages have successfully restored and repurposed these telephone boxes as bookshops.

“It’s now been over a year since I completed its transformation. People often pop in and swap a book, particularly parents with small children, and there is now a basket full of children’s books at the bottom of the shelves. There are occasionally DVDs and computer games in there which I think is a lovely swap idea.”

The phone box at Yatton is not the only one dialling up the desires of Somerset bibliophiles.

Limpley Stoke parish councillors stopped the unprofitable red box at Middle Stoke being whipped away by being among the first to take up BT’s adoption scheme. Opened to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the box was converted into another small community library, with local folk and tourists being encouraged to donate books and help themselves to the wide range of reads on offer.

Chairman of the parish council, Simon Coombe, says the adoption had proved to be quite a success and he was happy that British Telecom had provided the opportunity to keep the box. The Middle Stoke box was the first in the South West to be adopted by a parish council.

And it was quickly followed by others. A call box at Westbury-sub-Mendip is also used as a book exchange, there are hopes one at Radstock could be used to showcase local history and the disused box at Priddy was fitted with a potentially life-saving defibrillator. Meanwhile, the disused red phone box on Somerton Road, Street, looks like it could be one of the few kiosks to get a new lease of life as an actual working telephone!

Geoffrey Nidd, the manager at Clarks Village, has been in talks with the parish council to adopt the box and get it working once more.

He tells me: “We think that the red telephone box is seen as an iconic image 
of Britain around the world and a perfectly restored box would be appreciated by 
both domestic and international visitors 
to Clarks Village. We also think that the box would look right at home and be visually stunning in the beautifully landscaped setting of our quintessentially traditional shopping village.”

Although the use of mobile phones has been the catalyst to bring about the decline of the telephone box, the red kiosk is not something communities will give up without a fight.

Expect to see more being used as community facilities over the coming years.

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