Art galleries, hot houses, libraries – a phone box pilgrimage is much more than a trip down memory lane
THERE are many different ways to make a journey around Scotland. One could bag the Munros, follow the national walking trail from Sutherland to the Borders, or even hop between the islands that surround our coast like a rocky corona. Those of a more whimsical bent, however, might consider following a route of a different sort – a pilgrimage around red telephone boxes.
Scotland is home to approximately 1,300 working red telephone boxes, and more than 120 which have been disconnected and put to new uses by communities and individuals. The iconic red kiosk, created by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the English architect who also designed St Columba’s Cathedral in Oban, first appeared in Britain in 1926; by 1965, when the design began to be phased out, there were around 60,000 throughout the UK, most of them manufactured by ironworks in Scotland.
Once at the cutting edge of communications technology, and intended as a purely practical piece of equipment, the kiosks, known officially as the K series, have come to be regarded with great affection as emblems of a particular sort of Britishness – dependable, patriotic, quaint and sort of mundanely psychedelic. They look quite at home everywhere from Piccadilly Circus to the western coast of Mull; indeed, these bright alien boxes have become as much part of the Hebridean landscape as peat stacks and lines of washing flapping outside whitewashed cottages. It makes an odd sort of sense, too, that on the back cover of the Ziggy Stardust LP, David Bowie is standing inside a phone box; the man who fell to earth and then tried to reverse the charges.
Yet, as a result of mobile phone ownership, increasingly, we no longer use payphones. Calls have declined by 80 per cent over the last five years and continue to decline at a rate of more than 20 per cent annually. Just three per cent of British adults use a call box each month. Some boxes go years without any calls being made from them, leading BT to seek their removal. The company also runs a scheme allowing community councils to adopt a kiosk; for the princely sum of £1, BT removes the telephone and hands ownership of the box to locals.
Kiosks in the Argyll and Borders villages of Glendaruel and Oxton have been fitted with defibrillators; the phone box on the corner of Bellfield and High Street, in Portobello, is being turned into an art gallery thanks to crowd-sourced funding of £1,720; on the tiny slate island of Easdale, by the harbour, an old phone box has been put to use as a hothouse for tomato plants. Communities often feel fiercely protective of their pay-phone. Last year, in Kilmuir on the Black Isle, villagers threw a “ring of steel” around a call box, parking their cars on every side so that BT were unable to take it away.
Kinnesswood, near Loch Leven, is a pretty village home to a splendid phone box. Known as the Reading Room, it now serves as an ersatz library, fitted with shelves and crammed full of books. The idea is that you leave a book behind and take another away. I have brought along an old Penguin edition of The Scarlet Letter, in homage to the box’s smart red, and pick up a copy of Bleak House. The box stands between the village shop and a chuckling burn, and across the road from the garage. Five years ago, it was bought from BT for the garage owner, David Buchan, by his wife Ishbel, the couple having learned that it was to be removed.
“Ishbel asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I said I wanted the phone box left where it was,” David, 60, recalls. “I’d grown up with it all my life. My family have been in the village for over 100 years. They had the post office at the time and they saw the phone box when it first arrived. The village just wouldn’t look right without the phone box being there.”
Kinnesswood is a traditional sort of place. It hasn’t changed much since the Victorian age. There was a big campaign against the closure of the post office and another against the proposed demolition of the rather attractive bus shelter. The phone box is, therefore, cherished as a key piece of village history and everyone sleeps that bit sounder for knowing that, now, it will never be removed. Local teens do not vandalise it. Local dogs know better than to pee against its splendrous panes. It is used daily by both villagers and commuters passing through.
“There’s a book for everybody,” says David Buchan. “Books for kiddies and books that should be on the top shelf, probably.”
What, Fifty Shades Of Grey in a red phone box? “Something like that,” he laughs.
The phone box in Dalmally, by the railway station, has its own Facebook page, and functions as something of a seasonal barometer. At Hallowe’en a pumpkin is lit inside; at Christmas a nativity scene and the whole thing topped off by a giant santa hat. It wore a big red nose (made from a spacehopper) on Red Nose Day; and, on April 17, was seen to be sporting a large yellow smiley face, à la acid house, which Martyn Gibson, the local man who keeps it decorated, insists had nothing to do with Maggie Thatcher being buried that particular day – oh no, definitely not, perish the thought.
Gibson, by the way, is the very chap to take on the role of decorating a phone box. A retired theatrical prop-maker, he used to make items for Stanley Baxter’s pantos, once spending three days building a sausage machine large enough to grind up dogs – a prop which, to his frustration, was cut from the panto on the grounds of poor taste. In Dalmally, happily, he can approach the phone box as an auteur with complete creative freedom, and is pleased to notice it becoming a popular local phenomenon. “It has really grown legs,” he says, speaking – one assumes – metaphorically, though with that particular phone box you never really know.
It is also possible to buy kiosks from BT as an individual rather than as a community group. You see these, here and there, dotted around the country, peeping over privets and looking rather like Stonehenge for garden gnomes. Some 257 metres up on Beinn Chaorach, south of Oban, a phone box has been erected around the trig point and enjoys commanding views over Mull; it is the property of a local farmer who uses a second kiosk to store and sell eggs.
There are a few privately owned phone boxes in Edinburgh. The kiosk outside 48 Liberton Brae has been there for 20 years and belongs to Robert Gallo, 60, whose home this is. The phone is still inside the box, complete with old 031 number, and Gallo has sometimes – when the fancy has taken him – connected the leads, nipped outside and made a call from there, while enjoying the view over Salisbury crags. The box comes into its own at Christmas when he puts a tree and lights inside.
Across town, outside the basement of 9 Warriston Crescent, a red telephone box has an intriguing ship-in-a-bottle aspect, lodged in the nook between the street and the house, below the level of the pavement. It belongs to Jonathan Adler, 43, an electronics engineer, and it was lowered into place by a lorry-mounted crane, having been purchased from a “phone box graveyard” in Whitburn. At one point, Adler had ten phone boxes, the intention being to do them up and sell them on, but it didn’t work out and they went for scrap. Still, it had become something of an obsession, and it is still an ambition of his to see all five surviving examples of the K4 model – a combined phone box, post box and stamp machine – rather like someone might tour Europe in search of the paintings of Caravaggio. “I think,” Adler says, “they are quite beautiful.”
Och, they’re only phones, you might grump. But they are much more than that. The reason we – those of us raised in the pre-mobile era – feel such fondness for them is a mix of nostalgia and aesthetics. You may remember using a phone box to contact a doctor for a sick relative, or a wife in labour; I remember standing, in the sharp stink of old pee, with ten pence poised over the slot, wondering whether or not to call a certain girl (I did. She said no). That whole ritual of dialling the number, waiting for the pips, and shoving in the coin – no-one who ever did that will forget it; no-one who never did it can imagine what a strange humdrum pleasure that was.
Max Flemmich runs the Darvel Telephone Museum, a converted weaver’s cottage next to his home in Ayrshire. He’s the man to see about call boxes. He is 69, distinguished in a tweed jacket and silver British Telecom tie. He left school in 1957, and found a job installing and repairing telephones, a role he fulfilled with diligence and joy until his retirement 12 years ago.
The museum – free to enter but best to phone ahead – is an extraordinary place, home to his collection of hundreds of telephones ancient and modern, wood, Bakelite and plastic; switchboards, telegraph poles, giant glass valves, and motley phone-abilia, including the head of Buzby, BT’s avian mascot from yonks ago, which he can sometimes be prevailed upon to wear.
He owns several phones from inside the red boxes and recalls with Proustian affection the experience of dropping money in the slot.
“The penny went bong, the sixpence went ting, and the shilling went ting-ting,” Max says, wistfully. “Ah, these are memories.” «