The iconic cherry red phone box is busting back to life across Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 09:09 02 November 2020

Scarborough's History Box in the harbour

Scarborough's History Box in the harbour

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The iconic cherry red phone box might seem to have lost its place in the world thanks to the ubiquitous mobile phone - but the cheery landmarks are busting back to life across Yorkshire

Marton cum Grafton book exchangeMarton cum Grafton book exchange

When was the last time you set foot in a phone box? The likelihood is that you weren’t making a call. Maybe leafing through a donated paperback? Borrowing a spanner to fix your bike? Hopefully not calling on the services of a defibrillator.

The cheery red phone box, like its Tardis counterpart, is living a different life in these modern times. It is being rescued, adopted and cherished by a generation of people who just don’t want to see the great British icon disappear in a flurry of rust.

Increasingly, decommissioned phone boxes are being transformed with a practical purpose, and often they are bringing communities together.

Such is the Bicycle Repair Station in the village of Millington, East Yorkshire. It certainly looks the part. Proud, shiny and cherished with its iron sign and brass spanner door handle. It looks grand, as well as being useful.

Ready for a cyclist in need - Millington's much-loved cycle repair kioskReady for a cyclist in need - Millington's much-loved cycle repair kiosk

It’s Mike Cargill’s pride and joy. A keen cyclist himself, he is proud as punch of his ‘world first’ - a bike service station in a phone box. ‘No-one has disputed it yet,’ he laughs.

The idea came about after he bought a home in the village in 2015 - and the phone box was included. When BT first tried to attach a sign on the phone box to notify the village of its forthcoming closure, Mike contacted them and they suggested he adopt it.

His idea to turn it into a bicycle repair stop made perfect sense – the village of Millington forms part of the route for The Way of the Roses, a national long-distance cycling challenge of 170 miles from Morecambe to Bridlington. The west to east coast event attracts thousands of cyclists each year, with each one passing directly through Millington, and right past the world’s first phone box bicycle service station.

It serves the riders – and its community perfectly. Standing chatting to Mike, many cyclists pass us by or take a breather at the repair box’s village neighbour, a local café full of bike-inspired memorabilia.

Looking forlorn - rescued phone boxes in Carlton Miniott near Thirsk Looking forlorn - rescued phone boxes in Carlton Miniott near Thirsk

With the help of his daughter Chloe and her boyfriend Ellis Grant, Mike replaced all of the glass panels in the box and the iconic telephone text panel. He repainted the box, replacing the contents of the inside with a tyre pump, fitting an oil changing service, and he stocked the box with a variety of other tools and replacement bicycle items. He’s also installed a piece of art on the back wall, inviting locals to share their own work.

Since 2018, he has received donations to fund the refilling of oil and the general upkeep of the box.

For their efforts, donors from the village who have sponsored the refurbishment of the box, have their names engraved, with more than 40 frames and two telephone signs sponsored.

Decommissioned kiosks make their way to the various ‘phone box graveyards’ in the UK, one of which is in the village of Carlton Miniott, just outside Thirsk, in North Yorkshire.

Holtby's phone box tells visitors about the villageHoltby's phone box tells visitors about the village

Mike Shores is the owner of Carlton Miniott Auto Services where the phone boxes line up - trying to be their proud best – or simply laid door upon door, oddly poignant.

Mike is a keen historian and collector of antique British memorabilia, whose collection currently includes ten BT phone boxes and various antique post boxes. He began housing decommissioned boxes in 2005, and at one point, had up to 50 boxes on his site. He received them directly from BT, and other collectors near London, and he would repair and restore the boxes to be sold on.

Since 2008, BT has allowed charities and local councils to adopt a phone box, under their ‘adopt-a-kiosk’ scheme, urging people to, ‘turn a disused phone box into something useful for your community’. Most commonly, disused phone boxes now hold a defibrillator, through the work of the Community Heartbeat Trust. Defibrillators offer lifeline to rural communities to support and rescue a patient in cardiac arrest before an ambulance can attend the scene.

Another common sight in a decommissioned phone box is a book exchange. The village of Marton cum Grafton in North Yorkshire was the first of its kind in the UK. In 2010, local residents adopted the box under BT’s newly introduced scheme and since then, the book exchange idea has been adopted across the country.

In Settle this year: people look at pictures inside a red telephone box used as a community art gallery - the box was a landmarl when people were having a daily walkIn Settle this year: people look at pictures inside a red telephone box used as a community art gallery - the box was a landmarl when people were having a daily walk

In Yorkshire, many more villages have followed suit, among them Wighill, Thorganby, High Hutton, Colton, Alne, Rufforth, Tollerton, Tholthorpe, Askham Richard and many more.

A quick scan of the shelves in Marton cum Grafton offers up classics of The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, to The Stranger by Harlan Coben.

Inspired by the success of the first phone box renovation, the village adopted a second box near the village school and filled it with children’s books with of encouraging younger residents to read. Says parish councillor Tony Coyle, ‘The village is a conservation area, and the red phone boxes are features of the village - they are a piece of history.’

Looking forlorn - rescued phone boxes in Carlton Miniott near ThirskLooking forlorn - rescued phone boxes in Carlton Miniott near Thirsk

Over in Scarborough, the Maritime Heritage Centre has ensured that the single last remaining phone box that sits prominently on the South Bay, has been given new life. In April 2019, the registered charity adopted the box and began restoration work. After stripping the glass, repainting the box, and installing the eye-catching mosaic tile floor, the phone box was reopened in August, now dubbed a ‘History Box’.

Chairman of the Maritime Heritage Centre, Mark Vasey explains: ’The history box acts as a tourist information centre now that the official one is gone.

‘It contains a sensor-automated audio clip, which details 10,000 years of Scarborough history; including the Vikings, Romans, the shipbuilding, the development of the historic grand hotel and Scarborough’s time as the first seaside resort in the UK’.

It has its own poignancy in this harbour town. ‘Even the in the merchant navy, the first thing you would do when you got to port was ring your family from a red phone box,’ says Mark.

On the other side of the Yorkshire, in Settle, is the ‘Gallery on the Green’, an adopted K6 phone box that is, according the town council, the ‘smallest public art gallery in the world - certainly the only one that is open 24/7, and is filled to capacity at least twice a day!’

The box was adopted in 2009 and boasts a revolving exhibition programme, featuring the work of local, national and international artists. Since it’s refurbishment, the box has seen over 70 exhibitions, and curated pieces from notable figures, even including the Queen guitarist, Brian May who admired the spirit of the venture and exhibited rare Victorian photographs he collects. Last year, the box celebrated its ten-year anniversary and a special exhibition about the history of the box was put on display at the nearby Folly Museum. The box was awarded a £1,000 prize from BT themselves, for being the region’s most imaginative use of a former kiosk.

It seems the city of Leeds is coming full circle with its very own unique adaptation of the telephone kiosk, namely blue boxes. Business telecoms provider Aql is rolling out 24 refurbished K6 boxes, to help Leeds City Council with their city-wide fibre optic broadband and free Wi-Fi network. Each box is solar powered and allows unmetered, free Wi-Fi access to anyone in the vicinity. Aql CEO Dr Adam Beaumont has stated that he want to create ‘an icon for Leeds’ that is part of the cityscape.

The boxes feature the ability to call others via an outside touchscreen, leave video blogs, stored at the boxes. It seems these boxes could potentially be the future of the iconic British phone box; keeping the nation connected once again in a modern way, through instant messaging, video calls and unlimited connectivity. Has the public’s use of the phone box come full circle? As they say, what’s old is new.

While those cherry-red, crown-adorned BT phone boxes are being scooped up by local councils and heritage enthusiasts, their lesser known cream-coloured cousins in Hull are still standing strong. Kingston-upon-Hull is the only place in the UK never to have had iconic red phone boxes due to the city council being one of the few local authorities that set up their own telecommunications network in 1904.

The few that joined them, along with the rest of the UK were eventually monopolised under the Post Office, and later BT - who ensured ‘all’ phone boxes in the nation were painted red. The Hull Telephone Department, or KCOM as it is known today, kept all of their phone boxes cream to protest their independence and heritage - the crown symbol is also absent. Eventually succumbing to BT in 2007, the boxes still remain cream. Boxes are also transformed for special occasions; in 2012, a prominent box in the city market was painted gold, to celebrate the Hull native Luke Campbell becoming a gold medallist in Olympic boxing.

The iconic cherry-red phone boxes that once kept the nation connected were introduced in 1921 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (the man behind Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and the Cambridge University Library).

The various models such as K1, 2, 3, 6 and 8, reached their most prolific in 1980, with 73,000 phone boxes on the streets of the UK. Today, a mere 11,000 remain, with many of these only decorative, other than a backdrop for tourist selfies.

It’s clear however, that there is a real love for these iconic landmarks of British culture. In 2015, the red telephone box was voted the greatest British design ever made, edging out the Routemaster double decker bus, the Union Jack, the Spitfire plane and the Mini Cooper.

Today BT says they are unprofitable to keep going – usurped by personal mobile phones, these boxes are unprofitable and so hundreds get decommissioned each year. The number of calls made from public telephone boxes has fallen by 90 per cent in a decade.

Fancy one yourself? You must be a council or charity to adopt one. See Adopt-a-Kiosk at business.bt.com

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