Farewell, little red phone booth. But collectors find new uses for Britain's familiar telephone kiosks

It seems that every time I have needed a telephone kiosk, it has been in some kind of minor emergency. Either I'm late and need to apologize, or I need a lift from the station, or there is a sudden change of plan to explain. At such times I'm always in a hurry, and, of course, it's always raining.

And in spite of the fact that there are 60,000 kiosks spread around the British Isles, including nearly 11,000 in London alone, and all of them painted bright red, the difficulty of finding one which is both unoccupied and operational in one's hour of need is considerable. Even when one has been tracked down, the ensuing struggle to find the door and pry it open has often resulted in one's carefully sorted coins spilling onto the floor. Such a blunder presents a major logistical problem in the close quarters of a telephone kiosk for anyone over four feet high.

Not to worry. British Telecom is coming to the rescue with a five-year plan to replace all but a handful of the outdated red booths with newly designed models that are modern, light, open, made of plain metal - and vandal-proof.

But just a moment - those dirty, stuffy, cramped kiosks are part of our heritage. We're used to them, even fond of them. And anyway, they blend into the countryside much better than these discreet new ones. British Telecom, it seems, is not popular for its latest efforts to improve its service. Not until the familiar red kiosks are about to disappear do we realize how much we shall miss them.

All is well, however. Most of the redundant kiosks are going on sale, and several auctions have already taken place in various parts of the country. Prices vary, according to age and condition, from around 200 to 1,000 (about $338 to $1,690). The ``K2,'' for example, was an early model designed exclusively for the streets of London. Originally it was topped with a royal crown, but these were later replaced with an embossed crown over the door. Few of these still survive and consequently are among the most expensive to buy.

For anyone contemplating a dash down memory lane, it should be kept in mind that the kiosks are made of cast iron and weigh about 1,500 pounds. An individual buyer turning up at an auction has to be prepared with suitable transport, and even then is faced with considerable renovative work. Most private buyers wisely go to dealers, who will have the kiosk renovated and transported, but at the cost of at least as much again as the original price.

After an initial rush of enthusiasm, the market for the kiosks is in a state of flux and, at the moment, in a temporary lull. For those interested, a little time spent shopping around might mean considerable savings.

There are other practical considerations to take into account as well before allowing oneself to be overcome with a fit of nostalgia. For instance, what will you do with it? A kiosk is a most practical thing and does not really lend itself to being merely decorative.

Buyers from all over the world, it seems, have wrestled with this problem and have arrived at many solutions.

Many of the kiosks are still being used as telephone booths, not in the street, but in private homes and hotels. Others are being adapted to shower cubicles, poolside changing rooms (presumably for the ultra-slim), garden sheds, display cabinets, and even, in one reported case, a butterfly hatchery. Singer Tom Jones is said to have acquired a phone kiosk from his home town in Wales, and now has it beside his pool in California.

The claim that the red telephone kiosks are a small part of the British heritage is not so far-fetched. An early version first appeared in Britain's streets and lanes in the mid '20s. In 1936, to celebrate the Jubilee of King George V, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott redesigned the kiosk, and a few of these examples are to be retained in environmentally sensitive areas and places of historic interest.

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