Though phone booths are seemingly obsolete, the red telephone boxes of the U.K. are finding remarkable new uses.
The stately phone box, with its red hue, sloped roof, and royal insignia, is an enduring icon of British design, held in even more affection by the British public than the double-decker bus and Union Jack. But in our modern cell phone era, the phone box now has little practical use. Rather than allowing them to disappear, some enterprising Brits have adopted disused phone boxes and turned them into coffee shops, bars, art galleries, and more.
WHERE: London, England
On Hampstead High Street in North London, the family-run Kape Barako coffee kiosk may look tiny, but it packs a lot into a small space. The miniature café serves strong espresso drinks, tea, cakes, milkshakes, sandwiches, and pastries, and has gained quite a cult following since opening last year. It’s obviously standing room only though.
Porty Light Box
WHERE: Edinburgh, Scotland
Through BT’s (Britain’s telecommunications company) Adopt a Kiosk scheme, the community council of Portobello, Edinburgh’s seaside suburb, purchased a soon-to-be-decommissioned phone box. It has now been restored and turned into the Porty Light Box, using fluorescent tubes inside the box to beam images from local artists and schoolchildren onto the street.
The Wee Bar
WHERE: Argyll, Scotland
Billing itself as a “restaurant with rooms” and happy to stoke unconfirmed rumors that the Queen ate there during her 80th birthday cruise, the charming Kilberry Inn in Argyll and Bute, serves up some of best cooking on Scotland’s west coast. After dining on Highland beef and hand-dived scallops from the Sound of Jura, head outside to The Wee Bar for a drink. Housed in a red phone box next to the red-roofed stone building, the tiny bar holds an outsize selection of Scottish gins, including The Isle of Harris Gin and The Botanist Gin from Islay.
WHERE: London, England
Popping up in central London’s Bloomsbury Square at lunchtime during the summer months, family-run Spier’s Salads serves up fresh and healthy salads to hungry office workers, students, and other passersby. When the sun’s out, we highly recommend grabbing a salad packed full of seasonal ingredients and picnicking in the bucolic surroundings of Bloomsbury Square Gardens.
Butterworth Art Gallery
WHERE: Ballogie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Set in front of The Butterworth Art Gallery, in a former post office in Scotland’s beautiful Royal Deeside area, this converted phone box houses what might be the country’s smallest internet café. Squeezed inside, visitors can surf the web, brew a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate and pick up information about surrounding attractions.
INSIDER TIPPayment is made via an honesty box, a common practice throughout Scotland’s rural areas.
Lewisham Micro Library
WHERE: London, England
Mini lending libraries in disused phone boxes can be found across Britain. In London, Lewisham Micro library is one of the country’s most-loved. Accessible 24 hours a day, the library is open to all. “All we ask,” says the operator, “is if you take a book to read, please replace with an old book of your own if you can.” The library’s Facebook page updates users on notable books currently in stock.
The Wilson’s Phone Box
WHERE: Cheltenham, England
In the southwest English town of Cheltenham, a project from the Wilson Arts Collective has seen 10 phone boxes restored and turned into mini art galleries. Located on the town’s Promenade, the phone boxes host rotating art exhibitions featuring artists selected through open calls. The first exhibition, held earlier this year, was themed to complement a concurrent exhibition at The Wilson, Cheltenham’s Art Gallery and Museum.
WHERE: Liverpool, England
Unlike the rest on this list, the red telephone box at Liverpool’s Ex-Directory is used for making calls, albeit with a twist. To access this speakeasy, visitors have to step into the phone box and dial the secret number. Finding the number is fairly easy—just check the bar’s website and social media feeds for updates—it’s finding the phone box that is tricky, but worth it for the extravagantly presented cocktails.
Telephone Box Medical Centres
Bars, coffee shops, and libraries are all great, but one organization has found probably the most practical use for Britain’s disused phone boxes. The charity Community Heartbeat Trust has installed defibrillators in phone boxes across the country. “With something as serious as a cardiac arrest, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, ambulance services often can’t reach country villages in time,” Trust secretary Martin Fagan told BT. “To install defibrillators in disused phone boxes is ideal, as they’re often in the center of the village. And it means the iconic red kiosk can remain a lifeline for the community.”
Cakes in the Call Box
WHERE: Argyll and Bute, Scotland
Sweet-toothed visitors to the small hamlet of Cladich in Argyll should head for this decorated red phone box to be treated to a selection of homemade cakes, courtesy of two local bakers. Payment for baked goods is made by an honesty box, though this one is guarded by the watchful eyes of the resident hairy Highland cows.