Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eardisland, Herefordshire


Brotherhood of the road

AA telephone boxes were scrapped in 2002, but a few still stand as a reminder of the hundreds of black and yellow boxes that once dotted the British landscape. They were originally known as sentry boxes, and when the first ones were erected in the years before World War I they were intended as shelters for AA patrolmen who were there to help with directions, repairs, and advice to the growing number of motorists who joined the Automobile Association. In the 1920s, AA members were issued with keys, so that they could open any sentry box and make use of the contents – a lamp, maps, and so on. Eventually, the boxes became telephone kiosks, equipped with one-button telephones with which they could summon help when broken down. All the boxes were numbered, so if callers simply gave the box number from which they were calling, the operator would know their exact location and send a patrol to help.

From 1956 onwards the four-gabled black and yellow box was the standard design. Such boxes stood not just for a welcome helping hand, but for a tradition of fellowship and support summed up for many motorists by the AA’s distinctive winged badge – I am old enough to remember the anger among older members when this badge was replaced by a more modern, and much blander, one in the 1960s.

The AA box that caught my eye stands by the Cross Inn in the village of Eardisland just off the A44 in northern Herefordshire. It started its life at Legions Cross, just outside Eardlisland on the A44, and my copy of the 1962 edition of the AA Illustrated Road Book of England and Wales confirms the presence of an AA box here. In the age of the satnav and cellphone it seems to come from another era – a time when the AA, with its uniformed patrolmen, winged badge, yellow vehicles, and shiny telephone kiosks constituted a true motoring fraternity.

18 comments:

SilverTiger said...

That was the era when the patrolman, when he stopped, removed his motorcycle helmet and put his cap on. He would then salute any passing car that displayed an AA badge.

The RAC also installed boxes and eventually the same key opened both so that AA and RAC members could use one another's boxes.

I remember as a kid, looking out for patrolmen to see whether they saluted as we swept past.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ah yes, I remember this too. And there were certainly some patrolmen who were more assiduous in their saluting than others – I remember a particular local AA man being praised by my father for always saluting, or for saluting properly, or whatever.

designslinger.com said...

those were the good old days - phone boxes....no cell phone....no texting....thanks for the post!

Philip Wilkinson said...

...which we celebrate through the medium of the internet. Funny, isn't it?

bazza said...

I can just about remember these boxes but I definitely remember police boxes. Apparently there is still a police box outside Earls Court Underground station.
I don't think Dr Who was a member of the AA.
Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: There are still quite a few police boxes in Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow mainly I think), including some used as refreshment kiosks. Apart from the Earls Court one, there are also some in museums south of the border. There's also a curious blue octagonal structure in the churchyard of St Paul's Covent Garden which some say is a police box, but it has no lettering on it. Maybe it is a non-standard one left over from the days of the market.

historo said...

They remind me of the Alpine refuge huts that dot the crests of the Alps, Carpathians, Apennines or the Pyrenees, which came into being sometime in the late c18th to assist mountain trekkers and climbers in need during blizzards and other type of extreme weather. During my university years I benefited from such a facility in the Transylvanian Alps at over 2000m altitude, during a heavy snowfall that lasted for three days and nights- we found there dry firewood, canned food, maps and ready made beds; it was a true blessing.
Perhaps at their origin, those AA and RAC boots were inspired from that Alpine refuge system- just a thought.
Valentin

Philip Wilkinson said...

Valentin: The idea of the AA boxes as repositories of useful equipment and places of shelter certainly recalls the Alpine boxes.

Re The box at St Paul's, Covent Garden: I see from some research on the internet that the blue box there is a watchman's box, where (in the 19th century, presumably) a guard sat on duty to deter grave robbers.

Wartime Housewife said...

I would resent the extortionate amount I pay to the AA far less if there were aesthetically pleasing AA boxes all over the place to reassure and delight me. As it is, the AA has a list by their telephones of 37 reasons why they can't rescue me personally without paying another £97 at the point of rescue.

Incidentally, Dr Who did apply to be a member of the AA, seeking to take out their 'Planetside Rescue' package. Sadly, the Tardis ground to a halt in the Crab Nebula which was 53 yards outside their normal rescue zone. This would have meant requesting a rescue vehicle from Alfa Centauri who would then have performed a relay with an appropriate vehicle in order to tow him to the nearest approved Repair Centre, where there was no guarantee that they would have the correct diagnositic software.

That box is a lovely thing - thank you for showing it to us.

Jon Dudley said...

And some more horticulturally-inclined patrolman would erect small picket fences around the box to contain small but perfect formed 'gardenettes'. I wonder what became of all the surplus leather gaiters these redoubtable motorcycle combination riding patrolmen wore as everyday apparel (presumably as a preventive measure against the kickstart rending the trouser leg)?

Couldn't agree more about the logo redesign...just a bland AA in sans serif italic caps, presumably to suggest speed...where did that come from? Nowadays it takes anything up to two hours for a 'patrolman' to arrive normally in the guise of Joe Bloggs garage with no intention or capability of fixing anything.

Through my yellow-tinted goggles I see the AA man dismount his trusty steed and open the cavernous box sidecar wherein lie the remedies to all mechanical ills. Ten minutes later accompanied by a sharp salute we're on our way...except in my dad's case who was from the school which believed you shouldn't have a car unless you were capable of dismantling it by the roadside, re-assembling and continuing the journey....need it or not.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oh, WH, what tales of utter woe lurk in the subtext of your comment. I'm pleased that you can still derive aesthetic pleasure from this bit of memorabilia.

Jon: There you go, you knew I'd find an AA box eventually! If I locate any of the gaiters, I'll let you know!

Freddles said...

I remember as a kid my father telling me that if the patrolman didn't salute you when the car had an AA badge, it was because there was a police speed trap ahead. And if a car came right up behind you, we had to see if it had an AA badge: if it did, it wasn't an incognito police car out to get you for speeding...

Bucks Retronaut said...

A bit off message I"m afraid,but I wonder if anyone has any experience of those dark green Cabmens Refuges?Can anyone get in and buy say a bacon sandwich and a black coffee or is there a secret handshake ? I've always been too timid to try it on, limping gently out of West London as I pass the one on Chelsea Embankment in the early hours ,homeward bound after some fierce old thrash Up West.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Freddles: Yes, I'd quite forgotten about the supposed secret code conveying information about speed traps.

Bucks: I've never tried to get refreshment at one of these shelters. I know Lord Ashley of Unmitigated England has photographed them and written about them - maybe he has some light to throw on this.

Peter Ashley said...

Ooh yes, cabmens' shelters. The ground area they cover was determined and regulated by the length of a Hansom cab and horse. I could go on, but don't worry. I was allowed in the one by Warwick Avenue tube station, and marvelled at the ergonomics of such a small space. "Why is your microwave oven up on the wall?" I asked the assembled cabbies as they tucked into their HP Sauce breakfasts. They looked at each other in disbelief. "It's the telly you prat" one finally said as he squeezed the ketchup bottle.

And don't get me going about that AA identity. No soul anymore. But at least they've re-introduced the original monogram for AA approved hotels.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you Peter. Can I take it from that that the shelters are normally just open to cabbies? And those who inveigle themselves in?

Peter Ashley said...

Phil: That does in fact appear to be the case. I was invited to partake of refreshment, which was very kind, but had to move on to other London Peculiars.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thank you. Of course in Ulysses (by James Joist) a whole episode takes place in a cabman's shelter, where Stephen and Bloom, the novel's two main male characters, go for 'some drinkables'. But that was in Dublin in 1904, and so not strictly relevant.