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Seeing red*!

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Carrie Carrie | 12:08 UK time, Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Hi everyone,

Well, Andrew is off on his adventure and is currently somewhere on the way to Mongolia. He's promised to try and update us on his travels in the staff blog.

In the meantime, you're stuck with me again. So today I thought I'd ask you a question. When you think of London (or Great Britain), what iconic symbols do you think of? Apparently, most people would immediately say: a double-decker London bus, a telephone box and a post box - all of which happen to be red. It got me thinking: why red?

Let's start with buses. Have you ever seen the film "Summer Holiday"? It was made in the 1960's and follows the adventures of a group of young people travelling across Europe in a double-decker London bus.


Unfortunately, if this is how you imagine all London buses look, you'll be sadly disappointed. There are only a few of these old Routemaster buses left - most are now modern buses. Apparently it's because EU legislation says that all buses must have doors. I think it's sad, because I love the old buses. Why? Well, firstly the new buses just have a driver, who drives the bus, collects the fares and checks passes: the old buses have a driver and a conductor: some of the conductors are real characters - calling out the various sights you can see on the way. It's great to have a bit of human contact. Secondly, if you want a modern bus to stop at a bus stop you have to press a button and there is a horrible high-pitched buzzing noise: it really sets my teeth on edge. On the old buses, you pull a chord and a bell sounds: much nicer. And finally, the new buses are all enclosed - you can only get on and off at a bus stop. But if you get stuck in the traffic on an old Routemaster bus, you can just jump off (of course, you shouldn't really, as it can be dangerous, but everyone does it anyway!). There are still two "heritage" routes that use the old buses - buses number 9 and 15 - both of which go right past our offices at Bush House. If you want to find out more about London buses, this is a good website (and if you follow the link almost at the bottom of the page, you can even make your own London bus out of paper!)

How about telephone boxes? Sadly, modern phone boxes are now little more than grey shelters. I guess that's because most people have mobiles and don't need to use a public telephone. When I was young, I always carried a coin with me in case I needed to use a phone - not any more.


Anyway, the lovely old red phone boxes do still exist - I walk past several on the way from the station to the office - and 9 times out of 10 I see tourists posing for photos in front to them. I'm not sure they ever actually use them though! Of course, one of life's great questions is....how many people can you get in one phone box: I think we managed 17 (but some of them were very small).


And finally, the red post (or pillar) boxes. These are real pieces of history. In 2002 there was a national campaign to save the red post box: to make sure they were kept free of graffiti and painted regularly.


In the mid 1800s, green post boxes were tried out on Jersey, but they didn't last long, as people had trouble seeing them (although in World War II some boxes were painted white to help people find their way in the blacked-out streets). All post boxes have the Royal Cipher of the reigning monarch at the time the box was manufactured: so post boxes made during the reign of the current Queen have EIIR on them. So, here's a little puzzle for you. What's special about this pillar box? Actually, I bet most British people would have to think hard about this one!

So, back to my question: why are buses, telephone boxes and post boxes red? Well I couldn't really find a definitive answer - the best explanation I could find was "It makes them easy to spot!"

I'm looking forward to hearing from you about your idea of a British icon. Is it a red London bus? Is it Big Ben? Is it the BBC? Is it a person? I was just about to publish this entry when Rob walked by and read it over my shoulder - co-incidentally he has just written a piece about a London icon - the London taxi - you can read it here.

Take care


to see red: to get very angry (but in this case I just meant seeing the colour red!)
sadly disappointed: very disappointed
conductor: a man or woman on a bus who collects fares, checks tickets and so on, but does not drive the bus
to set someone's teeth on edge: to irritate someone
9 times out of 10 : almost always
to spot: to notice something (or someone)
pillar box: an old fashioned word for a tall, round, red post-box found in the street


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Carrie! I am not the one who could judge or decide what British icon should be. Recently, very popular became to vote for 7 tresaures in each region or even a city here in Slovakia. (bingo- the castle in my small town had been voted on the 1st place in Trenčín region) There might be more meanings for red colour: signal or indicator for important things, it is easy to spot in such a crowded place like Oxford street; or it means affection, love. We all do need and love colours in our lives, just look at traditional clothes in such places like Peru, Mexico or somewhere else Nepal, Pakistan - the bride wears red wedding dress there! London city is surely full of colours now but those busses and post boxes were maybe the first there. Now, the language, English language is the one "thing" immediately came to my mind which I only may vote for British icon. Sincerely,m

  • Comment number 2.

    I think red colour is Colours of Saint George who protects British other countries as Liguria, England, Georgia, Catalonia, Aragon and cristians.
    For me, British icon is crazy fanat of football/soccer.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hello Carrie,

    How are you?

    Life is so colourful and it was interesting to read your blog about the importance of red colour to British people. I was lucky enough to travel by a double-decker London bus and posing in a telephone box some years ago. Both are unforgettable experiences. :)

    I have been racking my brains to figure out the answer to your teaser with no result. Before giving up I would like to ask whether the Royal Cipher in the pic is EVIIB or EVIIIB. I did some Google search and worked out that EIIR means: Elizabeth II Regina (Queen of Great Britain). E-Elizabeth the Second and R- Regina just means Queen.

    British icon...well, there is no enough space to mention everything that comes into my mind. My fondness for the UK, for British people, for the BBC LE, for certain places – London or Reading is well known. However, a do agree with bbllmm, English language is in the first place on my list too.

    Anyway, Ahoj bbllmm! Nice to know you are also from Slovakia! Nice to meet you here!

    Take care everyone!
    Anita from Slovakia

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi there!

    Gosh, you've really made me think about the meaning of the colour red now!

    Ok Anita: this may help. It says EVIIIR

    Take care


  • Comment number 5.

    Hello Carrie
    About a telephone box, it has one obvious advantage - you can speak in a silence. Sometimes In a noisy city it is necessarily.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Victor,
    Of course, you're right AND you can stay dry when it is pouring with rain (as it is in London at the moment)


  • Comment number 7.

    Hey Carrie
    As always it is fun to read your posts.Thanks to Anita I guess I know the answer.
    Well is it king Edward VIII (Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David; later the Duke of Windsor,who was King of the United Kingdom from 20 January 1936 until his abdication on 11 December 1936.The person that prefered his love to American divorcée Wallis Simpson over the monarcy.
    Carrie can I use concepts and ideas as icons? If I can here is my British icons:Democracy,Pluralism,Fairness,Sepratism,Tenacity and... 5 o'clock tea.
    All the best

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Carrie,
    I think the first thing that crosses my mind when I simply hear 'London' is the London Bridge.
    For the red colour, I guess it has got to do with the British Red cross. It is so well-known in worldwide.

  • Comment number 9.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi Carrie,

    Thank you for giving the clue. Well, this pillar box is one of the rare boxes with the Edward VIII cipher. I have also learnt that there are only 161 boxes in the country with this cipher. If I have a chance again to travel to England I will pay much attention to the post boxes. :)

    Have a nice weekend! Take care,


    PS: Sorry, I accidentally sent a message a while ago.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi Carrie!

    Thanks a lot for such an interesting topic! Answering your question about a British icon I must say that I associate England with Buckingham Palace and the Royal family.

    I really liked your story about old Routemaster buses especially about conductors who used to call out the sights. You know in Kazakhstan people often jump off the bus (as you've described) although all of our buses have doors. Of course it's against the rules but still...:)


  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Carrie,

    Honestly speaking, most of us in Bangladesh think Britain, England and London all are almost same. We treat these all like a country. If I think about anyone of these, simply one view comes in my mind and it’s the ‘British soldiers with redcoats’. And, to tell the truth, they come in mind with their brutality. May be, it’s because we were a British colony for 190 years (1757-1947) when the redcoats ruled all the country with their batons.

    I think it’s also the same reason that why we also have the red color post boxes till now. And, surprisingly, the transport run by the government is also red in color. Recently, it has bought many buses from China, which are also of same color.

    I do agree with bbllmm that almost all the brides in my country wear red wedding dress as we treat red color as the symbol of joy, pleasure and celebrations.

    Ashish, Bangladesh

  • Comment number 13.

    Dear Carrie,

    Thank you for your very interest post. I have known lot about modern England and about history England.
    I think if you like the old buses for the presence of a conductor on them there are not many passengers on the buses. I was happy when automatic turnstiles appered in Moscow's buses, trams and trolleybuses. There are a lot of people in our public transport especially in hard trafic. And when the conductor tried to go through the crowd it was very difficult and uncomfortable for all.

    Answering your question about the British icon for me the British icon consist of lot things.
    When I think about England I think about a double-decker bus, the Big Ben, the English policeman, Holmes, Agatha Christie, English could and also many things.

    I look forward to hearing new posts.

  • Comment number 14.

    About the pillar box, if I am not mistaken there are only 161 boxes with this Royal Cypher of Edward VIII.
    May be it is special for this post box.


  • Comment number 15.

    Hi carrie.actually this is my first time here "i mean in the board" .i really appreciate your blog.
    for the british icon, i think there are many.the first thing which comes to my mind when i think of britain,is "Queen Elizabeth",she is very famous and no one can think of britain without thinking of her.also "lady Diana " she is very popular.
    i can also think of big ben, oxford university....
    of course i can't ignore the BBC world ,which is very iconic, i knew it when i was very young,due to dad who was following the bbc news in the radio.
    i hope i cited some british icons, i know there are many ,but i will let other people remember them.

  • Comment number 16.

    Hi Carrie, I was very happy to see that you wrote on the staff blog :-)
    As always, your blogs are so interesting. Good question! London icon....Hmmm for me is the double decker red London Bus and the red telephone box but it is also the green one can see in the parks on the films. I know that they look a very nice green because most of the time it's raining :-)
    Did you know that here in Buenos Aires we have a red telephone box for tourists? I think that we bought it from your country. Look here http://www.flickr.com/photos/ml_p/3166247208/
    Besides, we used to have and use the red post boxes too. Look here http://sites.google.com/site/buzonela/buzones

    I totally agree with you. Modern buses are not so cute.

    Have a nice day.
    Cris (from Argentina)

  • Comment number 17.

    Hi dear carrie , It 's monthes which you haven't had any blog . Hope every thing is fine ! please kkep going the good Job of bloging , if it 's possible
    Pary from Iran

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi Pary and everyone!
    Thank you - I'm fine. I was keeping quiet because Andrew kept promising to blog, so I didn't (he still says he will). Then Stephen also promised to blog ..... which he has!

    I have a couple of blogs "waiting in the wings" - one about the village of Rye and one about the Olympic games. Of course if there's anything else you'd like me to blog about, just let me know and I'll try my best!


  • Comment number 19.

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