By Betsy Everett
A defunct AA call box sitting in a small lay-by at the side of the A684 near Aysgarth may be an unlikely national treasure: but as a Grade ll listed building that’s precisely what it is.
And now, says Leyburn resident Sheila Simms, the iconic black and yellow box, a beacon of hope to stranded motorists before the advent of the mobile ‘phone, is under threat.
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“Structures are listed because they’re perceived to have some worth not just locally, but nationally,” says Sheila who is battling to save the once-sturdy little hut from the ravages of time – and what she claims is the neglect of the owners.
Lack of regular maintenance has allowed invasive ivy to force its way into the wooden panels at the back, causing “real damage” to the structure, while its paint is peeling and its frame rotting, she says.
Now, after nearly three months of trying to draw the attention of the AA (Automobile Association) to the plight of the call box, which once housed an emergency telephone, Sheila, secretary of the Yoredale Natural History Society, is finally losing patience.
“It is the owner’s duty to preserve these structures for future generations and this box would not be in the condition it is in now if the AA had taken care of it and the national park authority had kept an eye on it,” she says. “It now needs major repairs and re-painting as a result of lack of maintenance over the last couple of winters.”
For years the two small wildlife gardens on either side of the iconic roadside box – one of only five such listed structures in the country – had been maintained by two elderly volunteers. Then, last spring, Sheila realised the work had stopped and decided to take it on herself.
Every Sunday in the growing season, weather and other obligations permitting, Sheila takes the Dales Bus 856, now known as the Acorn Wensleydale Flyer, from Leyburn to Aysgarth, to tend the small gardens which are host to a mass of wildflowers: wood avens, Welsh poppies, golden rod, yellow loosestrife, goat’s beard, cow parsley, meadowsweet, red campion and red valerian are all flowering at present, but the display changes through the year.
Having dead-headed the plants, cleared the weeds and ivy, and with her black bag of cuttings, and debris from the two lay-bys, she crosses the road to wait for the bus home to Leyburn.
“I get about an hour to do the work before catching the bus back. I’m no gardener so just trim back and remove stuff as necessary,” she says.
When she and a friend discovered the ivy growing on the stone wall at the back “it was no longer just a lick of paint that was needed but replacement of part of the box. I let the national park authority know this and the conservation officer went to look and take pictures and he contacted the AA. But despite repeated emails, nothing more seems to have happened.”
Tom Harland, planning policy officer for the national park authority, said he had brought the plight of the sentry box to the AA as soon as it was reported at the end of March.
“The Authority works with the owners and occupiers of listed buildings that are considered to be at risk to ensure that the necessary repairs are carried out,” he said.
He had contacted the AA at the end of March when it was first reported and had followed it up in May. They said then that they had programmed the work.
“I also asked a colleague to visit to assess the condition and we forwarded her record to the AA, with pictures, to stress the need for repairs. The AA again expressed their regret at the condition of the box and reaffirmed that they would address it,” said Mr Harland.
“I think it’s just a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the repairs will happen.”
He recalled attending the box himself when it was vandalised six years ago.
“The door had been kicked in and two of the AA insignia wrenched from the sides. I recovered the damaged items for safekeeping until the AA were ready to do repairs, which they duly did a few weeks later,” he said.
He added that inside the box, now locked to the public, is a newspaper cutting from July 2006 paying tribute to the work of Marjorie Workman and Peter Percival from near Darlington, who tended the flower beds for many years, and were “most upset at the 2011 vandalism incident.”
Ian Crowder of the AA said today: “The AA does recognise the importance of this and the other 18 surviving UK AA boxes in the context of motoring history and we do take their condition seriously. We are currently progressing a programme of refurbishment of all of our historic boxes and that includes Aysgarth. I can’t tell you when the work will be done but it is certainly on the schedule to spruce it up so it can proudly continue to maintain its role as an ambassador of the AA’s proud history which goes back to 1905.”