Ever noticed how the urban geography aligns perfectly around Parliament Square for the most Instagrammable snap that London has to offer? Big Ben? Tick. Stationary red buses? Tick.
Don’t forget a red phone box or two. Whether reinvented as a nifty miniature library for book-borrowing, or hijacked by fly-tippers for the disposal of sodden mattresses, you’ll find these antiquated things used for pretty much anything these days. Anything except phone calls, of course.
The ones in this part of town feature as photographic props for tourists countless times every day. If you’ve seen The London Phone Box Shot once, you’ve seen it a hundred times - in varying qualities.
It takes just minutes to find a textbook example on social media. A couple of experts tell us it's not hard to see why the shot is taken endlessly.
"I love it," says Clive Boursnell, a photographer renowned for shooting Covent Garden through the decades. "Sure, it could be tweaked a bit in its framing. But isn't the point of the picture that this is not art photography — it is using the camera to capture a moment?
"In this picture you have two elements that are London; the third is a person, saying 'I was here'. It's the kind of thing people used to write on walls. A picture is much better."
Paul Bevan, Course Director for MA Fashion Photography at London College of Fashion, UAL, agrees that the photo's souvenir quality overrides its cliched composition.
"Anyone can take it. And maybe everyone has taken it — or a similar version, be it in London, Paris, New York, et cetera. Therefore most people can relate to an image like this, whether they know the person or not. There’s a kind of protocol or convention, that is quite simple and unchallenging."
Near Westminster tube station are actually a few contenders for the honour of London’s most photographed phone box. Hinges buckled by overuse, and windows frosted with the decades-old glue of stickers and calling cards, these weathered old hulks make obvious photographic props.
But the two best placed for that famous view of Big Ben are a pair on Great George Street.
One is a little too close to the tower for our liking: you need a really wide lens to take everything in. The other? Well, it’s perfectly situated — but it has a bit of a stinky problem with it at the moment.
“It smells like poo. There is actually poo inside there,” says Hannah from Leeds, who’s showing around Amanda from Brazil. Another woman wanting for a selfie comes by soon afterwards and detects something a little different. “Yuck, it smells like piss!” On closer inspection, both are right.
While generally only used as makeshift outhouses by the local population these days, red phone boxes are famously beloved by visitors to the UK, without or without their cameras. Why is that?
“These are famous in Bordeaux, because we have removed all ours now,” a French couple tell us.
“We have yellow phone boxes in Munster, but the colour isn’t so nice,” says a group from Germany. One of them, Silke, even owns a phone case which has the Big Ben phone box shot on it. How meta!
Mary Ann, Brenda, and Diane are sisters from Canada. “Coming over here and seeing one of these? It feels like part of our heritage,” they say. “Because our grandfather came to Canada from London.”
These quaint old kiosks symbolise Britain’s historic influence in the world to a lot of people. But what do they say about the country nowadays, given that they now sit around unused and full of faeces?
“London is one of these phone boxes,” say Kristina and Stefano from Germany. Is that a good thing? “It is. We like London. It’s stressful and has some bad things in it, but it’s good overall,” they say.
Newlyweds Chloe and Raymond have flown over from the other side of the world to watch the FA Cup final at Wembley. “And for shopping.” Red phone boxes like these have a place in their hearts — they think they used to see them while growing up in then-British-controlled Hong Kong.
Nowhere is the obsolescence of the payphone plainer than in this corner of London. Several of these classic red K2 models stand here in nine-foot former glory, taunted by snap after snap taken with the handheld gadgets that replaced them — which are roughly 1:29,000 of their size.
Nobody can remember when they last actually used a payphone — except one man. “It was in 2005,” says Korhan from Turkey. “But phone boxes are a big part of Britain’s imperial history. So, I am glad they are still here.”
And these kiosks on Parliament Square’s north side are going nowhere. “They are on Historic England’s protected register, so we’re not going to remove them,” a BT spokesman tells us.
“The four boxes in this area do get some use. Between them they have two to three calls a day. The extra attention they receive from visitors means they are maintained more regularly than average.”
Andrew and Alexandra are being shown around the city by their fellow San Franciscan, Tom, who now lives here. Payphones remind them of their high school days. “I like that they’ve decided to hang on to something that’s so obviously outdated,” says Andrew. “It’s charming!”
“There’s one near where I live which has had its phone ripped out, windows kicked in, and is half-filled with garbage,” reflects Tom. “That’s just as charming as you’d expect a big, red garbage can to be.
“And yet, somehow, I’ve found myself taking a picture with this exact phone box more than once.”
The day passes, and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, walks past — but fails to get a selfie with the phone box. A man who looks like Michael Gove walks past, and gets the selfie with the phone box. (But looking at him a bit closer, he isn’t actually Michael Gove at all.)
This is a part of town where the Westminster’s notoriously insular ‘bubble’ gets pricked by the selfie-sticks of outsiders. It can be a tense relationship. And today, a few tourists aren't in a great mood.
Of course, the scaffolding-covered elephant in the room here is the under-repair Big Ben.
Judit and Albert, from Barcelona, swing by , cameras in hand. She’s seen Big Ben before, but he’s pulling faces over what will be a disrupted photo. “We will just have to come back again,” Judit tells us.
Lachun isn’t too disappointed. News of the refurb had reached her over in Atlanta, Georgia. “People from outside the UK actually know about the scaffolding. At least, they should know about it.”
Still, hard luck if you’ve travelled the world for the perfect Phone Box Shot at the present time. In a city centre plagued with M&Ms World, cretins on rickshaws, and many a levitating Yoda, it’s hardly London’s tackiest vice.
Ultimately, it’s a rite of passage. As Will and Isabella, from Missouri, say: “it’s London’s most cliched photo. But you have to take it. Otherwise it’s like visiting Britain but not going to a Wetherspoons.”