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21 September 2022

In praise of the honesty box

In Shetland and elsewhere, remote fridges and larders update a tradition of snacks dispensed in good faith.

By Felicity Cloake

A little model house by the side of the road saved my life a couple of weeks ago. After cycling 90 briskly undulating kilometres to the most northerly hotel in Britain, only to discover the kitchen was closed, I hobbled to the local pub (also closed) – and there it was. Lifting the hinged wooden roof revealed a treasure trove of neatly wrapped parcels: gingerbread, lemon drizzle and chocolate crispy cakes, all surprisingly modestly priced given the remote location. I emptied my wallet into the adjacent tin, and, as I replenished my sugar levels, gave thanks for the enduring popularity of the honesty box in Shetland.

In fact, the islands have brought an old idea, once used for everything from bus fares to newspapers, into the 21st century; fans of the BBC detective series Shetland will be familiar with the illuminated roadside cake fridges which enable enterprising locals to sell ice cream, cheesecake and trifle alongside the more usual bannocks and brownies.

Elsewhere on my two-wheeled travels around the UK, I’ve seen sheds, American-style postboxes and even old microwaves repurposed as weatherproof larders for eggs, preserves and sacks of muddy spuds. Foreign correspondents report purchases of avocados in Australia, oysters in Alaska and cheese in Switzerland (where, of course, the vendors take credit cards).

I suspect the charm of the honesty box system is as powerful a sales tool as the produce itself – the feeling of happy serendipity as you happen upon an unexpected treat, coupled with the warm glow of being trusted to do the right thing. So when someone does abuse that trust, it’s far more likely to make headlines in local newspapers (accompanied, inevitably, by a picture of a disappointed child or furious smallholder brandishing their empty cash tin) than theft from more conventional businesses. To steal is bad enough, but to steal from a honesty box… Well, that really takes the biscuit.

[See also: Architecture Notes: The Queen at the National Portrait Gallery]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke