I recently visited the Postal Museum in London to ride the Mail Train. A great place to visit if you are keen on trains or discovering bits of hidden London. Or both.
A little bit of history
The Post Office Railway or Mail Train was opened in 1927 and was a driverless narrow-gauge railway running under London’s streets to deliver the mail to the various sorting offices. Run by the Post Office, it was devised as a solution to the problem of the capital’s congested streets and it sorted and transported our letters and parcels 22 hours every day, seven days a week until 2003. Ultimately it closed due to costs, it being cheaper to use lorries above ground, and the whole system of tunnels and trains were mothballed complete with the last shift worker’s ghostly locker contents.
It sat there for years whilst various uses were considered including an underground cycleway for Londoners but eventually it was decided to open it to the public and allow people the opportunity to travel under the streets in the former parcel-carrying carriages.
The full route runs from Paddington in the west to Whitechapel in the east and there were eight stations where mail crews would load and unload sacks of mail for redistribution. Sadly you only get to travel on a shorter 15-minute loop around Mount Pleasant but it is still worth the trip.
The train itself
Bookings are given for an hour’s slot and you queue for the next available train. We managed to get in the front carriage (out of the way small boy) but these days there is a driver, so it isn’t an unrestricted view. The carriages or cars are very small but not so that it feels uncomfortable, my mail train companion being well over 6ft tall and easily inserted/removed. It does feel a little like a model train ride at a theme park and there were lots of children there but once you start down the tracks it just becomes quite fascinating. There are regular stops to explain where you are and how the system worked and then once in the station there is a film explaining the history of the railway which you watch from your train seat. It is surprisingly warm and not at all damp feeling and the clear roof on the trains allow you to see everything around you. I was fairly desperate to explore the rest of the tempting tunnel networks but it was not to be.
Stop press…. the Mail Train tunnels are now being opened on selected dates for exploration on foot. Current dates all sold out unfortunately, but you can request notification of more opportunities. Click here to find out more.
Included in the price is admission to the Postal Museum which is a small but worthwhile history of the Royal Mail. Here you can learn that originally receivers of letters rather than the senders paid the postage, leading to much correspondence being written on the outside: that way it could be read and then refused by the recipient to save money. Before the advent of the Penny Black, a letter could cost the equivalent of 12 loaves of bread! You can send a message via pneumatic tube (careful now, small children may intercept it), see the original green postboxes and there was also a fascinating though temporary display about the SS Gairsoppa. This merchant ship was sunk off the coast of Ireland during WWII and later discovered nearly 5km down (that’s deeper than the Titanic) with much of its mail cargo preserved. Many of the 700 letters and photos are on display together with the history of its sad last journey.
There is also a slightly mad exhibition of cats in postman hats which have auditioned for the role of official mouser, following the sad demise of Tibbs the Great. You can download the hat template should you wish to make a cat-pplication (not my pun!) on behalf of your pet.
All in all a good afternoon out for adults and children alike and though not cheap, it is a (formerly) hidden part of London, which is always worth a look.