Hail the Mail Rail at London’s perfect Postal Museum.
Envelopes! Letters! Stamps! Postman Pat! Yes, the post is basically adorable (or as the curators put it, ‘the world’s first social network’) but how to bring it to life for the TikTok generation? Luckily, the Postal Museum has found the answer, deep beneath the streets of the capital – and they’ll be throwing open the doors the public once more on October 29. (See more of London’s best museums.)
You see, there’s long been a ‘secret’ underground train beneath London that hasn’t appeared on any tube map. The mysterious ‘Mail Rail’, known only to the posties of the capital, transported post from Paddington in the west to Whitechapel in the east for over 70 years. The tunnels were so secret that they were actually used as a hiding place for some of the British Museum’s greatest treasures, including the Rosetta Stone, during WW1.
When the Mail Rail was closed down in 2003, it became an irresistible target to London’s urban explorers, determined to explore the snaking 6.5-mile network by fair means or foul. Occasional glimpses of the subterranean system would go wildly viral, by 2004 standards. And so the fine folks at The Postal Heritage Trust wisely opened it up to the public to explore!
Visitors to the awesome Postal Museum can actually ride the Mail Rail on specially designed carriages, trundling along the very same tracks as the parcels of yesteryear. Narration and projections on the tunnel bring the experience to life, showing how the system used to operate. Honestly, if you are in any way a London, tube or transport nerd, it is BLOODY ACE. Those wanting a longer, lingering look at the nooks and crannies of the Mail Rail can now embark on a guided tunnel walk – find your tickets for those here.
The Postal Museum has plenty more stamps up its sleeve, however. It opened in 2017 across two buildings in Farringdon, and was a finalist for Art Fund’s Museum of Year back in 2018. In the Mail Rail building, there are interactive exhibits that explain how the system works, including a hands-on, shaking-train mail-sorting challenge, and a signalling simulator giving you the opportunity to trigger your own major industrial accident.
Upstairs, there is a kids play area giving little’uns the chance to write things, send things, sort things, and deliver things, and I’ve never wanted to be five years old again more. (Although sadly, this is now set to reopen later this winter.)
Head across the street to explore a major exhibition dedicated to the history of the Royal Mail – and it’s not all red vans and avoiding dogs, y’know.
The Royal Mail’s first job was to deliver crucial messages from the King or Queen – we’re talking military orders, political missives and even parcels full of gold, here – which meant the first posties were prime targets for spies, highwaymen and rebellious aristocrats. Unsurprisingly, they travelled armed to the teeth, and the museum definitely has several more guns than I was expecting.
There’s an opportunity to dress up as postal workers of days gone by, send messages zooming across the museum via pneumatic tube, and see some vintage Royal Mail vehicles from yesteryear. We particularly liked the Royal Mail Post Bus, which served remote rural communities by basically offering people a lift into the next village with the postman. Cute!
Other exhibits curate the gorgeous design heritage of the Royal Mail and the arrival of airmail to these sleepy shores. Meanwhile, new exhibitions for this autumn include one investigating the planning and execution of the Great Train Robbery of 1963 (complete with observation reports, witness accounts, and more), and how the Post Office Investigation Branch traced the perpetrators of this and other crimes. It runs until December 31, and joins the myriad delights of the museum.
The Postal Museum is a first-class addition to London’s array of museums, and absolutely earns the Secret London stamp of approval. Check it out sometime!
Location: 15-20 Phoenix Place, WC1X 0DA. Nearest station: Farringdon. Find it on Google Maps.
Opening hours: 10:30am-6:30pm on Thursdays, 10:30am-5pm Fridays to Sundays.
Price: adult tickets are £16, child tickets are £9 – advance online booking is essential.
More information: on their website.
Also published on Medium.