Journey back in time on London’s underground Mail Rail

Date Posted: 02/09/2017

A fascinating journey through history; Keeley Rodgers gets a sneak preview of the eagerly awaited Mail Rail which opens its doors, and tracks, to the public on Monday. 

As the doors close and the lights dim, it’s clear this isn’t your average train journey. In fact, we’re about to take the same route as millions of letters and parcels, on their way to be delivered across London. 

The 6.5 mile network whizzed mail across the capital from Paddington to Whitechapel for over 75 years, from the 1920s until its closure in 2003. Incredibly, trains ran every four minutes, every day, 22 hours a day. 

Up until now, it has been unseen, and largely unknown, to the public. But that’s all about to change as the new attraction opens up to visitors from Monday. 

There’s something very surreal about travelling across the network, which begins under the current Royal Mail sorting office in Farringdon. 

Descending into the tunnels, 21 metres underground, as we depart from what used to be the Mount Pleasant depot, you really are transported through decades of history. The voices of engineers fill the caverns with the workers telling us what life was like underground on the postal network. 

Aboard the Mail Rail at the Postal Museum

Photo credit: The Postal Museum

There’s an eerie but quite wonderful moment as we stop in one of the old sorting offices, complete with a darts board – displaying the last ever score. We’re told that apparently the postal staff had just about enough time in between each delivery to play a game. 

Stopping along our journey, the visual projections of how the network would have looked years ago really bring the seemingly untouched network of tunnels to life. 

You’re let into the secrets of what was written in some of the millions of letters that would have taken the same route. There’s a birthday message from a child to a certain Princess Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace and a love letter from a munitions worker to her sweetheart in the Navy. 

The new Mail Rail passenger train as part of the Postal Museum

Photo credit: The Postal Museum

The two new trains visitors will ride are based on the original design (and quite a tight fit) and take a ten-minute journey around the tunnel system. 

It’s very easy to imagine a bustle of activity on the platforms as workers sorted letters and packages making their way across the network. 

Beating the traffic 

The network first opened in 1927, the original idea being a way of beating the traffic posed by horse and carts, and at its height it employed more than 220 staff. 

When the system was abandoned in 2003, three engineers, including Ray Middlesworth, whose voice is with us along the tracks, kept watch and made sure the network was safe and free from flooding. 

The car depot and workshop

Archive image courtesy of The Royal Mail/Postal Museum

It hadn’t always been a smooth journey though; during the Second World War, a bomb damaged the tunnel in the Blitz, although workers made sure it was only out of service for a day. 

Ambitious project

The opening of the Mail Rail, following the Postal Museum’s launch last month, marks the end of a major project to bring the tunnels back to life for the first time in their 100-year history. 

Adrian Steel, director of The Postal Museum, said it represented a "truly historic moment for London". 

He added: “The Postal Museum offers people the chance to gain an insight into some of the quirky social history behind an incredible British invention – the post, whilst Mail Rail affords people a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore a slice of subterranean London, previously hidden from public view.  

"We have had a phenomenal amount of interest, and tickets are selling out fast, so booking in advance is highly recommended." 

The Postal Museum

A short distance across the road from the Mail Rail is the Postal Museum, which celebrates the surprising, and rather quirky history of Britain's earliest social network. 

Containing interactive exhibits, including designing your own stamp, it really brings the story behind the post to life. You can even take on the role of a Mail Coach guard, and become your own postie, racing against the clock to deliver your mail. 

Exploring the Postal Museum

Exploring the Postal Museum. Credit: The Postal Museum

Visitors can get up close to the various types of transport used for the mail, including a 1941 motorbike and a Bristol to London Mail Coach from the 1800s.

Other items on display include: 

A five-wheeled bicycle invented by the Victorians to cope with a huge increase in post.

A gold Olympic post box.

A priceless sheet of the world’s first stamps, the Penny Black – one of just a few sheets left in the world (all held by The Postal Museum).

As well as the interactive exhibitions in both the Mail Rail and Postal Museum, there’s also a dedicated family play area, Sorted!, which has been designed for children up the age of eight. 

Group bookings

There are exclusive rates for groups of 8+ and groups must book in advance. Slots are fully booked until the end of November but bookings for group visits from December onwards are available

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