Secrets of the Underground – Travelling the Mail Rail in London

 

An Open Street Map depicting the Mail Rail through the heart of London

 

Imagine travelling through a “secret” tunnel 70 metres below prime neighbourhoods of London! Not your usual underground metro tunnel lit by flashing neon signs or interspersed with crowded brightly lit metro stations. This ride takes you through a narrow 2-metre wide dark tunnel chugging through 10 kms of secret subterranean passages. A slice of history, as much as an object of fascination for history enthusiasts!

So if you are planning a trip to London, or have a travel itinerary that touches down at Heathrow, make sure to check out this latest surreal attraction of this historic city!

The Curvy Rail Network Tunnel, Photo Credit: Matt Brown

Secrets of the Underground

London has a whole world hidden underground, little known to outsiders or world travellers. Although many Londoners may have walked the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a pedestrian track running under the River Thames, there is much more underground history. While a Victorian street lies buried under a traffic island on the busy Charing Cross Road, the Guildhall Yard conceals a 2000 year-old Roman amphitheatre. None of these however, are open to public. So when the 19th century disused mail tunnel opens up with fanfare, there is bound to be excitement. The resident Londoner, and the world traveller who gets stuck on the curious and unusual, will not like to miss this extraordinary encounter with the past. What better way to experience the postal system of yesteryears, than riding the 2 ft-wide carriages through a dark old railway tunnel?

The Mail Rail – London’s new Postal Museum

“It’s like the tube, but for the post”, says the Guidebook, Atlas Obscura.  The Mail Rail has been re-purposed as a postal museum that moves beyond the usual museum narrative to an adventure beyond imagination. The underground rail network has been opened to visitors to enable them to engage with London’s underground history or the mechanism that went into daily mail carriage. The all-new Postal Museum has designed new rail cars that are superior look-alike versions of the century-old mail cars. The ride starts from the Mount Pleasant depot, and carries visitors on a 15 minute round-trip ride. In the true spirit of a historical museum, the ride allows visitors to watch video montages that tell the story of the Mail Rail.

So from the 4th September 2017, visitors can chug along these underground mail tunnels aboard diminutive wagons and conjure up visions. Did a mail bag carry a letter from a rural English countrywoman to her city-based sweetheart? Had a businessman mailed a desperate letter to his creditor? How a young boy looked forward to a birthday parcel from his father in India!

Cars-in-the-making, Photo Credit: Matt Brown

 

Attractions of the Mail Rail Postal Museum

Opened to the public on 28th July 2017, the Postal Museum attractions include a Mail Rail exhibition, and a kid’s play space that walks them through the process of postal operations. Exhibits are displayed in an engineering depot, with carriages and mechanics put out on show. What’s more delightful is its interactive platform, that allows you to control the mail line, see the trains that served the underground mail system, explore the mail rail engineering, and even get on to a moving travelling post office to race the mail against time! The main museum has stamp displays, posters and magazines from the 1950s. Initiatives like the Writing Home: Letters as a Lifeline resonate with stories of how letters and parcels preserved the family ethos during war, and financial downturns. The Postal Museum is constantly innovating to keep your adrenalin flowing, with the Londonist Quizzing and other events. If you want a themed birthday event like no other, you can also hire the venue for an explosive celebration.

 

The Sorted! Postal Play Space is an immersive corner for children, a great introduction to the mail system as it works today. It lends that everyday human element to the mail system, and allows children to learn while they play.

The Ride the Mail programme

It’s the star of the Postal Museum, with rides taking you through part of the mail route below Mount Pleasant in north London. The Museum authorities are making great attempts to spice it up. So you can even expect to come across train staff dressed up as travelling postal workers.

The battery-powered mail train has three carriages, with a locomotive at both ends. The train itself is 65 feet long, and the cars 5 ft high, fitted with eight passenger pods, each for four people. Plastic panels close down over the pod, encapsulating the passenger. Although the space is somewhat cramped, the challenge comes from being corralled in within a cubicle deep underground.  So if you are prone to claustrophobia or very tall, you may want to give the ride a pass.

Your ride through the rail tunnels is a course in history, waiting for you to unravel the secrets of an old mail system.

History of the Mail Rail

England has always been on the frontrunner of postal development, from the first postage stamp to postal reforms and innovations in mail transport.  Taking inspiration from Chicago’s subterranean freight train system, the underground Mail Rail system sought to cut the time taken to transport mail across the busy streets of London. A 6½ mile- long underground tube was constructed to service a rail system, not for human transport, but mail! The electric-driven trains operated at 40 miles per hour along 6.5 miles of underground narrow gauge tracks, 9 feet in diameter. All this action took place below the busy streets of central London. The network connected Paddington sorting office in the west to Whitechapel delivery office in the east.

Stations were closer to the city surface, about 70 feet deep. Mail bags were transported down to sorting offices or station platforms through chutes and elevators. Letters and parcels were carried under the busy districts of London, serviced by six sorting offices and mainline railway stations.

Towards the end of World War I, these tunnels were also put to use to store national treasures, like the Rosetta Stone and paintings from the National Portrait Gallery. During the World War II, these rail tunnels were a safe haven during air-raids, and ensured smooth transmission of mail. That the Royal Mail operated a parallel underground railway mail service was a secret, known only to the postal workers.

While Londoners remained clueless, this mail train plied for more than 75 years till it closed down in 2003, because of high operational costs. From 1927 the Mail Rail serviced the postal needs of the city, often functioning up to 22 hours a day to handle Christmas mail.

A Treasure for Philatelists, Historians and Museum Buffs

The collections of the mail transport system are systemically preserved and displayed for the pleasure of railway buffs and postal historians. Philatelic exhibits and postal archives also form part of permanent exhibits at the Postal Museum. The newbie collector will not be disappointed, too. There are plenty of hands-on activities in store, from “designing stamps to sending rolled-up messages via overhead pneumatic tubes”. The Postal Museum is indeed, a tribute to the social history of Britain’s Royal Mail.

As the much awaited postal museum finally opens up to the public and curious tourists, with tickets for Mail Rail selling out fast, it is time to take a ride on London’s Mail Rail.

Before you go

The Postal Museum is open 10 am to 5 pm. While tickets include entry to the Postal Museum, the Mail Rail exhibitions, and other events, the underground mail ride requires prior booking.  For booking and other information, you can visit the official website.  Want to know more? Check out this site on the postal history of mail rail.

 

Sangeeta is travel enthusiast and history buff who likes to explore the well-travelled as much as off-beat places. People, culture, cuisine and festivals fascinate her the most. At the same time, she can’t resist getting deeper into the geography and environmental nuances of the destination. For her, travelling is the ultimate way to live it up while drawing upon places and cultures for life’s valuable lessons. Sangeeta loves travelling as much as travel writing, and hopes to share her wanderlust experiences with you.

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