:: Blogtober is a blogging challenge whereby bloggers are encouraged to post every day for the month of October. Many of my post topics have been taken from suggestions by friends and family. In general, expect my posts to be shorter, more random and of inconsistent quality! ::
I love a bit of forgotten infrastructure. Crumbling, abandoned railway stations. Disused rail tracks, succumbing to nature. Roads that stop abruptly, destination forgotten. The Mail Rail is a 6.5 mile stretch of narrow gauge railway running under London from Paddington to Whitechapel, incepted in 1927. For decades it ferried tons of mail for 22 hours a day. The economy of transporting mail by road did for the line in 2003, but rather than lapse into total disrepair, the Mail Rail was cared for by a team of three engineers who hoped that it would have it's day again. And so it has come to pass.
The Mail Rail has not been pressed into service, hauling sacks of mail from west to east and back again, but as an attraction at the Postal Museum in Mount Pleasant. A short loop of track and some refurbished, pod-ish cars have been opened up to visitors to the museum. We have been waiting, keenly, for a ride. Tickets have been very popular and I have since discovered we were lucky to secure ours. In response to disappointment over the scarcity of tickets, the Postal Museum has now made a few walk-up tickets available.
Our boys both operate slightly or very outside their comfort zones at school, which takes up a lot of energy. Consequently, they enjoy the simple pleasures of home, an idle train journey, a swim, our local parks. They don't always leap up and down with excitement at the prospect of an "adventure". Of course, Ben and I want them to have time to relax, but we also want to broaden their horizons and see what our amazing city has to offer. Sometimes there are vociferous objections to "horizon broadening". On the morning, we were faced with fairly low-level grumbling, so we pressed on.
We visited on a Sunday, arriving by car and were very pleased to discover no parking restrictions on the nearby streets. The main exhibition space of the museum has a gift shop and a smart cafe attached, operated by Benugo. We tanked up on coffee and cake, etc and then headed over the road to the main depot to catch the Mail Rail. While the public-facing areas have been thoroughly refurbished, it is all pleasingly industrial. The stairs open out onto a large subterranean exhibition space which also houses the platform and tunnels. The boys were excited by this point, all grumbles forgotten, both impatient to get on.
The diminutive rolling stock trundled alongside the platform and disgorged their passengers, who unfolded like origami. The pods are small. Good luck if you are over 6 foot. Undeterred, we deposited our bags in the lockers provided and squeezed ourselves into a carriage with 4 seats. This is narrow, narrow gauge, but the circuit is only 15 minutes and there will be plenty to divert your attention away from your confines.
A friendly voice booms out of the darkness, Ray, a former Mail Rail engineer. He narrates the journey, pointing out where the track strikes out away from the loop towards Liverpool Street. He takes us back in time, through the Mail Rail's decades of use. The walls of the abandoned platforms host engaging kid-friendly multimedia projections, providing more insight into the role of the Post Office railway. Along the way, cryptic operational signs and a dartboard left in place allude to the lives who kept the mail moving. It's not a wholly sanitised experience, which I enjoyed. The bare concrete, the musty smell, the pale and spindly, stalactites clinging to the ceiling of the tunnel help connect you with the industry that took place beneath the city streets for 76 years.
It's a rattling, clanking ride and, having been warned that it was loud, we took along ear defenders for our young riders and they appreciated them. It might be worth preparing very little ones, or sensitive sorts, that the black-out half-way through is a dramatic interlude and the light will return in half a minute.
We arrived back where we started, exhilarated. After disembarking, there is a further exhibition which sketches in more detail about the work of the railway, including some fun, interactive exhibits and an opportunity to climb into a boiler suit and hard hat. Back upstairs, the boys were keen to check out Sorted!, the play space for kids (including a thoughtful coffee station for the grown-ups - sadly closed on our visit). It's a bright, cheerful space and they've put some thought into it. Children can can weigh and sort parcels, dress as post men and women and collect and deliver post around the mini 2D and 3D town. I loved the post code scanner a little bit too much. I wonder if I missed my vocation.
After all this activity and excitement, we were done, and the autumn sunshine was calling. So, we'll have to go back to see the main Postal Museum exhibition as it seems there is plenty more to see. The museum is an 8 minute walk from the wonderful Coram's Fields, which was where we despatched ourselves too. 7 acres of climbing frames, sand pits, slides, open space and a handful of farm animals. A good antidote to being underground. And the Foundling Museum is just around the corner, if you wanted to make it a Two Museum Day.
Want to read more? Another fine thing we like to do in London.