Postal Museum, Mail Rail: London's underground mail tunnels get a new lfe

There is a bulky chap sitting next to me and we are shoulder to shoulder, bottom to bottom. It's the closest I've been to another man since, well, pretty much ever. And we've only just met.

Of course when the purple-shirted attendant shoehorned him into the tiny train compartment I was already occupying and closed the curved plastic roof to within centimetres of our heads we, both being British, merely nodded 'hello'.

Behind us, two of his mates are similarly ensconced and there is much light-hearted ribaldry about getting to know new people and the size of our backsides. I laugh along and think, 'It really is a male train.'

Welcome to Mail Rail, the newest subterranean ride in London.

Part of an old unmanned rail system used to move the post around swiftly under the congested London streets, Mail Rail, which opened last September, is not for the claustrophobic, that's for sure. We are about to chuff off in what is essentially a toy train, through tunnels no wider than two metres at their narrowest point, in cramped carriages just 130 centimetres floor to canopy, 80 wide and with leg room of 43.

And it's wonderful. Just 15 minutes but … who knew?

I get to Mount Pleasant an hour or so before my appointed trip – it's so popular that it's best to register online first or risk disappointment – and use the time to visit the Postal Museum across the road.

Here, in a bright, happy space decorated in enough primary colours to make even the most sanguine preschooler wet their pants, the history of the Royal Mail is laid out in an IKEA-like snake maze.

It's a veritable cornucopia of fascinating historical artefacts, including old uniforms, a London-Bristol mail coach, stamp collections, postboxes through the ages, motorbikes, post buses, bicycles and interactive sections. There's even a dress-up box should you feel the need.

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From the creation of a royal mail system (for himself, of course) by Henry VIII 500 years ago to the world's first stamp – the famous Penny Black – in 1840 and beyond, the museum shows how the Royal Mail evolved and survived through the ages.

There's even a section devoted to the odd things that people have sent through the post – such as frozen fish and live scorpions. One story tells of a goose received from Ireland that blew the oven doors off after a bottle of home-brewed spirit hidden inside the bird exploded.

Across the road in the former engineering depot, though, is where the main game awaits 21 metres underground. The Post Office Railway, known as Mail Rail since 1987, operated from 1927 until 2003 when it was closed completely.

The 610-millimetre, narrow gauge, driverless railway line ran 10 kilometres from Paddington sorting office in the west to the eastern district sorting office at Whitechapel. It had eight stations, the largest of which was underneath Mount Pleasant, and began running in time for the Christmas parcel post in 1927 with letters following from February 1928.

Today, there are two trains running – one red, one racing-car green – every 20 minutes or so. On the 15-minute journey, which reaches a maximum speed of 12km/h, the miniature train trundles through dark tunnels not much bigger than the vehicle itself, accompanied by a running commentary on the history of the line and the people who worked on it.

We learn, for instance, that at its peak the underground mail railway carried four million letters every day and that 200 staff worked pretty much around the clock to keep it running.

At several points the train stops at the original platforms where old newsreels and films are played on the walls to give an idea of what life was like working there. Some of the commentary is from the former workers themselves. There's also a short stop to look at a section of tunnel known as the mail train graveyard, where old engines and the like have been left to rust in peace.

After the ride, it's worth taking time to wander through the various relics on display from earlier times. One such artefact is one of the pneumatic cars that presaged the Mail Rail. First used in 1863, these driverless, bullet-shaped metal cars were propelled by air pressure from huge steam-powered fans and shot through small tunnels just three metres underground between Euston Station and a nearby sorting office. "Goods vans … shall disappear for ever from the streets of London," thundered The Times newspaper.

The concept was soon abandoned but not before one brave Victorian lady undertook to be shot through the tube "crinoline and all, without injury to person or petticoat".

Maybe things were better in the old days; if the bloke next to me had been wearing a petticoat they'd still be trying to winkle us out of there.

TRIP NOTES

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www.traveller.com.au/london 

www.postalmuseum.org 

TOUR

London's Postal Museum is open seven days a week. General admission tickets (includes Mail Rail ride and exhibitions) cost from £14.50 for adults and from £7.25 for children. Open every day (except December 24-26) from 10am-5pm. Last train departs at 16.30. Loose articles are not permitted on the ride – all belongings must be left in cages before boarding.

Keith Austin visited the Postal Museum at his own expense.

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