It’s not often that a new subterranean railway buried beneath central London gets opened to the public, let alone one that you can take a ride on without using your Oyster card. Well, get excited London – the old Post Office Underground Railway (aka the ‘Mail Rail’) is set to be turned into an underground ride for the reopening of the British Postal Museum & Archive’s new Postal Museum.
It took 14 years to build, first opened in 1927 and industriously chugged along underneath the capital, transporting post from Paddington to Whitechapel until it closed in 2003, since when its lain dormant. The Mail Rail is something of a London legend – made more so by the fact that it’s never been open to the public or even press. Until now.
After getting the go-ahead from Islington Council to reopen part of the track to the public, the British Postal Museum & Archive allowed us to come down and have a poke around before they spruce it up. I knew that the tiny mail-transporting trains, purpose-built tunnels, track maps, old signage and machinery would get my London nerd pulse racing.
However, I wasn’t prepared to find a whole load of other amazing stuff down there. On entering the Mail Rail maintenance hall (above), which will be the start of the ride, it felt that time had been frozen in 2003. It was as if the 200 people who staffed the Mail Rail had walked out of work yesterday and left everything ready to return again the next day. Tools had been left half-way through jobs, there were old newspapers, lockers full of personal ephemera, a darts game half-played, discarded books and some very creepy graffiti. It felt like a scene from ’28 Days Later’.
Once we’d had a good nose around through this ghost town, we descended to platform level for a ride on the Mail Rail at long last. The train was never meant to carry people, until a special VIP coach complete with tiny leather seats and royal crests was built in 1977 to mark the train’s fiftieth anniversary.
If you think the tube is cramped, this is a whole other level of cosy. I practically had to sit on my photographer’s lap for the ride! But the squash was worth it. It feels magical to be allowed into this secret underground network and as the carriage noisily barrels along the tiny tunnels covered in stalactites, it’s amazing to think how many letters (and how few people) have been through here.
The whole experience is rather surreal. This was only augmented by the fact that we stopped in the middle of the tunnel to admire the crude drawings of the 12 days of Christmas on the walls. What the heck are they doing down there, I hear you cry?! Well, it’s quite a good story. Back in 1991, Bruce Willis came down into these very tunnels to film a not-so-well-known film called ‘Hudson Hawk’. For those of you who haven’t seen it (and don’t rush out to), there’s a scene where he’s supposed to be on the Vatican Railway. Sorry to shatter your dreams – but he’s not in Rome, he’s in Clerkenwell.
The film studio gave the Royal Mail lots of money to shoot down there and because they’re a state institution, they couldn’t accept it, and so they decided to use it to fund Christmas train trips for disadvantaged kids. Hence the Christmas scrawlings in the tunnel. I hope they preserve them because they’re pretty trippy and worth a look.
In fact, the whole place is so steeped in history that it makes perfect sense to turn it into an immersive educational journey for the public. The word ‘ride’ is slightly misleading as this won’t exactly be a theme park roller coaster or log flume, but by turning it into a full audio-visual historical experience when it opens in 2016, the Museum hopes that visitors will be able to revel in the joy of riding on the train while learning some of the amazing stuff that took place down here. We’re looking forward to it opening but glad we got to capture it as it looks now. Long live the Mail Rail. Sonya Barber
Find out more about the new Postal Museum at postalheritage.org.uk.
See pictures behind the scenes at: