The Postal Museum in London: a ticket to ride

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The wall by the Postal Museum, London
The wall by the Postal Museum

As Londoners, we have explored our home city pretty well over the years. We’ve enjoyed big attractions like the Science Museum, and sought out smaller ones like Dr Johnson’s House. We’ve travelled in different directions, from north to Kenwood House, across the river to the glories of Greenwich. So we were pretty excited at the thought of visiting a new museum – especially one with a ride…

The Postal Museum is great – I should say that straight up – and unique. It’s genuinely interesting (I had no idea that post boxes were originally green, for example) and has been very carefully thought out so that the interactive parts work well and also informative. There are loads of interesting exhibits and artefacts, and you can even design your own stamp!

The Mail Rail ride at the Postal Museum, London
The Mail Rail ride at the Postal Museum,
Where is it?

The Museum is on two sites, near the former Mount Pleasant depot in Clerkenwell, London.  The first involves the ride – on a real mail train – and for most people it’s the highlight. I should admit right now, that I could not bring myself to go on this as I don’t like very small enclosed spaces, but Brian, Robert and Jess really enjoyed their 15 minute journey and I could watch it all on a screen just behind the track, so didn’t really feel I missed out.

History in action

I can’t imagine that many people know that a postal railway network operated under London for much of the 20th century. It distributed letters and parcels across the city, from Paddington to Whitechapel (around 6.5 miles) on specially designed trains, cutting down delivery times dramatically and delivering millions of letters each day.

The driver on the Mail Rail rideIt was actually the world’s first driverless electric railway when it opened in 1927, and visitors can travel in a specially adapted train into these underground tunnels. They take you back in time, past a dartboard on a wall, which the workers – who loaded the bags of letters – used to play on between shifts, into the Blitz and even a powercut (I was glad not to be on the train for that one…..)

The service closed in 2003 – basically because we’ve stopped sending so much post (damned Internet!)

Once you disembark from the Mail Rail, there’s an accompanying exhibition which is well worth your time. You can see the original trains, try to keep the trains running by controlling the network (this was tricky) and sort the mail while the ground is moving (we all liked this one!).

The second half

After you’ve finished with the Mail Rail part, cross the road and walk up a little bit and you can visit the actual Postal Museum Exhibition. This is small, but really good, taking you right back to the history of the mail service, when Henry VIII was on the throne, to the present day.

You can see an original mail coach, a sheet of Penny Blacks, and the original sculpture of the Queen’s head which has been used on millions of stamps. You can also dress up, and find out about how the post was delivered in war time. I found this really moving.

Rare Edward VIII stamps on show
Rare Edward VIII stamps on show

There’s also a playspace “Sorted” for younger kids.

Robert, aged 13, says:

“I really enjoyed all the interactive activities to take part in that were scattered around the museum. You could make custom stamps that you could decorate with your face and an array of animated decorations. You could also play electronic games, one in which you pick which way to go to complete the quickest delivery route and another in which you make important decisions regarding the safety of the mail, your passengers and your deadline to deliver. Those activities were really fun although they weren’t something you would want to do numerous times.

“However, there was one activity I could’ve kept doing for hours (which I almost did!). It was the pneumatic mail delivery tubes and involved writing messages before placing them in mail capsules and then pushing them into chutes which transported your message all around the exhibition before dropping it off at the alternate station. Whoever was at that station would then write back so you could have a fun conversation with the person the receiving end.”

An original green postbox
Postboxes were originally green!

All in all, we would recommend The Postal Musem as a great day out for all ages. You should book the Mail Rail in advance as it gets extremely popular and afterwards, either eat in the cafe, or take a quick walk to Exmouth Market, which is full of shops and stalls.

Need to know

The Postal Musum is open every day from 10 till 5pm

Entry to the exhibitions costs £11 for adults and is free for children.

A trip on the Mail Rail and the exhibitions is £17.45 for adults and £10.45 for children.

You can find more information on the museum’s website.

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2 Responses

  1. Christine

    I’ve had this on my radar since the Mail Rail ride opened. Haven’t quite managed to get there yet but I’m even more determined since I read your post. Good to see that the rest of the museum is worth visiting too.

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