If you’ve travelled by tube in London recently, its been hard to miss the adverts for Mail Rail – the ones with the strap line ‘Abandoned. Lost. Forgotten.’ (Sounds like this blog. Sorry about that. That’s a rather long story I’ll save for another time!)
Mail Rail is the Post Office’s own underground railway, and part of the newly opened Postal Museum in Clerkenwell (and one of the things I’ve most been looking forward to this summer). Whilst the tiny mail train won’t be taking paid visitors until the kids are back to school, there is plenty for families to do at the Postal Museum this summer. Best of all, throughout the summer holidays children get in FREE with an adult exhibition only ticket, including all family activities.
We’ve had two visits to the Postal Museum, a one hour trial run with Museum Girl’s nursery and a more leisurely 3.5 hour visit on its opening weekend. And both times the kids LOVED it.
Last weekend we began our visit by hanging out in the courtyard, with its living wall and letter boxes. The kids loved dressing up in historically-inspired postal uniforms and spent AGES pretending to drive the early mail van.
Museum Girl took advantage of the free face painting to have a ‘lioness’ face – more about the postal connection later. Museum Girl however doesn’t care for historical accuracy and insisted she was a tiger – and as you know you can’t argue with a three year old!
Meanwhile Museum Boy flatly refused to do the beautifully printed Jolly Postman letter writing activity and instead insisted one of the volunteers bring him ‘a plain piece of paper’.
Much to the volunteers credit, he sought one out without complaint, only for my son to fold it into a paper aeroplane and repeatedly throw it around the shop. Sigh. Although I think Museum Girl upped the anti by cuddling a £20 soft toy, transferring some of her lioness face paint onto it in the process. (Sorry about that too.)
Escaping the shop, we took the kids for a ‘magical storytelling session’. Told through rhymes, toys, pictures and dressing up, it’s the true tale of THAT lioness – the one who escaped from a traveling menagerie and attacked a mail coach. Museum Girl was wildly confident, having seen the whole thing with her nursery group a few weeks before. On that occasion, the story had the whole group of two to three year olds enthralled for nearly half an hour, much to mine and the nursery staff’s surprise!
With that experience under her belt, Museum Girl was now the first to jump up and volunteer for activities / dominate the story. Museum Boy in contrast was not sure about the whole thing, watching quietly. What I really appreciated was Olivia, the story teller’s, skill in drawing out the quieter children, and getting them involved too. Olivia checked with MB he was ok with noises, and gently encouraged participation, picking up on his quiet interest (whilst Museum Girl was attempting to hog the limelight).
They also wrote their first ever postcards to themselves, which they got to post. For free. Score!
By this point a few hours had passed and we still hadn’t seen the actual museum! The displays are a small space which tell a big story – the history of the postal service, from its royal origins in 1516 to the present.
The displays are bright and colourful, with lots of things to touch and do for little, inquisitive hands.
There’s a selection of dressing up – this time with grown up, over 5 AND under 5 sizes in each style. Handmade with wonderful detail, each has info about the people who would have worn the real uniform in the past, from mail coach guards to First World War postwomen. Despite my eagerness, I couldn’t convince either child to twin with me. Spoilsports.
Museum Girl’s favourite part was the touchable table about that sneaky lioness with had a button to play posthorn sounds, and the dark box you put your hand in to trigger a lioness’ roar. Whilst she wouldn’t put her own hand in, she kept dragging me back and giggling every time I set it off. Conversely, Museum Boy was terrified of the thing, so that was quite a hard juggling act! For older children there are digital games and a touchtable to explore the collections in more detail.
There’s a Jolly Postman trail throughout the gallery at child height too, with flaps to open and letterboxes to peer through to discover child-friendly facts.
Transport is a key theme – from the clumpy boots and pistol that postboys would have carried on horseback in the early days of the post, to a bold nineteenth century mail coach, a preposterous five wheeled cycle, a 1930s telegram messengers motorcycle, a tiny 1930s van that looks like something Postman Pat would drive, and a 1970s postbus with cheery yellow roof.
There are some world firsts here – look out for the complete sheet of Penny Black stamps, the worlds first stamp and the only complete sheets of it in the world (minus the couple that were torn off and given to dignitaries before they came to the museum. Tsk tsk.) It’s easy to miss – like Museum Dad did – but well worth searching out. There’s also a rare Victoria Cross, the highest bravery award, given to a member of the Post office Rifles battalion for his role in the First World War.
The post office ran the telephone network for over 60 years, so there’s an iconic K2, the first red telephone box, and the K8, the last red telephone box. Side fact: the K8 is actually much rarer than the K2. Geek.
Oh, and of course there are letter boxes, in all different colours for even the young kids to find – including a red Edward VIII box, made before his abdication; a green Victorian box; a blue airmail box from the 1930s and a gold box from the 2012 Olympics.
In the museum space we encountered a couple of theatre performances by the Big Wheel Theatre company. Whilst one I found a little hammy, the second was brilliant and had whole families seizing their chance of five minutes of fame by starring in an audience acted play about pigeon post during the First World War. Some visitors looked way too happy pretending to fire weapons around the gallery!
Still smarting from the kids’ refusal to wearing matching postal uniforms, I needed little encouragement to take part in the pop-up photo booth. Before you could say ‘What time’s the last post?’ I was dressed up like a letter box and grinning for the camera. Embarrassing mum alert.
— Museum Mum (@museum_mum) July 29, 2017
With the kids reaching their limits, we skipped the temporary exhibition with its meet an author event and headed off. We came off quite lightly in the gift shop/exit, with the littlies opting for some pocket money-friendly branded notebooks at £2 each. The shop had some bespoke ranges and gifts for those hard to buy people, like this gorgeous postal themed washbag – I’ll definitely bear it in mind when gift shopping.
You can tell it’s a new museum – a few parts feel unfinished, like the letter writing table with a bare display top, and a few of the interactives hadn’t survived the first day of toddler bashing – pneumatic tube, I’m looking at you! But these didn’t detract from our visit and the tubes were due to be fixed the next day.
When Mail Rail opens in September, the museum is likely to get much busier. I’m really pleased we got to enjoy the museum without the crowds – and am looking forward to revisiting later in Autumn, to road test the train, soft play and cafe with the kids. I hope you get a chance to visit over the summer too!
If you’re super speedy, you can catch this weekend’s Family Extravaganza, with a jam-packed timetable of family friendly activities, all free with an exhibition ticket. Otherwise they have at a family activity on every day of the school holidays, including things we didn’t try – like designing pop-up cards and messages in bottles. After the summer holidays, there will be a regular programme of weekend and holiday workshops including arts and crafts, storytelling, science shows and much more. Keep an eye on this part of their website for details of family events.
PS – Museum Boy’s postcard arrived yesterday, much to his shock. ‘How did this get here?’ he asked. If only I’d just taken him to a museum about that… looks like we need that repeat visit!
Disclaimer: we were given free entry in exchange for an honest review. I was also lead Curator of the Postal Museum, although I can take no credit for the family activities. i asked Museum Boy’s for his (always brutally honest) feedback. “It’s great, say that”. So I have 😉
THE BARE BONES
The Postal Museum, 15-20 Phoenix Place, London WC1X 0DA
Ticket prices for Exhibition Only (including voluntary Gift Aid donation):
Adults (16+): £11
Concession (60+, student): £9
Child (15 and under): Up to 4 free per paying adult
See website for prices including Mail Rail / Sorted! play area from 4 September 2017.
Advance booking is recommended for Mail Rail and Sorted! Family activities are on a first come, first served basis so turn up early to avoid disappointment.
Baby change: One baby change facility in the disabled toilet, with fold down baby change and working strap.
Toddler time to toilets: They’re on the same floor as the displays, so you can do it in a minute or so. Allow more time for when in the storytelling/activity space upstairs.
Nearest playground: It’s less than ten minutes to the quiet Spa Fields playground, reviewed here: http://www.maternityleavelife.com/features/2016/8/11/spa-fields-playground-clerkenwell-ec1
Want to make more of a day out of it? I lied. The nearest playground is the marvellous Coram’s Field, a seven acre playground and park just over 5 minutes away. You can only get in with a child, so it might be the only time having a child feels like a backstage pass. Well, almost. With a children’s centre, cafe, small farm, sand pit, water play and lots of play equipment, some of which will challenge even older children, it’s a great place to spend a few hours.