Nothing says ‘I love you mum/dad’ more than a museum visit. Am I right? Well, I must have done some AWESOME parenting this year, because this Mother’s Day I got to finally ride Mail Rail. Long term readers will remember we were one of the first to visit the Postal Museum when it first opened back in Summer 2017, but for technical reasons Mail Rail opened after our visit. So without further ado, let me share the rest of the Postal Museum experience – Mail Rail, Sorted! play area, and a cracking cafe too.
WHAT IS MAIL RAIL?
Mail Rail was the Post Office’s own underground railway which whizzed letters and parcels under London’s gridlocked streets. Its 8.5 miles of tracks ran from Whitechapel to Paddington, connecting postal sorting offices with train stations. From there, Travelling Post Offices sent mail across the country. When it opened in 1927, the Post Office Underground Railway was the first all electric, automated train service in the world. At is peak the service carried 4 million letters a day, with 200 staff running it 22 hours a day. When roads replaced rails as the main way of transporting mail across the country, the service was obsolete. After Mail Rail closed in 2003 it was all but abandoned, that is until the Postal Museum opened part of it to the public in 2017.
VISITING MAIL RAIL
The entrance to Mail Rail is at the side of Mount Pleasant sorting office, on the opposite side of the same street as the Postal Museum. You enter via Mail Rail’s former depot, used by engineers to keep the line running so efficiently. It’s a double arched space, with the train platform on the right, and the exit to the exhibition on the left. It’s best to start with a ride on Mail Rail.
On the day of our visit, the rides were not timed and it was only a short wait to board the train. Museum Girl watched the tiny train pull into the platform with great excitement. The whole line was designed to carry post rather than people, so it’s a very small train, but all four of us managed to squeeze into one compartment. I imagine if you’re tall or have older children you may need to split into two carriages. No bags are allowed on the train, so leave them either in lockers or the shelves at the platform. We chose the compartment behind the driver, but as all the compartments have perspex roofs and sides then I imagine you will get a great view wherever you sit.
THE MAIL RAIL RIDE WITH KIDS
Mail Rail is a 15 minute immersive ride through postal history. As the train leaves the station, a former Mail Rail engineer called Ray tells you more about its history via an automatic audio recording. We move through dark tunnels and abandoned platforms where the mail was loaded and unloaded from the sorting office above. The train stops and impressive digital projections cover the platform walls, telling us the history of the system, and its importance to everyday Londoners. We find out which movies it starred in, and how vital it was to the war effort – after being bombed in World War Two, one station was rebuilt within 24 hours.
The children were gripped by both the ride and the projections, and also loved looking out for the things that Ray highlights, such as the sandbags to deal with flooding. Museum Boy was particularly taken by the stalactites hanging from the ceilings. The ride is dark in places, and at one point goes pitch black to simulate a power cut – useful to know if you have a child who is scared of the dark. Saying that, Museum Girl was absolutely fine with it, and she often wakes me up in the early hours to complain about the lack of light!
Tip: if for any reason you can’t do the ride, there is a small cinema area showing the same commentary, just at the back of the museum.
THE INTERACTIVE MAIL RAIL EXHIBITION
But that’s not it! You exit the ride into the former engineering depot, now home to an interactive exhibition about Mail Rail and the people who built and worked it. It showcases old mail train equipment, and not just from the Post Office Underground Railway either. Children can climb inside a 1927 battery operated locomotive, used for over 80 years to rescue broken down trains or deliver equipment.
My favourite object is this 1863 pneumatic truck, an almost unique survivor of a Victorian experiment in moving the post underground. I say almost as the only other known survivor rests in the Postal Museum’s stores, in two pieces. It was sawn in half in the 1930s to remove it from its rediscovered hiding place.
And, if you have no idea what a pneumatic rail truck is – DON’T WORRY! The Mail Rail exhibition is full of hands-on engaging interactives which bring the objects to life. Museum Girl and Boy raced little trucks, propelled along their tubes by air. THAT, my friend, is what pneumatic power is – simply explained, in a fun game the kids loved.
Another hit was learning how to operate the switch frame, the machine which moved trains around the Mail Rail network. With its moving lights and joystick style operation, it reminded me of a vintage arcade game. Clearly low tech is the way to go, as the task inspired some rarely seen teamwork to follow the instructions!
But by far and away the kids favourite interactive was the replica Travelling Post Office. These special carriages meant postal workers could sort the mail on the moving train, reducing the time between posting and delivery. Here, you have to match the letters to the pigeon holes – whilst the floor shifts back and forth like a moving carriage! You need to read to play this game, as each place has a corresponding symbol. Choose whether to race against the clock, or compete against each other. At the end of your time, each pigeon hole lights up red or green, depending on how well you sorted your mail. This is fun for adults and children alike, and after countless goes I had to literally drag the Museum Kids away!
MAIL RAIL FAMILY TRAIL
Grab a FREE Mail Rail Family Trail from inside the depot. IAward winning illustrator Salvatore Rubbino designed it, who you may recognise from beautiful books such as A Walk in London. The trail is created for everyone but its cool facts and activities make it most suitable for children aged 5 to 8. Whilst our kids happily explored Mail Rail without it, it’s always good to have different things available for families. They even provide the pencils!
SORTED! THE POSTAL PLAY SPACE
If you have kids aged 8 or under, I highly recommend adding a play session at Sorted! to your ticket.
Sorted! is an indoor postal themed play space, a miniature town complete with post and sorting offices. From posting, moving, sorting to delivering the ‘mail’, there is plenty to do during your 45 minute timed session. As well as role play, there’s physical activity, from pushing cumbersome post trolleys to heaving sacks of post and sliding in the sorting office.
Additionally, there’s a reading corner and free family trail, although my two were rushed off their feet with their mail duties. It’s a light, bright and cheerful space with great attention to detail. The letter boxes, telephone kiosks and mail van are inspired by historic objects, some of which you can see in the Postal Museum.
Tip: You can buy Sorted! play sessions without purchasing a Postal Museum/Mail Rail entrance ticket (£4 online or £5 on the door).
THE COUNTER CAFE AT THE POSTAL MUSEUM
To refuel, we nipped over the road to try the Counter Cafe at the Postal Museum. With the children’s lunchbox offer you choose five items for £4.95. I was impressed by the quality of the ingredients, with mini brioche rolls and freshly squeezed juices. There was a good selection, including the healthy – fresh fruit, popcorn, yoghurts – and the treats. Both of mine were delighted with their chocolate crispie cakes! The rolls are on the small side – not that my kids complained as they never eat their sandwiches anyway. With all the other items included there was plenty to fill them up.
Meanwhile, us adults chose food from the hot menu. My Cobb Salad was fresh, tasty, and filling too! Museum Dad really enjoyed his ‘The Postal’ sandwich, made with roast beef, blue cheese and chutney in ciabatta. We found the prices reasonable, especially given the location and the quality of the food. The staff were welcoming and accommodating, cheerfully supplying extra dressing on request. This is one place we’ll definitely choose to eat at again.
Tip: You can visit Counter Cafe without a Postal Museum ticket.
ANNUAL POSTAL MUSUEM TICKETS NOW INTRODUCED
Another thing has changed since our last visit. Tickets now include one ride on Mail Rail (valid on your first visit) AND unlimited access to the exhibitions for a year. The Postal Museum itself (reviewed in this post) has even more for families, including hands-on and digital interactives, fascinating people stories, bright and wacky vehicles, historic dressing up for kids AND adults, and a Jolly Postman Trail.
And if you’re not sure if you will visit again, here’s two words: half term! The Postal Museum run a fantastic range of family activities during school holidays, all included with your annual ticket. Recent offerings include animation workshops, film screenings and crafts inspired by Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday. Never fear another half term again!
With a unique train ride, fun hands-on interactives, a cheerful indoor play area, family trails, free holiday activities, fascinating history and a great food offer too – the Postal Museum really does have everything for families.
The Postal Museum, including Mail Rail and Sorted!, is open daily from 10.00 until 17.00. Book ahead online for the best prices.
Tickets from Adult (25+) £16; Young Person (16-24) £11, Child (3-15) £9 (without Sorted!) or £11 (with Sorted!). Further discounts are available for disabled people. NB – Sorted! play sessions booked separately are £4 online (£5 on the day).
For more information visit their website: https://www.postalmuseum.org/
Disclosure: I was lead Curator of the Postal Museum (not the Mail Rail or Sorted! sections). The Postal Museum gifted our entrance and Benugo gifted our lunch in return for an honest review. We visited in March 2019 with Museum Dad, Museum Boy (6) and Museum Girl (4).
Linked up with A Diary of a Londoness for Cultured Kids.
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