Here’s a mind boggling fact for you – almost every museum has more in its collections than it can ever put on display. Usually the places they are stored aren’t open to the public, being working spaces not set up for visitors. The London Transport Museum Depot in Acton is different, designed to open a few weekends a year. It’s a rare chance to go behind the scenes and explore over 320,000 transport related objects. With a jam-packed schedule of special activities, talks and tours, each Open Weekend has plenty to keep kids entertained. We’ve enjoyed three family visits over the years, with kids aged from three to ten. Let us take you on a family-friendly tour of London Transport Museum Depot.
VISITING A MUSEUM STORE WITH KIDS
A museum store is where objects are stored and cared for when not on display. It’s worth noting that visiting a store is a very different experience to visiting a gallery. For example, there won’t be many – if any – text labels, things are stored close together, and most of the historic artefacts shouldn’t be climbed on or touched. But we’ve never felt anything but welcomed during our family visits. The team put on plenty of activities to keep little (and big!) hands busy, including excellent crafts, vintage bus rides, large toy sets, and operating parts of tubes themselves! Every open weekend has a different theme, so even if you’ve been before there will be something new to try. This guide includes images from our two most recent visits, to help give an idea of what there is for kids at the London Transport Museum Depot.
TAKE A HERITAGE BUS RIDE
First stop – a restored heritage bus ride! These free short rides depart frequently from outside the front of the depot, so we like to hop on before we even get our entrance tickets! It’s the bus rather than the views which are the star on this circular drive around Acton. On our last visit we hopped on board a prototype bus which was a precursor to the much-loved Routemaster. The kids loved sitting on the top deck, and were astonished when a conductor issued them each a ticket, straight from a historic ticket machine. We use contactless and Oyster cards so much I forgot how thrilling a simple paper ticket would be for young children. Different historic buses operate on each Open Weekend.
PICK UP A MUSEUM DEPOT OPEN WEEKEND GUIDE
Back at the depot, make sure you pick up a guide at the front desk, which has a plan of the store and listings of all the day’s activities. There’s so many different things going on across the store that it’s easy to miss things. The guide is the key to getting the best out of your visit.
FAMILY ZONE ON THE MEZZANINE
Near the entrance is a large mezzanine, home to the Family Zone. The highlight activity from our most recent visits was Braking Experiment. The challenge was to get the train from one side of the magnetic wall to the other, using only magnetic tracking and gravity. It involved angles, team work and a lot of testing – Museum Boy loved it! We’ve also seen huge train sets laid out to play with.
The space also hosts craft activities, designed to be challenging enough for parents to join in too. Last time we made some rather impressive rosette badges to celebrate our favourite tube lines. Unfortunately the card was too heavy for the glue to hold for long. No matter, we enjoyed making them and the homemade badges from our previous visit were more successful. As with all the crafts here, all materials are provided and you can take your work home with you.
NB – both mezzanines are accessible for wheelchairs and buggies.
THE TRAIN DEPOT
After time on the mezzanine, head down to heart of the store. You can’t miss it – whole underground trains stretch its length. But these aren’t like any your child will have been on before, with many dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the underground trains are opened up so you can go inside, sit, and marvel at the wonderfully evocative interiors. Those that are being restored are particularly interesting as you can see how they are made.
On our last visit, a very enthusiastic volunteer opened up panels to show the inner workings of the door operation. Considering how excitable Museum Boy was that day, the volunteers showed only patience and warmth as he bounced his way along the carriage and rattled every handle and knob he could find.
At the back of the depot are doors to the courtyard. There are often activities here too. Last time we made underground train seed planters, inspired by a charity working to set up volunteer-led gardens across London Overground stations. The kids coloured tube collars and chose seeds to plant in them. Museum Boy’s was Pokemon themed, of course!
It’s here where Museum Boy tried virtual reality for the first time. Using a program developed to train real engineers how to fix tube trains, he carried parts and put them in the right place. He enjoyed this so much he did it twice! Aged 4, Museum Girl was too young for this activity.
And this was the place to get some free face painting during last year’s Family Open Weekend. As you can tell from the pictures, the results were great, and well worth the short wait.
Outside the back is a large concreted courtyard area. It’s a bit of a suntrap, so make sure you slather on suntan lotion before your visit. There’s usually more activities here – last year we made paper historic buses complete with passengers and turning wheels. This fun craft had lots of detail which kept us all engrossed – indeed Museum Boy was so proud that his bus is still up on his wall!
At last year’s Family Open Weekend there was a bouncy bus too! Be warned – it’s an extra pound per child, cash only, and the time slot of a couple of minutes is strictly enforced. It wasn’t there during our April visit.
Each time we’ve come there have been different historic buses in the courtyard to clamber onto. As the stairs are usually very steep, children need to be accompanied on these buses. In April we saw this 1960s bus with its cheerful orange moquette, which had everyone smiling! On our last visit we saw the battle bus, restored to show how London buses were converted for use at the First World War frontlines. There’s usually someone on the vehicles to answer any questions – last year, a lovely volunteer spent time showing Museum Boy all the different features, including how the knifeboard seats flip sides.
And if you getting peckish, there’s a selection of food and drink stalls, including some delicious looking wood fired pizzas. We normally bring our own lunch to eat in either the indoor or outdoor picnic area. A special shout out to Mini Bean Coffee. In my hungover state I stupidly mixed up my decaf and caffeinated coffee. When I asked if they could tell which was which, they kindly remade me both, at no extra charge. I greatly appreciated being able to enjoy my delicious coffee without fear of a headache!
Toilets and baby change are located in the courtyard.
THE BUS DEPOT
We normally head to our left as we reenter the depot, passing through where the buses are stored. On our first two visits this space was home to impressive model train sets, built by enthusiasts. Pictured is a model of Buckingham Palace, made from one of my childhood favourite toys – Fabuland! The children loved watching the trains move through these imaginative worlds. However, some exhibitors had signs instructing parents not to let their children touch the enticing sets, which was a little off-putting. I wonder if that is why I can’t see any model shows listed in future events. That’s a shame as the bus space did feel empty without them. Just incase they do make a reappearance, its worth having a few quid on you as we’ve bought little lego models and vehicles from sellers here. And as there is a large London Transport Museum shop in the depot, there’s always other ways to spend it!
DISCOVER HOW THINGS WORK ON THE UNDERGROUND
If your children want to know how things work, make sure you look out for the deconstructed Victoria line underground carriage. The children eagerly pushed buttons to open and close the tube doors, and were amazed to hear the train ‘moving’ as they operated the ‘dead man’s switch’. And hopefully you won’t have to answer any complicated engineering related questions, as they were retired tube drivers on hand to explain it. Phew!
THE LONDON TRANSPORT SIGN MEZZANINE
Before you leave the store, to your right hand side is another mezzanine. If you have the energy, it’s well worth a peek. Its home to thousands of London Transport signs, packed tightly together in racking. Seeing so many obsolete signs at once is mind boggling, and I think getting a sense of the scale of these vast collections is one of the joys of visiting a museum store. It’s fun to browse the narrow aisles together looking for stations you know – although the impromptu game of hide and seek my kids wanted to play left me a little nervous!
TOURS OF LONDON TRANSPORT MUSEUM DEPOT
And that’s not all – tours of the stores run through out the weekends, some of which are aimed at families. Mine are a bit too squirmy for tours still. However, I did have an adult tour of their magnificent poster collection here once, and highly recommend it. There’s over 14,000 in the collection, covering over 100 years of graphic art.
MINIATURE TRAIN RIDE
We save one last treat for the end – on the way back out, there’s a little miniature train which adults and children can both ride on! Take a short ride to the end along the side of the depot and back. The rides take cash only, and cost £1 per person. It’s a lovely way to end a fun family day out.
2019 LONDON TRANSPORT MUSEUM DEPOT OPENING DATES
London Transport Museum Depot Open Weekends take place three times a year, usually in April, July and September.
NB – If you can, try and make the July Open Weekend as all of the activities are aimed at families. However, as we found on our last visit there’s still plenty for little ones to do on other dates.
The remaining 2019 dates are:
13 and 14 July 2019, 11.00 – 17.00
A weekend dedicated to families. Includes musical storytime, heritage restored bus rides, Bus King Theatre puppet show, little engineer activities, costumed characters, make a seed train tray, and rides on the miniature railway.
28 and 29 September 2019, 11.00-17.00
Inspired by the golden age of travel, with a spotlight on London’s rail termini. Further event information to be released.
Adults £12, Concessions £10, LTM Friends £6, Children go FREE
For further information visit: https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/open-weekends
Disclosure: We were gifted free entrance to the London Transport Museum Depot in April 2019 in exchange for an honest review. We have previously visited the depot in July 2018 and 2013(ish), when we paid for our entrance.
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