Who wouldn’t want to ride on a secret underground railway? Over the years I’ve spent some energy trying to get underneath the giant Post Office at Mount Pleasant to see the fabled ‘Mail Rail’; next year anyone will be able to take a ride on it in return for money.
The London Post Office Railway was operational for nearly 70 years, from 1927. Tiny, driverless trains quietly beetled through a network of tunnels that in some ways rivalled the better known passenger tube. Delivering mainly letters when it was first built, the carriages were neat and small. There were ‘stations’, points, routes and ‘lines’ on the 2ft, narrow-gauge railway, which had its own map – for the privileged few allowed to see it.
It continued through WWII, when it had a second, top-secret job as a repository for priceless works of art, records and other precious items hiding from the Luftwaffe the same way human Londoners were sheltering in the tube.
When the railway closed in 2003, the workers just down-tooled. Pretty much everything was left as it was. It’s still there. Piles of old computers, books, desks, cables trunks, elderly computers and even a couple of Christmas trees sit forlornly on long platforms not unlike their London Underground cousins.
Heritage fanatics, Railway fans and Philatelists (of whom, let’s face it, if you were to create a Venn diagram, might just overlap a little…) including me were all worried when Royal Mail mothballed the railway, fearing it would just moulder away, so I am more than delighted that it’s to become the centrepiece of the Postal Museum, a brand new visitor attraction dedicated to five centuries of communications history.
The museum sounds great – it will include artefacts, records, memories and, of course, stamps that really bring this most modern of concepts – social media – to some sort of context. It’s surprising stuff – expect pirates, highwaymen and even a lioness.
I can’t wait – though in many ways I’ll have to. When TV Historian Dan Snow weilded a well-aimed sledgehammer at an old office that’s not part of the original underground railway and needs to go, he made the first whack at the construction part of the project.
They’re not doing much to the actual tunnels – they want them to speak for themselves, peeling paint, grimy rails and all – but they do want to make it an interesting experience.
As visitors take the 1km train ride that’s the highlight of the experience.
No one considered fire-exits for driverless trains full of letters), so it’s unlikely there will ever be access to the full 10.5km but the ride will be filled with enough interesting stuff for that not to matter. Visitors will be transported back through time, to moments in the railway’s history from its opening through the turbulent war years through to its closure.
It’s due for opening in early 2017, 90 years after the trains first trundled those teeny tracks. I shall be at the front of the queue.