diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Postal Museum
Location: Phoenix Place, London WC1 [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm
Admission: £17 (free/£6 for Art Pass holders)
Five word summary: letters, and a miniature railway!
Website: postalmuseum.org
Time to set aside: a couple of hours

The very excellent Postal Museum opened three years ago, but I've taken my time to visit (for reasons to be explained at the end of this paragraph). It morphed out of the British Postal Museum & Archive in 2017 and relocated to new premises in Mount Pleasant within the footprint of Britain's largest sorting office. It's on a split site, with the museumy bit and cafe on one side of the road and Mail Rail fractionally downhill on the other. Your £17 ticket covers both - that's one ride on the railway and a year's admission to the rest. But if you have an Art Pass the museum comes for free and a Mail Rail ride is just £6, and that is postal-tastic.

The museum is a walkthrough of postal history (plus thematic clusters). The first royal mail service was initiated by Charles II, who liked what he'd seen on the continent, and expanded to mail coaches crisscrossing the nation. One particular anecdote about an escaped lioness gets undue prominence amid the displays, educationally speaking, but at least it livens up the interactive bits. Pretty soon Roland Hill turns up and invents the Penny Post, which kickstarts the modern postal service, and then we're into pillar boxes, post vans and air mail. Whoosh, you can send a message to the other side of the museum through a pneumatic tube. Blimey, nothing beats commemorative stamp designs of the 60s and 70s. Lo, an actual Post Bus. They're all here.

What you're not getting is depth. When the BPMA had a giant storehouse in Debden this boasted pillar boxes of every age and size, which were amazing, but only a handful of the more interesting ones have made the journey to Mount Pleasant. Stamps are tiny things so a complete chronology would be technically possible, but barely a couple of hundred feature in the corner display. Don't worry, there is a proper archive upstairs for those who want to take their research further (open Tuesday-Saturday only), whereas the downstairs displays have a broader audience in mind. Sit around in the mini-theatre long enough and they'll even screen nine minutes of Night Mail for you, so no complaints.

At the end of the circuit is an exhibition space which for the next couple of months is focusing on the Great Train Robbery. It also features a bundle of stories from the wider casebook of the The Post Office Investigation Branch, because otherwise there'd be empty walls. But 1963's most notorious crime takes centre stage, and it's fascinating to listen to witness testimony and to see actual evidence from the farmhouse hideout (including a recreation of the incriminating Monopoly set).

Your Mail Rail ticket is tied to an hourly slot, so time your crossing of the road carefully. I thought I'd been clever by arriving at the end of my slot rather than the beginning, then got to share my ride with a class of schoolchildren. That's Tuesdays for you... but the infants were wide-eyed and engrossed throughout, so absolutely no trouble. London's Mail Rail was built to carry envelopes and parcels rather than passengers so the carriages are teensy but not impractical (although visitors over 6ft may disagree). An operative locks you in and brings down the transparent roof, as if you're being despatched at a fairground, then down the ramp you go.

As you enter the curving tiny tunnel, it's important to remember that GPO operatives never actually did this, only sacks. A running commentary helps explain what you're seeing, why it's here and why tunnels keep branching off in various directions. Mount Pleasant was the heart of the London Post Office Railway network with tunnels knotted round in complex loops, so you'll be threading some of these for about a kilometre, not escaping towards Whitechapel.

Before long the bore gets wider, then double-tracked, then you pull in on an actual Mail Rail platform. One side still has its dartboard from when the working environment was mothballed in 2003. The other wall makes a really good screen, because this is where the audiovisuals kick in. It's not quite no expenses spared, but it is all-encompassing and creatively smart. Sit near the centre of the train for the best view. There'll be another film to watch when you finally get round to the westbound platform, this time on the opposite side of the train. It all makes for an unexpectedly good fifteen minute ride, with more subterranean variety than you'd expect... plus there's a bonus gallery to explore on your way out.

All in all a winning package, professionally delivered. But you'd expect nothing less from the Postal Museum.

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