Everyone loves a good secret, a piece of history with colourful stories to tell. And it doesn’t get much better than a secret on your doorstep, waiting to be uncovered.
Many visitors to the capital - and even many Londoners - have no idea that such a place lurks underground in Clerkenwell, sleeping under the Victoria Line. But this special place will not lie dormant for much longer.
It was announced back in 2014 (RAIL 734) that Mail Rail (opened in 1927 and formerly known as the Post Office Underground Railway) was to open to the public for tours as part of a new postal museum at Mount Pleasant. The 6½-mile (10.5km) line had transported letters across London between sorting offices, before being mothballed in 2003 when it no longer became viable.
The British Postal Museum and Archive needed to raise the not inconsiderable sum of £22 million in order to make opening it a reality. The original plan was to open the main Postal Museum this year and then open the Mail Rail portion in 2019. But after raising a total of £26m, the whole museum will now open together - two years early - in 2017.
Adrian Steel, director of the newly named Postal Museum, opened a ‘breaking ground’ event on February 4 to mark the transformation of Mail Rail from a sleeping time capsule into a site that will help to tell the history of communication.
The name Postal Museum conjures up images of stamps, post boxes and red vans, but this new experience is about much more than that. As Steel said at the February 4 event: “This is about five centuries of social history from an institution that changed the world.
“The stories within will surprise and enthral, spark curiosity, push the boundaries. We aim to become a high-class, immersive and innovative experience, which everyone will want to visit. Here at Mail Rail, the stories of endeavour and ingenuity, which saw the mail move across distances long and short, in all sorts of weathers and by a workforce rich in diversity, pride and spirit, will take centre stage.
“The tunnels will resound with an audio-visual symphony for the passengers of our two new Mail Rail trains, which will take our visitors on a journey through time under London of postal past.”
It has taken years of fundraising to get this far (starting long before 2014). Royal Mail, Post Office and the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed the lion’s share of the funds, but a host of trusts, foundations and individuals also donated to the cause.