Going Underground

The all-new Postal Museum has just opened and the public can now ride the subterranean Mail Rail for the first time. Andre Paine meets the engineer in charge of the hidden train tunnels beneath Clerkenwell.

When was the last time you posted a letter? Email and social media may have taken over our lives, but a new museum in Clerkenwell documents five centuries of the post. Based in Phoenix Place, the Postal Museum’s big attraction is the subterranean ride on the ‘secret’ Mail Rail network.

Originally launched as the British Postal Museum & Archive in 2004, it was a low-key visitor experience. Not any more: the £26 million relaunch aims to make it a major tourist destination. It seems our neighbourhood is becoming a heritage hub following the recent opening of The Charterhouse and the Museum of London Smithfield development plan.

Mount Pleasant, one of the country’s busiest mail centres, is also getting an overhaul with controversial plans to redevelop part of the area for luxury flats. The site was formerly home to the Coldbath Fields Prison before opening as a sorting office in 1885.

The Mail Rail underneath Mount Pleasant launched a few decades later, operating from 1927 until 2003. It was completely hidden – the public probably weren’t even aware of the automated trains running between Paddington and Whitechapel. Mail Rail sorting offices were linked with mainline railway stations.

Ray Middlesworth has worked on the Mail Rail as an engineer for 30 years. Since it was mothballed in 2003, he and a few colleagues have been responsible for maintenance. Apparently, the biggest problem is water: almost 100 pumps are used to prevent flooding.

In recent years, Crossrail’s tunnelling work has required careful monitoring. “In a few places it comes quite close to us,” Ray tells The Post. He also keeps an eye out for urban explorers, although some visitors have been granted official tours along the narrow tunnels. Now everyone is welcome on the miniature railway, which is opening to the public for the first time.

While Mail Rail is getting much of the attention, the museum is also benefiting from a major relaunch in new premises with the help of Heritage Lottery cash. The galleries and collections include a pistol used by a Mail Coach Guard to defend the post from highwaymen, a sheet of Penny Blacks and a Victorian pillar box. Tickets to the museum (£16 for adults) include a 15-minute journey from the old depot around Mount Pleasant on the route the mail sacks once took – but at a more leisurely pace on new passenger trains.

The interactive and rather cosy ride will feature an audio-visual display taking passengers back in time. “It’s an amazing experience to explore this hidden world,” says museum spokesman Harry Huskisson.

“You’re getting the actual physical reality plus a narrated history of the railway,” adds Ray. He makes his way around the network on his own train: a bright yellow, battery-powered locomotive from 1926 known as the Banana. It sounds like a lonely job compared to the heyday of the Mail Rail when hundreds of people worked in a busy, noisy underground environment.

“It took a few years to get used to it,” says Ray of the closure. “I always joke that I turned around one day and everyone had gone.” He made the final logbook entry (“end of service”) at Mount Pleasant. Mail Rail was decommissioned because road delivery was cheaper.

“There was a spirit about being on the railway,” says Ray. “It was a bustling community and a lot of people’s lives revolved around it.” It could also be tough, physical work for staff hauling heavy mail containers on and off the trains. “Occasionally a train would derail,” says Ray, who had to work swiftly to get the service back on track.

It’s much quieter down there now, but after 90 years the hidden underground network is finally open to the public. It’s a welcome development for Ray, who’s retiring after 43 years with Royal Mail.

“For us working down there, we all thought the railway was important and it would be a shame if it just slipped into history without any sort of recognition,” he says. “In a way it’s coming back to life – it’s probably going to be more well-known now than it ever was during its operation.”

The Postal Museum, Phoenix Place, WC1X 0DA