Mail Rail at The Postal Museum gets my stamp of approval

On Friday 28th July The Postal Museum opened to visitors for the first time and from 4th September onwards you’ll be able to take a ride on London’s latest heritage attraction, the “Mail Rail”. Tickets for both are now on sale at postalmuseum.org.

Ready to board the 'Mail Rail'?

Ready to board the ‘Mail Rail’?

So what is ‘Mail Rail?

Mail Rail is the secret Post Office underground railway which lies 70ft below the streets of London, which at its peak, carried 4 million letters across London every day! Its full route used to run between Paddington in the west via the Mount Pleasant hub (where the museum is) to Whitechapel in the east with 7 stations in total.

When opened to the public in September for the first time in its 100 year history visitors will be able to enjoy a 20 minute subterranean ride through 1km of the original tunnels in modified carriages. The original trains were designed to carry post and not human beings! However presenter Dan Snow managed to squeeze into one and he’s’ 6’ 6” so most people should be OK. They can’t make them much bigger than they are due to the size of the tunnels!

Going through the Mail Rail tunnels

Going through the Mail Rail tunnels

An abandoned station still with its dartboard

An abandoned station still with its dartboard

The opening of the Postal Museum marks the end of an ambitious project to convert a disused Clerkenwell printing factory into the new museum site, and bring the disused ‘Mail Rail’ tunnels back to life. Once in their new Clerkenwell home somebody from the team enquired with the Royal Mail what they would do with the tunnels, which literally set the train wheels in motion.

Visitors will descend into the former engineering depot of the 100 year old Post Office railway and board a miniature train designed to transport them through its stalactite-filled tunnels. Mail Rail’s interactive train ride lasts approximately twenty minutes and will pass through the tunnels that run beneath the Mount Pleasant sorting office, stopping at the original and largely unchanged station platforms where an impressive audio visual display will give an insight into how the railway kept post coursing through London for 22 hours a day. Clever technology and projection mapping will transport people back in time to help them understand the impact of the railway on our ability to communicate with people across the world.

Mail Rail Mount Pleasant location

Mail Rail Mount Pleasant location

And if you’ve ever watched Bruce Willis’s film ‘Hudson Hawk’ you might not have realised that the underground station in The Vatican was actually filmed in London’s ‘Mail Rail’ tunnels.

Bruce Willis in the film Hudson Hawk

Bruce Willis in the film Hudson Hawk

After the ride visitors will be free to wander through the cavernous engineering depot, turned exhibition space. Stepping into a replica of a real-life Travelling Post Office, the floor will start shaking as visitors try and sort the mail just like a real-life traveling postal worker.

Mail Rail Exhibition with original yellow metalwork

Mail Rail Exhibition with original yellow metalwork

The Mail Rail exhibition shaking train mail room

The Mail Rail exhibition shaking train mail room

And the Postal museum?

Aside from the “Mail Rail” the museum gives visitors the chance to gain an insight into some of the quirky social history behind an incredible British invention – the post.

Celebrating the surprising and quirky history of Britain’s earliest social network, the post, The Postal Museum contains five zones, leading visitors through five centuries of world-class curiosities and providing a different view on some of the world’s most significant historical events.

Other items on display include:

  • My favourite, the sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II used to produce the iconic image replicated more than 220 billion times on stamps.
  • A gold Olympic post box.
  • A priceless sheet of the world’s first stamps, the Penny Black – one of just a few sheets left in the world (all held by The Postal Museum)
Postal Museum Queen plaster cast mould

Postal Museum Queen plaster cast mould

‘Mail Rail’ is something I wasn’t even aware of so it’s fantastic that it’s being opened for the public to experience. Who would have thought all these tunnels have been laying dormant below out feet as we stroll above on the pavements of central London.

Address:
The Postal Museum
Phoenix Place, Clerkenwell, London WC1X 0DA
postalmuseum.org

I was invited to attend The Postal Museum as part of a press trip.

mail-rail-looking-down-the-tracks

Looking down the Tunnels (c) The Postal Museum – Miles Willis

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Driving a vintage Fiat 500 around Tuscany Italy

I’ve always wanted to drive an original Fiat 500 ever since my pal Hornblowertravels mentioned them many years ago with his ultimate goal of driving one back to the UK across the Alps. That never happened but while planning a week’s break to Florence (inspired by the Dan Brown book Inferno) everything suddenly fell into place and we booked an all-day Fiat 500 group tour to see what they were like!

Posing for some pictures at our first pitstop

Posing for some pictures at our first pitstop

We chose My Tours’ 8.5 hour trip as we wanted to experience driving one for the day and not just be behind the wheel for a token half hour or so. It also meant we could see the stunning Tuscany countryside from behind the wheel before being city-bound in Florence for the rest of our 4 night stay there.

So how does the day work?

You meet outside the chemists in Florence train station at 9:00 before a short walk to the company’s mini bus. Our trip consisted of 3 couples plus a family of 3 driving the Fiat 500s and 8-9 people riding brand new yellow Vespas. It was a tough call which option we wanted to take beforehand when booking but in our case the thrill of driving a 1960s Fiat 500 won us over and that’s what we went for.

At the garage waiting to choose our Fiat 500s

At the garage waiting to choose our Fiat 500s

After an hour’s drive out to their garage in Badesse you sign the mandatory consent forms, presumably to confirm 3rd party cover and not any 1st party damage (maybe I should have read mine a bit more carefully), have a photocopy taken of your driving license and a credit card, and then one-by-one you take your chosen Fiat for a practice drive in their large car park. The other 3 parties in our group had already edged over to the colour car they wanted leaving us with a dark blue one, albeit we later found out that ours was the oldest in the group being a 1968 model. The practice “spin” is so they can see you’re fit and able to drive before going out on the open road, My “training” consisted of 1-2 laps with one of their three employees, 3-4 on my own and then 3-4 laps with my girlfriend in the passenger seat.

A selfie stick view out of the sunroof

A selfie stick view out of the sunroof

I’d driven a left hand drive manual car before so it all came quite naturally, although ours had a quirky start lever just in front of the handbrake and reverse gear was found by pushing the gear lever down, right and then back which took a few attempts to properly engage. With such a light car, albeit with such a small engine, a few rear-wheel wheel spins were inevitable what with the car park consisting of gravel. It has quite a snappy little clutch too but it felt oh so lovingly mechanical compared to modern day cars.

A dashboard eye view as we drove along

A dashboard eye view as we drove along

Once the training was all done and dusted you head off into the countryside. Our 4 Fiat convoy followed behind the 8-9 line of Vespas. In our group a Spanish mother/daughter paring didn’t feel confident enough in their light blue Fiat so a member of staff drove for them instead.

What it looked like behind the wheel

What it looked like behind the wheel

We subsequently found out you can hire Fiat 500s for solo hire but it gives you a lot of confidence being in a group, a) as you can simply follow the car in front and b), there’s a bit of a “safety in numbers” factor, although any other cars on the road seemed just as pleased to see us as we were to be in the cars ourselves. There wasn’t one single toot of anyone else’s horn all day which was great particularly as along many stretches of road we were rarely getting above 40mph.

Passing by beautiful Italian cypress trees

Passing by beautiful Italian cypress trees

Our first stop was after about 20 minutes in a lay-by with a view of the surrounding hills. In my own car I wouldn’t have been worried but as we’d parked up on a slight incline just beyond a bend all I could think was “hill-start, hill-start, hill-start 🙂

The first proper stop was at the town of Castellina in Chianti for 30 minutes or so, just long enough to savour the pretty little town, pop into the town’s street-side market and to check out the small shops selling bottles of the chainti. Leaving the town car park I was sandwiched amusingly in-between two “normal” cars, and it’s here where I struggled to get it into reverse, inching ever closer to the wall in front of me! On my third attempt I found it, got it into reverse and caught up with the rest of the group.

Our little Fiat 500 sandwiched between two big BMWs

Our little Fiat 500 sandwiched between two big BMWs

 

Struggling to get into reverse and getting ever closer to the brick wall in front of us

Struggling to get into reverse and getting ever closer to the brick wall in front of us

From Chianti we headed along the winding rows with many hundreds of Tuscan cypress trees lining the road. Soon we arrived at the Poggio Amorelli winery. Yes wine tasting and driving! Mmmm! Nothing was said before, during or after about this, and I was mindful that the Italian blood alcohol percentage is actually lower than the UK’s. My girlfriend had any wine that I didn’t drink … and there was a bowl to pour wine into if you didn’t want to drink it all! 🙂 So just one small glass for me but washed down with some tasty cheese and meats as everyone in the group sat around one huge table, flagged either side by wine barrels.

Having lunch at the Poggio Amorelli winery

Having lunch at the Poggio Amorelli winery

With slightly more bravado post-wine we left the winery and headed onwards! The rest became a bit of a blur. Not due to the wine, but just due the enjoyment of being in great company in a great little car amongst some amazing scenery. When we arrived at the village of Castello di Volpaia for another quick pit-stop an American in the group could only politely moan about the lack of bathrooms! This isn’t Disneyland lady! It’s a 1000 year old castle!

Parked up at Castello di Volpaia

Parked up at Castello di Volpaia

 

The views from Castello di Volpaia

The views from Castello di Volpaia

From there it was onto an ice cream/gelato store and then back to the garage. 70km under our belts, no incidents, no breakdowns and a thoroughly enjoyable day out! I would recommend this trip no end.

It was here that we reflected on our little Fiat 500 for a short while. I’ve never driven an original Mini but I imagine they’re pretty comparable. They really aren’t very wide and are oh so dinky! We never did get into 4th gear but it was ever so nice to drive. Ours had a sunroof that slid right back allowing us to stand up and look out through it too … when stationary that is!

Find out more at My Tours

The Fiat 500s 70km later back safe and sound

The Fiat 500s 70km later back safe and sound

Posing in another one of the Fiat 500s at the Chianti winery

Posing in another one of the Fiat 500s at the Chianti winery