With four lively kids in tow, opting for a museum which tells the story of the last five centuries of British postal history might not seem like an obvious choice.
“I think it is going to be boring,” worries my friend’s 7-year-old son, as we meander past sleek tower blocks and snug, Victorian pubs on our walk from Farringdon tube station towards London’s Postal Museum.
I’m willing him to be wrong. After all, it was me that had suggested turning our back on London’s big names – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and The British Museum - in favor of a trip to this lesser-known place, in an area populated by office workers rather than tourists. I reassure myself that the museum promises interactive exhibitions, a playroom and a subterranean train ride. Surely, it can’t be all dull? So we enter, and I keep my fingers firmly crossed.
The Postal Museum – in its current form - is a relative newcomer to London’s museum scene. It opened in its new building in 2017, breathing life into its collections and telling the story of Britain’s postal heritage in an accessible and hands-on way. The museum itself is split into two buildings, each a short stroll from the other. One houses the museum’s permanent exhibition, a counter-service café and a well-curated gift shop; the other contains the Sorted! play space, a further gift shop, and access to the Mail Rail.
The Mail Rail is often billed as the star of the show; treating visitors to a fifteen-minute ride on a dinky postal train. The journey whizzes through narrow tunnels, seventy feet below the streets of London. This hidden rail network opened back in 1927, with the first driverless electric trains providing a vital part of the postal system. It stopped its commercial operation in 2003, although in its heyday Mail Rail carried 4 million letters every day, for 22 hours a day.
As tickets for the Mail Rail are booked for a specific hour-long timeslot, and our slot wasn’t quite yet, we began with the main exhibition. From first glance, I suspected this would be the least kid-friendly part of the museum. But, despite the abundance of beautiful displays featuring vintage postal memorabilia, there was plenty to occupy our restless little gang too.
A Jolly Postman trail (inspired by the beloved children’s book), lots of dressing up opportunities (with both big and small sizes) and touch screen games were all very welcome diversions. It was the stamp design area and the ingenious pneumatic delivery tubes which were the firm favorites though. Our boys could have spent all day shooting secret messages across the gallery. But our Mail Rail time had arrived and, fueled by promises that they could come back to the pneumatic tubes later, we headed to the other building.
As the museum warns, the Mail Rail isn’t for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. There is also a moment when the train stops in a pitch-black tunnel to mimic a power failure – which might be worth reassuring nervous children about beforehand. That said, it was a fun adventure of a ride, which featured lively commentary and multimedia projections on station walls. For children (or adults) who don’t fancy climbing onboard, a film of the journey is showing around the corner, ensuring no-one misses out.
The exhibition following the Mail Rail is also lots of fun – with buttons to press, facts to absorb, and the chance to experience the difficulties of sorting the mail while standing on a moving train. And as if this wasn’t enough, we still had our slot at the Sorted! play area to come.
Like the train, timeslots must be booked for the play area. The sessions are suitable for 8s and under and last 45 minutes. It is also possible to book to come solely to the play space and skip the rest of the museum. A good option for those with very young toddlers. As this is a popular session, it is worth reserving a time at least a day or more in advance. It is worth it though. This cute little town provides kids with trolleys to push, letters to post and uniforms to don. Even our seven-year-olds threw themselves into the role play with gusto.
There is so much to recommend the Postal Museum. The shop isn’t cheap (this is London after all) but it is stuffed full of cute souvenirs, ranging from postbox keyrings to secret message sets. Ambitious about Autism have also worked to make sure autistic and neurodiverse visitors will feel welcomed. This includes some morning events where autistic visitors and their families can enjoy the exhibitions when they aren’t too busy. Throughout the school holidays, there are plenty of other family-friendly events too.
Not that there aren’t a few minor grumbles. The ticket price isn’t inexpensive. However, given the amount on offer, and the fact the ticket gives unlimited access to the main exhibition space for a year, it represents fair value. The online ticket booking system did feel complicated - and it is easy to miss booking a slot for the Sorted! play area. The café is decent, and includes an outside seating area, although the chance to bring a picnic would be a plus. Still, it is possible to leave the museum and return later, so visitors keen on a packed lunch can head to the nearby Coram’s Fields, which is home to a good-sized playground.
All in all, though, this is a wonderful, kid-friendly place. And during our visit, it came without the overwhelming crowds of many of London’s other attractions.
So, while the tourist hordes flock to London’s renown museums in South Kensington, I’ll be over here quietly espousing the virtues of The Postal Museum. And don’t just take my word for it, even our initially hesitant children agreed; it was an awesome day out.