Los Angeles Times
It was one of those bright-but-chilly mornings that are ideal for wandering around sun dappled London parks. Instead, I was deep underground in a grubby old tunnel waiting for a train. But rather than hopping on the Tube, the shiny green carriages trundling towards me looked considerably less roomy.
Mount Pleasant’s Royal Mail sorting office has been the center of London letter processing since 1889. But during its pre-internet heyday, shuttling vast volumes of paper correspondence on congested city streets was a huge headache. The solution? Building a mini subterranean train line to keep the mail moving.
From 1927 to 2003, Mail Rail zipped untold sacks of letters between sorting offices on 22 miles of private subway track. Like a secret little Underground line, few Londoners knew it existed – until a new Postal Museum opened here in 2017 and the railway was reinvented as a unique ride for visitors.
Ticket in-hand, I started in the brick-arched subterranean depot where the locos were once serviced, an oily whiff scenting the air like the toolsheds of old relatives. Several grease-streaked engines are on display – each the size of a refrigerator on its side – alongside time-capsule employee lockers bursting with grimy coveralls.
The original trains weren’t designed for passengers – the compact carriages were crammed only with bulging mail sacks – so natty new cars have been built to fit its fresh role as a ride. After joining the excited queue, I inched towards the open green doors of what resembled an elongated fairground miniature train.
Almost like sitting in a snug fighter plane cockpit with a curved Perspex ceiling, I settled onto my tiny bench seat, enjoying the kind of legroom budget airline passengers would recognize. Glancing ahead as the doors snapped shut, I saw excited kids and giddy middle-aged train buffs glued to their windows. Soon, we were sliding towards a dark tunnel mouth little bigger than the train itself.
Entering the tunnel, an audio narration from a retired Mail Railer described how the “giant train set” operated, with workers sorting letters at floodlit platforms en route. I imagined a close-knit gaggle of men discoursing loudly on football, beer and tabloid headlines. There was even a dartboard on one platform, suggesting the workers knew exactly how to keep themselves occupied between trains.
Rumbling through tunnels lined with studded iron ribs and streaked with electrical cables, we juddered past sandbags placed to halt runaway trains back in the day -- plus ghostly retired locos lurking on spooky disused sidings. In years past, the train reached 30 mph but today’s more sedate pace enables passengers to view the route.
There were brief stops at two platforms, where short movies projected onto the curved walls told stories of wartime bombings and the olden-day process of handwriting letters and having them delivered several days later – perhaps a puzzlingly novel idea to some of the train’s younger passengers.
Twenty minutes later, we were back where we started. Hopping off, I climbed the steel stairs and crossed the street to the main museum site, an old redbrick building that took several years to adapt. The new museum explores 500 colorful years of UK mail history from red-painted stagecoaches and the 1840 introduction of the Penny Post system to the ever-evolving art of stamp design through the decades.
I spotted the first-ever Christmas card (sent in 1843) and discovered that Britain’s famous red pillar boxes were originally green – necessitating a color change when countryside locals complained they couldn’t see them across their bucolic fields. Yesteryear public information films were also being screened, including 1936’s celebrated Night Mail, depicting the rat-a-tat London to Glasgow letter-sorting train.
In typical autumnal fashion, the next day of my London visit started with a rain-lashing tempest that had me searching for shelter. But rather than sticking to a standard indoor itinerary, I hunted down some of the city’s other tunnel-related attractions, uncovering several subterranean gems with stories of their own.
Unlike Mail Rail, Victorian London’s most famous tunnel was intended for full public use. But the locals had a long wait for access. The problem? Building the long-dreamed-about Thames Tunnel beneath the river – the world’s first tunnel under a major waterway – was a challenge few had the engineering chops to deliver.
The tiny Brunel Museum tells the story of what’s now seen as one of London’s great engineering feats, although it was a huge white elephant in its day. Built by Marc Brunel and his illustrious son Isambard Kingdom Brunel – their only project together – the 1300-foot-long tunnel aimed to take horse-drawn carts under the river, easing the heavily congested boat traffic above.
But with flooding, collapses and bankruptcy fueling a 15-year overrun, the tunnel was destined to be a commercial flop. Poking around the museum’s information panels and glass cabinets today – it’s housed in one of the tunnel’s old pump houses – I learned that after its 1843 opening, not a single cart ever trundled through.
For a short time, curious Londoners paid to promenade along the underwater route, enjoying stalls and fairground sideshows en route. But it was too late to make the project a success. In 1869, the Thames Tunnel was sold to the fledgling London Underground system and – 192 years after it was started – it’s still used by trains on a daily basis, testament to a project far ahead of its time.
A smarter underwater stroll
A far more successful under-the-river route, Greenwich Foot Tunnel opened in 1902. Aimed at pedestrians, it replaced a ferry that often failed to deliver area dockers to work on time. Now, its redbrick-and-glass rotunda entrances – like oversized bowler hats on opposite riverbanks – take locals, tourists and cyclists (who are supposed to dismount but often don’t) between the north and south banks of the Thames.
Like strolling a floodlit train-free Tube line, the white-tiled 1,082-foot tunnel dips in the middle and feels colder at its center, 49 feet under the river. For today’s visitors, the tunnel is often a quirky add-on to their Greenwich visit – the Cutty Sark clipper ship and popular National Maritime Museum are not far from its southern end – but picture-postcard views of Greenwich’s handsome Georgian skyline from the north side’s Island Gardens are also worth the short underwater walk.
On my visit, I was surprised to find the tunnel’s glossy-tiled walls almost completely devoid of graffiti – the polar opposite of the final tunnel I went looking for underneath London’s historic Waterloo Station.
I’d heard about Leake Street Tunnel many years ago but had failed to find it after making a half-hearted exploration of Waterloo’s sprawling perimeter. This time, though, I located the turning off York Road and joined the enthusiastic camera-wielders walking through a floor-to-ceiling ‘gallery’ of ever-changing street art.
Every tunnel inch of Leake Street is covered with graffiti. And while quality varies – the authorities allow street artists to practice here and anyone can leave their mark whatever their skill level – the stand-outs for me included oversized spaced-out aliens and Family Guy characters making pithy political comments.
Colored lights give the tunnel a walk-through kaleidoscope feel, despite a dank and grubby ambiance. But the number of camera-snappers shows how popular Leake Street is with in-the-know visitors. I failed to find the Banksy works that launched it as a graffiti hotspot in 2008 – it was called Banksy Tunnel for several years – but few works last more than a few days here before being superseded by fresh creations.
Back outside and blinking in the late-afternoon sun, I tucked away my camera and headed back to my hotel. It was quite close, so I could have easily walked but a short trundle on the Underground seemed the right way to end my subterranean London day out.
If you go:
The Postal Museum and Mail Rail (www.postalmuseum.org) are at 15-20 Phoenix Place, London. Nearest station: Farringdon.
Brunel Museum (www.brunel-museum.org.uk) is on Railway Avenue, London. Nearest station: Rotherhithe.
Greenwich Foot Tunnel entrances are near the Cutty Sark (south) and in Island Gardens (north). Nearest stations: Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich (south) and Island Gardens (north).
Leake Street Tunnel is just off York Road, London. Nearest station: Waterloo.