This October I’m teaming up with Lauren of Diary of a Spanglish Girl for a feature on Day of the Dead. It’s one of my favourite festivals so when Lauren posted a shout out on her Twitter feed asking if anyone had been to Mexico for Day of the Dead and would like to share their experience with her, I jumped at the chance. You can read the interview here. By the way, Lauren’s also the person behind an excellent Facebook group for travel bloggers called Share Your Travel Blog Post And Connect With The World. If you have a travel blog, it’s well worth signing up as there are plenty of tips and experiences to inspire your future travels. She also has her own Facebook page which is a helpful resource if you love to visit Spain.
The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos as it’s known locally, is a big deal in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca. Celebrated at the end of October and beginning of November each year, the festival focuses on the dead, and the whole town gets involved in some way. What I didn’t bargain for was how involved I’d get as well.
Arriving a few days before the main celebrations, work was beginning to get underway on the altars. Each family creates an altar to tempt their ancestors’ spirits back to earth. I’d been in touch with Mariana from a small hotel called Las Bugambilias and she’d invited me to join them. In the courtyard, stood a life-sized model of Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead. For a century or so, La Calavera Catrina has been associated with Día de Muertos, thanks to a cartoonist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He was known for satire and drew the rich in fancy hats and feather boas, ridiculing them by implying death was only for the poor.
Catrina takes the form of a skeleton dressed in elegant clothing, dripping in furs or, in this case, feather boas, strings of beads draped around her neck and an elegant cigarette holder in her hand. She was comical rather than creepy, my first hint that this festival has fun as well as respect at its heart.
With a small group of fellow tourists and under Mariana’s expert guidance, we set about creating an altar called an ofrenda. Each of us had been allocated a specific task: some threaded marigold blooms onto strings; others dusted icing sugar skulls in the yard to form a pathway to the altar. My job was to create a centrepiece cross of white carnations and dot it with tiny purple buds. It was harder than it looked to get the blooms just right. Mariana was a perfectionist, but after her intervention, the cross really did look the business. After several hours of preparation, the ofrenda began to take shape. Loose marigold petals defined the path, their pungent aroma pervading the tiny courtyard. The altar itself was decorated with candles, fruit, nuts, incense and brightly coloured bunting. Sepia photographs of family ancestors peeked out from behind yet more marigolds.
Finally, we’d finished, and to celebrate, out came a bottle of Mezcal for a toast, to our efforts and to the ancestors we’d honoured. I’d been asked to bring along family photos and raised a glass to my sorely missed grandparents, their picture wedged between a bicycle candleholder and a lime. I pledged to myself and to them that I would make an effort this time next year to recreate this feeling with my own ofrenda.
The following evening, a group of us headed for the cemetery. On the night of 31st October, residents and visitors alike flock to the old and new cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, on the outskirts of Oaxaca. They were busy with people tending graves, laying marigolds and other offerings and lighting candles in memory of their deceased relatives. Many families would stay all night. I wandered amongst the weathered graves in the packed old cemetery, taking care not to trip over tree roots in the gloom of the candlelight.
Vibrant scarlet gladioli added a splash of colour to the warm amber tones lent by the flickering flames. White canna lilies added grandeur. Vivid orange cempasuchil dominated the scene through sheer weight of numbers. Some graves were a hive of activity; at others, the mood of the relatives was more reflective. Once or twice, a lone mourner wept softly at a graveside, their grief recent and still raw. It was hard not to feel emotional. Yet, I was warmly welcomed, invited to share a spot at several gravesides.
At the new cemetery, there was a party atmosphere. The floral colour palette was enhanced by fluorescent wands that poked out of pushchairs. Lovestruck teenagers sneaked a kiss behind their parents’ backs. Small children munched on sugar skulls and sucked skull lollipops. The sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller boomed from a loudspeaker, almost masking the cries of the many hawkers selling snacks and party treats. At the edge of the cemetery, a funfair had been set up with the usual stalls and rides. If it hadn’t been for the tombstones, it would have been easy to forget you were in a cemetery at all.
Comparsas (local groups) parade all night through the streets in costume, celebrating the return of the ancestors with music and dancing. The following evening, the Las Bugambilias team took us out of town to the village of San Agustin Etla, where I’d heard their Muerteada parade was second to none. Anticipation mounted as a crowd gathered in the narrow lane. Eventually the procession reached the village, an eclectic band of ogres, devils and monsters, each with a costume more fantastic than the last. There were ghouls with terrifyingly realistic make up alongside drag queens with pink hair.
The devil carried his scythe, passing a ‘Panteonero’, someone from the pantheon, whose eyeball was missing. Somehow because of the crowds, most were freakish rather than scary, but they were all to be commended for their efforts. As the final performer arrived, in one corner of the village square, a play was being re-enacted. Many of those in the parade weren’t needed, however, and had planted themselves against walls and on kerbstones to have a much-needed drink. I wandered amongst them exchanging pleasantries as far as my limited Spanish would permit, posing for photos and trying on some of the costumes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing one; the weight was impressively heavy. No wonder they’d sat down!
As the evening wore on, a chill settled on the air and the Mezcal came out again. Passing the bottle round, glasses were raised.
“Salud!” Compared to the sombre way we remembered our deceased back home, the Mexicans embraced their spirits, celebrating with them and having fun in the same way they would have done when they were alive. I decided my grandparents, gregarious even in old age, would have given it the thumbs up.
If you’d like to find out more about my experience of Day of the Dead, make sure you check out Lauren’s blog post. For my take on why I prefer Day of the Dead to Halloween, have a read of an earlier post of mine.
Moldova celebrates its National Wine Day over the first weekend in October. If you want to sample wines from the country’s many wineries without putting in the legwork, this is your chance. Representatives from the major labels come to the capital Chișinău and set up beside Cathedral Park. The organisers even offer a wine tasting passport with tour guide to provide key background information should you wish to know a little more about what you’re drinking.
From the UK, there are pretty much two direct options: Air Moldova from Stansted and Wizz Air from Luton. (I also found an airline called FlyOne, but it didn’t seem to be operating flights at this time of year.) When I booked, the Wizz Air option was significantly cheaper but did have the disadvantage of flying overnight on the outbound leg. If you’re going to do this one, hope that your hotel will allow you to check in early or prepare to take an afternoon nap. That’s of course if like me you’ve reached the age where staying up all night is no longer a good thing.
There’s a convenient trolley bus which departs from right outside the arrivals terminal door. It takes about half an hour to get into the city centre and costs just 2 lei, about 10p. Look for the number 30 and pay the conductor on the bus. If you need to find change, there are exchange facilities that open early in the morning landside; I bought a cup of coffee which gave me somewhere warm to wait for the bus and the right money to buy a ticket. It was a little disconcerting when the bus stopped and the driver got out; I’d forgotten that trolley buses are a lot of effort when the wires don’t extend the length of the route. What was good, though, was that the buses ran from very early in the morning until late at night, even on Sunday.
Getting a room
I opted for the almost brand new City Center Hostel. It was located just across the road from Cathedral Park and around the corner from the bus stop. My room had twin bunks and for single occupancy cost just £27 for the night. The shared bathrooms were down the hall but were spotless. If you can’t bring yourself to stay in a hostel, next door is the conveniently located Bristol Central Park Hotel and opposite is the Radisson Blu. Both I’m sure are very nice but would set you back a whole lot more.
Getting your culture fix
I’d read that there was a parade and early signs were promising. There were plenty of people in national costume and in front of the big sound stage, rehearsals were still in full swing just minutes before the action was supposed to kick off. I was able to get close enough to see the dancers, which was fortunate as once the formal proceedings began, some rather surly security personnel did a very good job of keeping everyone right back out of the way. The view was further obstructed by press photographers and cameramen. There were no programmes in English, but this lady had brought her own from the local newspaper – no help to me, alas:
Though I did manage to see some of the winery representatives presenting their baskets of grapes, this part of the proceedings was something of a let down. However, later, once all the dignitaries had said their piece, the bands came on and the dancing started – fun to watch and even more fun to join in. The event’s free too, which was even better.
With a tasting passport costing just 200 lei (£10), it’s hard to resist the chance to try as many of the wines on offer as you can. I made my way to one of the information kiosks (they’re located at either end of the main drag) and grabbed a place for one of the English speaking tours.
Our guide was as hipster as they come, but explained the different characteristics of the wine well at first. As the afternoon wore on, he became progressively more tipsy (like the rest of us) and at one point dropped a bottle of wine on the floor in front of him.
Some of the wines were too dry for my taste but I did enjoy the Cricova sparkling wines. I’m no connoisseur – the sweeter and fizzier the wine, the more I like it. Fortunately, the passport contained an extra token for “your favourite” wine so I had a second glass. It was a pity there are such stringent regulations at airports these days as I’d have liked to buy some to bring back.
By the way, if you are going to visit one of the wineries outside Chișinău, I’d recommend Mileștii Mici. Its huge underground vault can hold almost 2 million bottles of wine and its subterranean rooms and passageways extend for around 120 miles. They run organised tours so there’s no need to worry about getting lost down there forever.
Fortunately, there was plenty of opportunity to taste the local food as well, which helped to soak up a little of the alcohol I’d consumed. Adjacent to the wine stands are the food stalls. Many sold similar fare: succulent pork, tasty sausage, cabbage and potatoes. A lot of the stalls sold by weight; you indicated roughly how much they should pile on your plate and they told you how much you owed them. I had a heaped plate for about 75 lei, which worked out to under £4, and it was delicious. Communal tables mean it’s easy to make friends while you eat.
Getting to see more of the city
As I was visiting Transnistria, my time in Chișinău was limited. I did get to see the city’s smallest statue. Representing the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, it took a while to locate, not least because someone I asked for directions Googled it and found an old article which said it was yet to be installed. It’s on the railings lining the lake in Valea Morilor Park – persevere and you’ll find it.
I also had a wander around an open air museum outside the city centre on the airport road; there was a wedding taking place so I didn’t have the chance to go in the wooden church. I finished up at the Ciuflea Monastery. Despite being close to the main road, it was remarkably peaceful.
It’s a popular topic, and one editors are keen to publish. You’ll find a glut of listicles all over the internet touting the places you “must go” if you’re a solo traveller, and a whole bunch more specifically aimed at females missing a plus one. I’ve been travelling on my own for over thirty years and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that solo travel, by its very nature, is a personal thing. What’s perfect for me is unlikely to be right for someone else. When it comes to choosing a destination, perhaps it’s better to think first about the kind of person you are, where you’re likely to be happiest and what you hope to get from the trip. The decision about where to go will follow on naturally from that.
Are you truly seeking solitude?
It’s not a smart idea to find yourself on the established tourist trail if what you’re really after is some time out to gather your thoughts. But equally, it can be daunting to be completely on your own. Isolation can bring on acute loneliness very quickly. When I first visited Cuba fifteen years ago, I travelled west from Havana. I had no phone signal and no internet. At the time, I wasn’t ready to be that cut off. I was probably more homesick than I’d ever been before or since. I learnt that although I can quite happily go for days without speaking to people, I draw comfort from the knowledge I can talk to friends and family back at home if I feel like it. If anything, with the increased role social media plays in our lives, that’s even more the case for me today. I enjoy spending time on my own, but I also enjoy posting status updates and sending texts (hey – phoning’s expensive!) which allow me to share photographs and experiences with friends and family. Know yourself, and your limits, and you’ll have a much better trip for it.
Is it about the company?
I enjoy taking holidays with my husband (and I’m not just saying that because he’ll read this blog). But he’s not an adventurous traveller and there are places that I want to visit that I know will be so far out of his comfort zone that he just won’t be happy. I have no wish to force him to waste his precious annual leave on something or somewhere he’s going to hate, so going it alone is my preference. I could opt to travel with a friend instead, of course. But years of solo travel has, if I’m totally honest, made me quite selfish when it comes to travelling. I have become used to doing whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s the exact opposite of home, where family commitments mean there’s plenty of give and take. So this becomes my reward: a few days of doing whatever I please, whenever I like. I’d describe it as a kind of adult time out. I recharge my “me” batteries and come back to the real world refreshed and ready to join in again.
Solo travel isn’t the same as a singles holiday
When I talk about travelling solo, I mean just that. I mean jumping on a plane, booking a single room and spending my days and nights largely by myself. I’m not single, and I’m not travelling in the hope of finding a life partner. I already have one, and I’m extremely fortunate that he’s very tolerant of my desire to wander. I like being on my own and I’m comfortable being by myself. I don’t care one iota if I don’t have a meaningful conversation with someone for days on end. I guess that makes me unsociable, but even at home, I often take myself out for the afternoon without asking someone if they’d like to join me. But home or away, if I want to, it’s easy to call a friend or join a group excursion. And that’s pretty nice too.
How do you know you’re not missing out?
The main drawback for me of not taking a group tour is losing the opportunity to tap into the specialist knowledge of a guide. But being saddled with a tour leader that knows less about the place than I do has frustratingly been a reality on more than one occasion. Researching a destination is as much a delight as seeing the places in real life. I relish the chance to choose the perfect hotel and tailor the itinerary to my needs without the hefty price tag that comes with bespoke travel. Instead of a packaged tour, I tend to book day excursions, particularly if I think I’d get more out of a place if I tap into someone else’s specialist knowledge or when, logistically, it’s the smart thing to do. Booking Envoy Tours’ Enlinking Caucasus tour facilitated sightseeing between Tbilisi and Yerevan without the need to backtrack. And on my most recent visit to New York, I joined the excellent Free Tours by Foot food tour of the Lower East Side – proving that no matter how many times you visit a place, there’s always something new to learn.
Would you feel constrained on a group tour?
A few years back I won a trip to America’s Deep South. By and large it was a good trip, but going off piste made it better. When it came to spending the alloted five hours at Graceland, I cut it to two and caught a bus back downtown to watch the duck parade at Memphis’ famous Peabody Hotel. There had been some teething problems at the start of the trip in New Orleans as the tour leader was understandably reluctant to let her precious charges out of her sight. Her protests were cut short when I told her that I’d not long returned from El Salvador – on my own of course – and come out unscathed. Let me emphasise at this point, I’ve nothing against group tours. but I do appreciate it when the tour leaders realise that there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to their clients’ travel experience.
So where’s good for solo travel?
The honest answer: everywhere and nowhere. In the same way that being confined to a trans-Atlantic cruise for days on end would be my idea of holiday hell, solo travel isn’t holiday heaven for everyone. If that’s you, then you’re potentially going to feel uncomfortable wherever you book. Not sure? Challenge yourself. Try a short break and test the water. Fill your days during that first trip with lots of sightseeing, minimising your downtime so that you don’t have time to stop and think that you’re on your own. When you get home, take stock. Be honest about what worked and what didn’t. If you enjoy your new-found freedom, make your next solo trip a longer one. And if you didn’t, there’s no shame at all in accepting that you’re more suited to a group tour or travel with friends or family.
That said, it’s wise to mitigate against loneliness. It’s easier to meet fellow travellers if you stay in hostels rather than all-inclusives which tend to attract couples and families. Also, pick somewhere where there’s likely to be a lot of singles: the Antipodes, for example, South America’s traveller circuit, the South East Asia backpacker trail or Europe’s big cities. If you’re keen to visit somewhere off the beaten track but don’t know if you can handle being alone, sandwich it in between two places you know you’ll find company or can book excursions. But be prepared to put yourself out there: no one’s going to come knocking at your door if they don’t know you’re there.
My back jarred with every rut. The small Japanese saloon was poorly suited to Ulan Bator’s potholes, let alone the enormous bumps and holes over which we creaked in the Mongolian countryside. It was clear that at some point, the arid steppe climate had experienced some rain, and the trucks and 4x4s that had come before us had churned the mud into deep and now rock solid furrows. Having spent two nights tossing and turning on the train from Irkutsk, and a good nine hours hanging around at the border, I was beginning to wish I’d taken my chances with the pickpockets of UB (the guide book’s judgement, not mine!) and not been in such a hurry to get out of the city. It had its advantages though.
A 40-metre high statue of Chinggis Khan an hour or so out of the city posed serenely in the early morning dawn, awaiting its hordes of visitors once they had prepared their picnic lunches. We paused briefly to admire it by the roadside before moving onwards to tangle with a stray herd of cattle. After two hours, we reached the Steppe Nomads ger camp, where my Italian travelling companions alighted. For me, a half an hour jaunt across the fields would take me, jolt by painful jolt, to my nomad hosts, with whom I would stay the night.
The setting was idyllic. Enormous blue skies dwarfed the gers, the traditional Mongolian felt tents, perched halfway up the field; scrubby meadows led enticingly to deceptively distant mountains. I took in my immediate surroundings. Four gers, a 4×4 and, underneath the latter, three dogs snoozing in the early morning calm. A short way up the hill was a rustic corral containing a few horses, downhill, a couple of small paddocks for sheep and goats. In the distance, cows and horses roamed free, down by the River Khergen. A couple of other gers and a truck back the way I’d come completed the picture. It seemed wonderfully simple compared to the complicated life I lead back in the west.
The guest ger was beautifully decorated. Intricately painted designs on orange woodwork contrasted with the faded cream canvas of the ger’s exterior. Hot pink beds with carpet mattresses were pushed to the edge and a matching dressing table was festooned with family photos and mementoes. It seemed to me a fairly comfortable introduction to camping! My driver indicated that the small structure across the field that looked like a British Telecom workmen’s cocoon was actually the toilet.
On closer inspection, the structure was tall enough to provide sufficient privacy, the boards firm enough to avoid any hapless falls and there was even a shovel and some loose dirt by the side for me to cover my tracks. Having a wash was going to involve several kilometres of trekking down to the river, but I figured I’d already had two shower-free nights on the train, and, let’s face it, the horses weren’t likely to complain. I felt very smug.
And then I was served breakfast.
I struggle with a piece of toast some mornings, so my traditional Mongolian breakfast of sick on a plate was hard to stomach. In actual fact it was some kind of curd cheese, and to some palates, delicious I’m sure, but, for me, that morning, it was sick on a plate, served with small finger shaped pieces of lardy bread. The cinnamon tea was lovely though, so I drank plenty of that, forced down some bread and sick and finished off with a caramel flavoured boiled sweet which had been thoughtfully provided in a small dish. I felt terribly guilty for struggling with the food, as it was served by a delightful nomad lady with a squeaky voice and a smile as broad as the Gun Galuut horizon.
After breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed up to the corral to watch the horses. I envisaged lounging by the fence, channelling Kristin Scott Thomas in the Horse Whisperer. Unfortunately, unlike in the States, these poles were not fixed and periodically they would be charged by the horses before they made a break for freedom and hurtled down the field. Not wishing to be trampled, but still wishing to be close enough to secure some decent shots, I kept one eye on the action and the other on the camera, as poles cascaded down around me. The young men of the nomad group had the difficult task of roping the horses and fitting their bridles ready for the tourists at Steppe Nomads to ride them later in the day. It was certainly no easy task. Even with their dexterity, lassoing the only semi-tame creatures was no easy task, and the animals’ mad eyes and toothy grins only served to add to the humour of it all from the bystander’s point of view. Many times I watched as the horses bolted and their would-be captors rode expertly after them to herd them back up the field. I’m not sure I would have neither such patience nor the perseverance, especially whilst being watched. I was reassured to see that the young girls at the nomad camp thought it was as funny as I did, much to the lads’ embarrassment. Eventually, to the relief of all those involved, sufficient horses were roped and galloped down the field at an impressively fast pace to meet their excited riders.
Watching the action is all very well, but I felt a bit uncomfortable being the outsider, and so came ten year old Tilly to the rescue. Her name was something much longer and infinitely more unpronounceable, so Tilly was settled on as a name we both could manage. Tilly set about making it her mission to teach me to play volleyball. “Gee-oo-lee-aah!” she would cry, lengthening my name so much that it seemed I had been re-christened especially for Mongolia. At regular intervals throughout the afternoon, she would call for me, and we would continue with her attempts to refine my awkward technique. “Yee-ess. Verrry good!” was the response I hoped for, though more often than not, she just collapsed in a fit of giggles and ran down the field after the stray ball. It was an ice-breaker, nevertheless, and I was soon adopted as the new friend, someone to show off to (but not to share with!) her younger brothers. Before I knew what was happening, I was carted off the field to help milk the cows. The nomad women (and tiny infant children!) made it look simple, but for me, the hardest part was balancing on the tiny wooden milking stool without toppling over and falling into the freshly dropped manure. Once I’d mastered that, milking was easy – if a little messy. Much the reverse of volleyball, it seemed.
By the time the tourists came up to visit on their horses, the latter looking much tamer than they had that morning. The Italians looked a little uncomfortable and slightly saddle sore. It seemed like forever since I had left them this morning and I was surprised at how easily I’d settled in to such an alien environment. Dinner was brought out – a watery but delicious mutton stew – and I savoured every mouthful. I helped to unload two horses from the nomad’s truck and watched, toddler on hip, as the farmer administered some medication.
Later we sat, watching the sun set and the stars brighten in the blackening sky, smiling contentedly and watching the animals settle in the paddock for the evening. It was clear to see that this was a tough life, but the community was close-knit, the scenery was world-class and I had laughed more than I had for a long time. Shower aside, did I really need any more than this?
It was once a neglected and semi-derelict disused railway blighting the landscape of block after block that stretched from the Meatpackers District to Chelsea. Rudy Guiliani had signed an order for its demolition, but a determined local community fought to turn that elevated railway into the High Line Park, now one of New York City’s most popular public spaces. Since opening in 2009, visitors and locals alike have flocked to this verdant park. In summer, it’s a victim of its own success, with crowds of people walking through an architecturally rich landscape. In winter, you can still find space to yourself, for now at least.
But if like me, you find yourself in the city when the temperature’s hot, you’ll be pleased to learn that the team behind the High Line opened a new space this June which looks set to rival its elder brother. That space is called Domino Park, and you’ll find it across the East River in Brooklyn.
Domino Park extends along five blocks of the Williamsburg waterfront. The hulking silhouette of the Williamsburg Bridge looms over its southern edge. Across the East River, Manhattan’s skyscrapers flank the residential towerblocks of the Lower East Side.
Watching from the back is what’s left of the Domino Sugar Refinery. The brick factory that stands today was constructed in 1882 to replace an earlier building destroyed by fire.
In the latter years of the 19th century, sugar cane was shipped in from across the globe. The American Sugar Refinery Company was so successful, it was one of the original companies to comprise the Dow Jones index. Other factories followed suit and Brooklyn at that time handled over half of America’s sugar as a result. Prior to using sugar, food had been sweetened with honey or molasses. Refining sugar from cane or beet was difficult and time consuming, but companies like American Sugar Refinery brought it to the masses, A century later, though, demand for cane sugar had fallen dramatically in the face of competition from high-fructose corn syrup and sweeteners.
It was almost inevitable that the Domino factory would close, just as so many of Brooklyn’s other industrial buildings have. But many of the industrial artefacts, such as the four syrup towers and crane tracks from the original factory, have been repurposed as props in this cleverly designed park.
An elevated walkway maximises the views across to the Empire State Building and down over the park itself. There are fountains, hardwood loungers and bench seating. The wood has been upcycled, taken from the factory which itself will be redeveloped. Planting is yet to become established, but as with the High Line a decade ago, a vibrant show of yellow and green grasses and other structural planting forms the bones of what will become.
This is a park which has its eye firmly on the local population. The playground was popular while I was visiting, as were the fountains. It would seem this is the place to bring your toddlers – or send your nanny. Even the playground’s a nod to the past, designed to resemble the process of sugar refining.
A lot of thought has gone into this park, and as the rest of the project launches, this is set to become one of Willamsburg’s most popular spaces for visitors as well as locals. It’s just a fifteen minute stroll from trendy Bedford Avenue, itself only a short subway ride from Manhattan’s Union Square. If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the High Line’s crowds without skimping on its achingly-cool design, this could well be it.
Piccadilly, Central, Circle – most of us are very familiar with the London Underground. But there’s another subterranean railway and it links Whitechapel in the east to Paddington in the west. Long before the DLR was operational, it ran without drivers and guards. It carried freight beneath the streets of London and kept an industry efficient despite the capital’s heavily congested streets.
That railway is MailRail and though it was closed by the Royal Mail in 2003, the good news is that last year, specially adapted, it opened for visitors as part of the new Postal Museum. If you haven’t been, I’d urge you to go. From small children to the elderly, this is a true family attraction with something to interest everyone. Last week I was lucky enough to be offered a complimentary visit courtesy of Made and enjoyed a fun afternoon at the Postal Museum as their guest.
We began at the Postal Museum Exhibition. I expected to want to rush this part of the visit in my excitement at having the opportunity to ride MailRail. In fact, the exhibits have been very well thought out and I was soon engrossed. Many of us don’t realise that the postal service in Britain began as a private service for Henry VIII. The term “the post” referred to the horses that were used as transport. But the King’s couriers took on covert work to supplement their income and soon the notion of sending something through the post was commonplace – amongst the wealthy at least. Ironically, most of the post boys couldn’t read and letters bore the symbol of a hanged man as a stark warning not to steal the letters’ contents. The advent of the mail coach reduced the risk of robbery and increased reliability.
In the Victorian era, the Royal Mail as we know it was born. Rowland Hill submitted his proposal for postal reform in the 1830s. He suggested the introduction of uniformly low prices based on weights rather than distance, as well as the system of prepayment which we take for granted today. His ideas met with a favourable response. In 1840, the Penny Black was introduced and for weightier letters, the Twopenny Blue.
The museum features plenty of interactive exhibits. You can dress up in vintage mail uniforms and create your own stamp with your picture on it. There were also plenty of surprises. I learnt that pillar boxes were originally green. They were road tested in the Channel Islands in the 1850s before being rolled out across the UK soon after. But the colour was thought dull and dreary, so red paint was introduced a couple of decades later.
Blue airmail boxes also existed and on them were lists of last posting times for key cities around the world. The inclusion of Algiers is a reminder that places become more and less important to others as times change. Colonial names like Tanganyika, Persia, Siam and Ceylon can still be seen on this 1930s box. If you’d have wished to send a letter from London to Brisbane at this time, it would have taken 12 days to arrive. With a journey length of 12700 miles (when you take into account the many stops), it was the world’s longest air route at the time it was launched, in 1935.
Engaging though the museum was, the highlight of the afternoon was to be found across the street: MailRail. The Post Office Railway was rebranded on the occasion of its 60th birthday in 1987 to this catchier brand name, but in actual fact, the idea of a railway for the postal service had been mooted as early as 1909. The route linked the six big sorting offices with two mainline train stations over 6.5 miles of track.
Sacks of mail were transported on these trains and an army of employees manned the platforms unloading the precious cargo. The trains ran for 22 hours a day, six days a week. An estimated 4 million letters passed through the system every day. A series of lifts, chutes, conveyors and elevators were used to avoid “laborious man-handling of bags” which would slow the whole process down. Automatic train control was in operation, leading some employees to comment that it was like having their “own giant train set to run”. With as many as eighteen mail cars speeding around the system at any one time, they needed to keep their wits about them.
The mail was sent by overground train to the different parts of the UK and postal workers sorted it by destination while on the move in what was called a Travelling Post Office. This part of the museum has a mock up of such an onboard sorting office which you can use to file “mail” – as the carriage rocks it’s not easy to keep your balance if you’re not used to the motion.
The ride itself lasted about fifteen minutes, completing a loop under the Mount Pleasant section of the railway beginning and ending at what was once the maintenance depot. When operational, express trains would have taken the same amount of time to run between Liverpool Street and Paddington – try doing that on the Tube now! It was well done – from the cramped compartments we listened to an informative commentary and enjoyed some interesting audio-visual projections along the route.
Though you might struggle if you’re claustrophobic, spare a thought for my father. A retired engineer, he once carried out a survey of some of London’s sorting offices and was sent with his bags via MailRail. That would have been a very tight squeeze. At least now you get to leave your stuff in the lockers provided!
The Postal Museum and MailRail are open all year except for 24-26th December. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm with the last train departing at 4.35pm. Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit. As you need a timed ticket to ride the railway, it’s best to buy your tickets in advance. Details of ticket prices and other information can be found on the Postal Museum’s website here: