Ok, so this one is a bit special. Anyone who is anyone in the UK exploring scene knows about Mail Rail. If you call yourself an ‘explorer’, ‘urbexer’ or similar and you’ve never heard of Mail Rail, get off here and get Googling right this instant! For those who can’t be bothered to look into it or even read the brief paragraph of history above, Mail Rail is a mothballed (and somewhat miniature) train system that runs deep beneath the bustling city of London. It was closed in 2003 and has sat dormant ever since. The system could, in theory, be restarted at any time if it was needed but I honestly can’t see this happening.
This place has bugged me for a while now. When I first got into exploring, and gained access to parts of forums that looked past all the numerous reports of lunatic asylums and local storm drains, I was fascinated to realise just how much there was out there that people were doing. They were doing this by pushing boundaries, and I mean seriously pushing boundaries, to the point where you could even find yourself asking if there’s anything left to do. Mail rail is a mighty fine example of pushing boundaries. The amount of effort put in by a certain few to gain initial access to this vast labyrinth of tunnels was extraordinary. Regardless of what you might think of said people you have to admire the sheer determination they possessed as a collective…
So anyway, after they made the breakthrough and explored this place from one end to the other, attitudes got a bit more relaxed. One thing led to another and they ended up derailing a train. Yeah I know right – what? This happened in 2011. That, of course, led to a crackdown on security and all points of entry being well secured and some even guarded. This remained the case until a few years later when, in 2013, when some lads from Manchester rock up and find that things have changed drastically that day at one of the stations. Boom, they’re in and then that’s a few more heads to have cracked this one. It was at this point that a few of us became really transfixed on getting in and began to look at a point in the system that we knew would be a winner one day. Checking it here and there, nothing seemed to change… until this one night. Three of us made it apocalyptically close to being on the tracks. With the help of two good mates, I managed to monkey down a lift shaft and found myself facing this:
I know it’s only a sign, but it’s actually hard to describe the amount of sheer excitement I felt when I saw it. Unfortunately, that was to be as far as I would get due to a locked door and PIR that stood between me and the tracks. Goddammit. Back up I went, which proved to be a tad more difficult that initially thought. I still believe that, without the help of my friends at the top, I would not have made it out of that lift shaft that night. This just shows the amount of trust you put in the people you go exploring with, and should never do things like this with people don’t trust. Cheers guys…
Right so fast forward another year to 2014, and more photos appear from two more explorers who have been in. This attracts even more interest, and is yet another reminder that Mail Rail is still there, still worth it, and still awesome. This has a certain few people checking access more than ever before. However, still to no avail.
Now then. Now, we come to 2015. On NYE 2014, whilst on a roof with some fantastic people in London, I said to a friend sat next to me that the coming year would be the best yet. In general, naturally, but particularly for exploring. So far, it’s not been bad at all; in fact I’d say we’re on track (excuse the pun)…
So one night I’m sat at home, just having made a cup of tea and thinking about how to entertain myself over the next few days during which I had no work. Then I get a message. Three words from a paragraph that I’ll remember for a long time:
‘MR is doable’
Suddenly little else seemed important. I knew what I would be doing that night. About 5 hours later I was on the M4 heading east. I knew that I’d be going in alone, which did make me a lot more anxious than I would have been otherwise, but I didn’t care. This is Mail Rail, and you don’t let something like this slip by. After killing time playing on some track in Croydon it was time to get down to business. I headed central and parked up. I vaguely knew where I had to go, and vaguely knew what I was looking for, but the site in question had changed a LOT since I was last there. Eventually after what seemed like an eternity, I found it; hidden away deep below street level and tucked out of the way of the hustle and bustle above. Deep breath. Bally on. Into the darkness.
The second I laid eyes upon the tiny tracks for the first time is a second I will never forget. In fact, it might just be the best single second of exploring for me since I started doing it nearly 5 years ago. The adrenaline was pumping through me on a new level, and I absolutely loved it. This is what it’s all about. I shut myself in, blocking out the somewhat friendly and familiar light of the site I had come from. Now, nothing mattered except Mail Rail. This was it, and I might never get a chance to see this again, so knew I had to make the most of it. One thing I do rather relish about being underground is the fact that there’s no phone signal – nothing to distract you from where you are or what you’re doing. This isn’t always a bad thing in my opinion…
I walked and walked the tracks, eventually ending up at Paddington. The station was in darkness, and on this first night I only had an iPhone as a camera, so don’t have much to take away from this end of the track. It isn’t, after all, just about the photos.
A quick glance at the time reminded me that I needed to step on it and get back above ground. It was nearing daylight outside and soon the quiet area above would be alive with the buzz of rush hour. There was this, and the fact that I wanted to be on the M4 before 8am. Back in Bristol, and back to normality. I had a few errands I needed to run that day, but quite frankly they were rather mundane in comparison to the mischief I’d been getting up to only a few hours prior.
‘Are you going back tonight?’
‘Yeah, need to finish it. What time?’
These two messages came over a group chat later that morning. God it was painful – being nearly 150 miles away and knowing people were going to be hitting Mail Rail again that night. I couldn’t go back a second night running…could I? Nah, that’s ridiculous. That’s what I told myself, and that’s what I was going to stick to. That was until I looked over my photos from the night before, and remembered what this place was/what it still had to offer. My mind was made up. I laid my head down for a few hours kip, refuelled the car, and was on my way back to the capital. Time to hit the coffee hard. The lengths we go to for this hobby are insane… Seriously.
The thought of doing it with other people filled me with even more excitement than the night before. Seeing the glowing lights of the city on the horizon was just what I needed that night after a day that hadn’t gone entirely to plan. Made my way in, parked up, and met up with the lads. This was it; we were going hard tonight. Quick catch up on the street corner to get a rough plan for the night set, and in we went.
This time we headed in a different direction to where I’d been the previous night, which was good news as it meant that with any luck, I’d have walked the entire route by time the sun came up. Walking through those tunnels is kinda hard to describe. Think of walking along a tunnel in a tube station after you get off the escalator, and shrink it by at least a third of the size. The ground is uneven, but after a while you learn where your put your feet to be able to walk at a semi-brisk pace.
We soon come to the first station along the line, and saw the oh so familiar sight of a tiny red glowing circle, surrounding an unsuspecting camera looking right at us. The choice was clear – heads down and keep going. Standing under the camera, we hastened a few pics of the station and pressed on. I mean, a camera or indeed an entire surveillance system is only as good as the person(s) watching it on the other end, right?
We came across numerous trains dotted up and down the tunnels as we carried on walking. These trains clearly haven’t moved for a long time. Dust has well and truly moved in, caking the locomotives in a think layer of brown derpy goodness. This sadly takes some of the attention away from the once vibrant coloured paint that exists underneath it.
One thing that I personally didn’t realise before going down here was the sheer amount of ground this scaletrix covers. 12km in total, which is a lot of walking when half of the time is spent bent over trying not to hit your head! Every now and then we’d hear a noise; a faint clunk or bang in the distance. Although this did add a small amount of discomfort to the walk, we couldn’t let that stop us. We kept ourselves topped up on lucozade, sweets and for me, ham rolls. Ham rolls are average, but a ham roll in Mail Rail is a totally different ball game – it’s so much more epic.
Bait. Bait is a word often used to describe the more risky of excursions we undertake, and could not have been more appropriate for this particular jaunt if it tried. Lots of things about where we were felt bait; running under numerous CCTV cameras and triggering many blindingly bright floodlights which lit up like a collapsed sun. Nothing on the level of ‘baitness’ however, compared to going through Mount Pleasant station.
This station sits directly below an incredibly live sorting office, which just happens to be one of the largest sorting offices in the world. It’s filled with workers 24/7 and never sleeps. Whilst moving swiftly along the station platform, it honestly felt as if someone was about to walk out of one of the offices in the middle! This fear wasn’t helped by the fact that we could actually hear voices echoing down the lift shafts and stairwells that lead up to the building above. This brought home just how close we were to reality, and just why Mail Rail has been so difficult to penetrate over the years.
Having bolted it through MP, we catch our breath on the other side, and take a moment to think about how crazy what he had just done was. Nothing changed however as we all knew we had a time limit that needed to be adhered to, so pressed on. We did detour briefly to look at the Mount Pleasant loop, which features some children’s paintings on the ceiling… This also took us to a locked gate, behind which sat the workshop where trains would go for maintenance. As much as we wanted to see further inside, it may just have been a good thing that the gates were locked… Again – so so bait. This is where you start if you visit the Postal Museum at Mount Pleasant. At the time of these photos no such thing existed – it was simply a quiet maintenance workshop. See below photo for a view that might be familiar to some:
So then after more walking (a LOT more walking) and a lot of ground covered, we made it to Whitchapel. This is the end of the line, and the point where we’d have to turn around and head back. Surely enough, as soon as we walked into the station a floodlight burst on and announced our presence to Big Brother. With this in mind, we took what photos we wanted, had a quick wander and made our way back.
Time was pressing on, and we had a long walk back. My feet were killing me, but in these circumstances you don’t think about that kind of thing too much. Over an hour of solid walking, we made it back to our point of access and proceeded to ascend to street level. The sun was firmly in the sky by this point, and London was waking up. How no one saw us I don’t know, but the main thing was that they didn’t. I just wanted breakfast and then a place to crash. We dragged our tired selves to the nearest Mcdonalds, and quietly wolfed down a McBreakfast whilst finding it slightly hard to come to terms with what we’d just achieved.
So that’s that. That’s Mail Rail. Quite possibly the best night(s) of exploring ever. 10/10 would UE again. Massive thanks to the people I did this with, you know who you are.
Big up LDN <3