London Transport Museum review
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I'm always a bit embarrassed when I come to the London Transport Museum because in my head I imagine that it's full of train spotters, so I tell people that I'm visiting the Imperial War Museum instead -- something a bit more manly. Because it's sort of the same, isn't it? Both places have got vehicles in them, except the ones at the Imperial War Museum have guns at the front. Once I'm safely inside I don't mind it so much.
It's arranged like a big warehouse on three different levels, and because the centre is completely open you can look down onto all the vehicles from the balcony above.
It begins with those rickety old stagecoaches that had horses to pull them along. I can see a couple of waxwork passengers sitting precariously on top holding tight to the railing, looking like they're about to fall off and die. That shows you how dangerous they are: they're even scaring the waxwork people. Can you imagine if we still had those stagecoaches today? Health and safety would have a fit! We'd all have to sign an insurance waiver and wear an orange bib and a crash helmet. They do look pretty fantastic, though. They are the kind of thing that if they were trundling down the street today, people would stop and point at them and snap a few photos on their mobile phones. Then they'd go home and tell their kids all about it.
The next level has got a couple of full-size carriages from what looks like a 1960s tube train. And at the risk of sounding really sad, I think I much prefer the inside of those old cabins. They're a lot more cosy than the plastic crap we have today. I like my tube train seats to have cigarette burns in them, and dirty wooden struts running up and down the floor. I like it when the electric lights flicker on and off every time we run over a bump. They seem to be replacing all of those old trains with new-fangled modern ones now.
There's an even earlier train next-door with a big steam chimney at the end and a skinny little corridor running up the side of some first class cabins -- those chestnut-coloured cabins that you sometimes see in murder movies, where the chubby ticket inspector comes along and raps on the window to stamp your ticket. It's the kind of carriage where husbands kiss their missus through the window as it chugs off down the platform, smoke curling over the top and covering everyone in smog.
You'll find all the buses on the lower level, starting with a couple of wooden ones that look like they'd blow over in the wind. The last time I came here I was just about young enough to clamber up the stairs, but my knees refused to even try today. They took one look at the stairs and promptly locked up. And there's no arguing with my knees. Once they've made their mind up, that's it. But these stairs are just ridiculous. It's almost like climbing up a castle turret! And you can forget about getting a wheelchair or a pram onboard because the platform is about two feet off the floor! And how on earth did the elderly get on? I suppose they had to walk.
The exhibits that I enjoy the most are actually just the simple little drawings and maps of the old city. They've got plenty of paintings as well. Train travel was a lot more romantic in those days. People didn't barge onto the train in those days -- they stood on the platform waving hankies and flags as it disappeared under an old brick bridge. I can see all the pretty women standing on the platforms with parasols and billowing skirts, and the men are twiddling their moustaches and doffing their hats and caps to everyone within five feet. The platform is almost like a Parisian catwalk, or a promenade for a society show.
They've also got a decent-sized collection of old station signs and London Underground posters, and the history of Harry Beck's London Underground map (of course). You're either going to like this stuff, or you're not. It will either be interesting or tedious. I will just say this: everything definitely looked better in the past, because they actually tried to make their signs and posters look like a piece of art back then, whereas now they just knock up whatever does the job.
After that comes a life-size mock up of how they used to dig out the tunnels -- by hand, with a bucket and spade. With their shirt off and a bowler hat hanging on the gloomy orange lamplight. People came home with a face full of soot in those days. They had to peel their skin off and soak it in the bath for two weeks to get it clean.
This museum is a lot better for kids than it might appear on paper, because they've got lots of kid's activities set up all over the place. But I'm talking about very young kids -- definitely not teenagers. It's the kind of museum that attracts primary school classes and three thousand parents with pushchairs and toddlers having tantrums. You have to walk around looking at the ground all the time in case you step on a five year old's foot.
If you're looking for sone cheesy London souvenirs to take back home then try the shop: it's full of red double decker buses, black taxicabs and London Underground tea towels. They've got a plenty of retro posters and postcards as well.
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