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London Transport Museum (London)
Member Name: caro
London Transport Museum (London)
Date: 18/01/01, updated on 17/06/01 (211 review reads)
Advantages: Guided tours; social as well as transport history
Disadvantages: Queues for tube simulators
The museum is in the heart of Covent Garden, on the Piazza (at the edge of the market). This is an appropriate site: not only is it in the heart of London, but Covent Garden is itself of historical interest: it used to be London’s main fruit and vegetable market (this has now relocated to New Covent Garden). The museum is a really bright, light building. On entering, the first feature I really appreciated was the cloakroom. You can leave coats and bags here, and enjoy your visit unencumbered. It was a huge relief to get rid of my overcoat and heavy bag for the duration of the visit. This facility was free.
Once you’ve entered the museum, there are free guided tours available. These are conducted by volunteers from the museum’s Friends, and the one I went on was fascinating. Our guide not only explained the history of transport in London, but also put it into a social context. The growing transport system changed London, particularly in changing the areas in which people of different classes could live (governed by the availability of affordable transport to work). London was growing rapidly in the nineteenth century, and the need for most people to live within walking distance of work meant serious. While the first omnibus, which appeared in 1829, was too expensive for most Londoners to use, by the late-nineteenth century, horse-drawn buses were accessible to many more people. Further advances, particularly the underground, the tram network and the motor buses, resulted in the growth of a relatively inexpensive a
nd fast transport system enabling the development of London’s suburbs. These changes were necessary even after the coming of the railways, as travelling from the stations to destinations in central London remained difficult before the Underground. This social history made the displays fascinating even to someone like me, who has no especial enthusiasm for the vehicles themselves. There was also the childish pleasure of getting to go onto vehicles you can’t normally enter!
After the tour, I wandered around on my own to take a closer look at some exhibits and try out some of the activities. The exhibits are mostly actual vehicles, arranged by type and date. You begin with horse-drawn buses, and continue through trams, trolley-buses, diesel-engined buses, and tube trains. You can go into some of these (the contemporary adverts are fun); others have model “passengers”. There are also explanations of the working of these vehicles, including exhibits of construction techniques for tramlines and tunnels. Photographs, films and miscellaneous other items further illustrate the history of London’s transport – London Transport even has its own typeface (‘Johnson’). I found the trams particularly interesting: given that these have now disappeared (although there is a new system in Croydon), it is difficult to believe that for the first half of this century they were one of the most popular ways of getting around London.
Each museum ticket has fourteen squares which you can stamp at twelve numbered points on the way around with a relevant picture. Some are embossed onto the ticket, some cut out, and some simply stamped in ink. Designed to amuse children, this will also keep some adults entertained! (Well, it amused me, anyway). Each ‘stamping point’ also has a selection of relevant children’s activities.
Slightly more sophisticated entertainment was the chance to drive
a tube train. Suffice it to say that this is certainly not my missed vocation! Although the controls are simple, actually stopping the train in the right place is rather more complicated. These simulations seemed to appeal to adult visitors at least as much as children; there can often be queues at them as a result.
The museum is well-designed, with some nice touches such as sections of old underground escalators and ticket barriers to walk through. Throughout the day, actors appear as bus conductors, ticket-sellers at the recreated ticket office, and so on. There are also exhibitions: one on the designing of the tube map, and another temporary exhibition which changes regularly. When I visited, it was ‘A logo for London’ which I’m afraid I didn’t find terribly interesting. It is probably of more interest to people with a particular interest in design and corporate image.
Inevitably, you exit through the shop. It does have some interesting and fun gifts, many using the names and famous phrases from the Underground. However, there are also a lot of rather expensive souvenirs aimed at tourists. The section of books and magazines seemed reasonably comprehensive, but I don’t know enough about transport publications to be sure. The aisles are rather close together, making the shop feel pretty overcrowded.
The café is one of the Aroma chain. I haven’t been in that particular one, but have always had good experiences at others in the chain (although they are not cheap, the coffee is excellent and the Portuguese patisserie is particularly delicious – I recommend the coconut tarts!).
Altogether, I was really impressed by the museum. I went in thinking to waste an hour out of the frenetic atmosphere in Covent Garden market, and ended up spending several really enjoyable hours learning a great deal about the city’s history. I would definitely recommend a visit.
><br>Transport: Covent Garden tube; nearest bus stops are on the Strand.
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