A Journey Round Britain by Postcode - Q&A with author Mark Mason


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21 March 2016
Aboutmepic2-20842.jpeg Mark Mason
We talk to Mark Mason about his adventure travelling around Britain to discover fascinating facts from each of the country's postal districts.

We talk to Mark Mason about his adventure travelling around Britain to discover fascinating facts from each of the country's postal districts.

How did you come up with the idea of the postcode-inspired book?

My last book had been a Land’s End to John O’Groats journey (by local buses), so for this one I wanted a way of covering the whole country, collecting trivia from every part of the UK. I realised that the 124 postcode areas are perfect, just the right sort of number to say ‘I’ll collect at least one fact from each area’.

What did you discover about the UK postal system while writing the book?

My favourite discoveries were the quirky things, like the rule about lottery tickets – you’re allowed to send UK National Lottery tickets by post, but not foreign ones. I also like the humour in some of the postcodes: for instance the VAT section of HMRC has a code ending ‘5AT’, because V is the Roman numeral for 5. Visiting the British Postal Museum and Archive at Mount Pleasant in London was fascinating too, they’ve got so much great material. I saw guns carried by mail coach guards, as well as some of the money bags used in evidence at the trial of the Great Train Robbers.

What’s your favourite fact from the book?

Again, the quirky ones always grab me, like the fact for the WR (Worcester) postcode area: Bricklehampton (a village in the area) is the longest British placename not to repeat any of its letters. Then there are the historical facts, like RM (Romford), where William Derham, the rector of Upminster in 1709, estimated the speed of sound by observing a colleague firing a shotgun several miles away. As soon as he saw the smoke through his telescope he knew the gun had been fired, and started timing with a half-second pendulum until he heard the bang. He did it many times, averaging out his results, and arrived at the answer of 1,116 feet per second, the accepted answer now is 1,115 feet per second. What a hero.

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Why should we be proud of Royal Mail and our postal system?

Because we were the first, I guess. This is why our stamps are famously the only ones in the world not to have the country’s name on them. Rowland Hill was a great man, not only did he invent the penny post, he also invented the postcode. And then Anthony Trollope came along a few years later and removed NE and S from the London codes (the low weight of postal traffic meant they weren’t needed, Newcastle and Sheffield have them now.) Trollope used to write his novels early in the morning, before going to work at the Post Office. He did three hours’ writing before doing a full day’s work. As a freelance writer this sort of industriousness makes me sick.

Have you ever collected stamps?

I’ve never collected, but after researching the book I’m certainly fascinated by them. I love the fact that the Queen personally insisted on the shawl you can see her wearing on our stamps, she felt that bare shoulders would be indecent.

Mail Obsession by Mark Mason is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.