Thursday, 29 May 2008

HMS Belfast

This historic floating museum was my “something blue” (which is actually grey camouflage) on my most recent sightseeing day in London. I admit that warships would not normally be my first port of call (excuse the pun!) on a tourist trail but HMS Belfast is a significant part of British naval history and an unavoidable sight along the River Thames. I knew I musn’t ignore this popular visitor attraction which is undoubtedly an integral part of the London experience.

You cannot miss HMS Belfast if you are anywhere near the Tower of London, Tower Bridge or City Hall- it is the big grey ship moored in the river! It was brought here in 1971 after a campaign to save her for the nation. She was launched on St Patricks Day in 1938, served throughout the Second World War and the Korean War before being retired from the Royal Navy in 1965.

The ship is an imposing metallic beast, built to withstand attack as well as carry out assaults against enemy forces. Almost all of this vast vessel is available to be explored by visitors and it is suggested that a full tour of the nine decks will take about 2 hours. Personally, I think it would take a little longer to see everything on show but if, like me, you are selective then 1.5 hours is ample time.

The purpose of HMS Belfast as a museum is to give visitors a taste of life onboard through the decades of its working life. They have worked hard to provide a sense of reality with dummies (i.e., mannequins!) in appropriate poses, sound effects and even smell effects! At first I found the life-like dummies a little creepy but they definitely bring the ship to life and help demonstrate the environment those sailors lived in. I have a feeling that some (not all) may be Madame Tussaud’s rejects as, on close inspection, I’m sure I saw Prince Philip, Lawrence Olivier and even a young Robbie Williams!

HMS Belfast is not an ideal place to visit if you have mobility problems and is also not particularly size-friendly (by that, I mean if you are tall or wide you may have difficulty getting around). The steps are steep and I, for one, was thankful that the ship was not moving in rough waters and that I had remembered to wear non-slip trainers! Rather than struggle, I decided I would miss out the engine rooms on the lower deck and concentrate on the crew quarters and living facilities. I don’t have any great interest in naval history, ammunitions or the workings of a warship but the human aspect really caught my attention.

The low-slung hammocks slept in by Ratings were quite an eye-opener. How they ever got any rest in those cramped conditions, I don’t know! I’m not sure if it was for real, but there was even a miniature hammock containing the ships cat! The Officers’ quarters were considerably more luxurious but hardly reached modern cruise ship standards! It was amazing to see the facilities onboard for nearly 1000 crew members including a shop, bakery, dental surgery, operating theatre, sick bay (I’m not sure how the ill and infirm made it onto the top bunk!) laundry and chapel.

For the naval and military-minded among you, there is an abundance of information on ammunitions, weights and measurements. You will also find specialist equipment to marvel at, maps and charts to ponder and lots of big guns to admire!

Regardless of how deep your interest is, HMS Belfast is an incredible museum reflecting how those brave men lived, worked and fought during the 20th Century. The free colour coded map enables you to find your own way around the ship but if you plan to see everything from the top of the Bridge to the boiler and engine rooms below water level then use the audio guide to help you. Don’t forget to wear sturdy, comfortable shoes- even in summer, this is no place for sandals or high heels!

At a cost of £1000 per day to maintain, HMS Belfast is well preserved and the adult entry fee of £10.30 is well worth it (although I had free entry with the London Pass). For an extra special event, kids can take part in the “Kip In A Ship” experience, living the life of a sailor for a day and a night! For real naval enthusiasts, HMS Belfast can be hired for parties and can even be used as a wedding venue! I’m not sure it would be my choice for that special day but I’m glad I visited Britain’s largest surviving 20th Century warship.

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