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HMS Belfast

publication date: Mar 18, 2013
author/source: Tim Walder

HMS Belfast (75 years old this year) has been on the Thames since 1971 and espite its hugeness, it is easy to overlook.  My sons have visited a number of times: my father was in the Royal Navy in the 1950s and I grew up to share his deep love of all boats.  The visit they remember with most affection is a sleepover on board organised by Scouts, which was both cold and a little spooky.

We visited during the 75th anniversary weekend when there were special events going on such as an extraordinary “simulated” firing of the guns, medallion making, Irish dancing (because of the Belfast connection and St Patrick’s Day on the 17th March), live radio demonstrations, signals at sea, meet the veterans and conservation in action.

We loved it.  The ship was abuzz with activity and people, despite some soggy weather. The visit made me reflect on the vastness and diversity of this international tourist attraction.  On previous trips I have always got lost in what amounts to a floating town (it once housed up to 950 men). There are eight levels of deck; watertight bulkheads sitting vertically in the structure mean that you cannot go along much and have to go up and down very steep ladders all the time.  There is a delicious feeling of going back in time in relation to health and safety (don’t touch the asbestos unless you bang your head on it and don’t fall down the ladder, no, really don’t fall down the ladder). 
HMS Belfast

A visit to HMS Belfast is suitable for all weathers because although the deck is great and has fantastic views of central London, there is so much to see indoors you could be there for at least three hours. On previous trips I have always felt frustrated by the complex geography of the ship and had that horrible feeling that I had missed something. This was true, I had!  You are given a map and a free audio guide. Locations are numbered on the map and these numbers are displayed. There is now a much clearer route through and this works best if you follow it.

For me there are two HMS Belfasts. There is the hard-core technology:  cavernous boiler and engine rooms well below the waterline are genuinely surreal: a space entirely made of vast pipes and dials, dizzying in their complexity and making little concession to their human operators.  An airlock door prevented a change in pressure which would have made the vast boilers flashback, incinerating their stokers.  There are so many knobs and levers that you have to pull some of them in the hope that somehow Full Steam Ahead will suddenly, magnificently happen just one more time.  Also high up on the technology front are the gyro compass room, which houses a marvellous kind of mechanical computer used to process numerous factors in getting the guns to fire on targets.  Even more sinister are the Shell Room and Magazine.  These have a bizarre circular carousel for very large shells and piles of the things in wooden racks: the whole room would rotate with the gun turret.

The other Belfast is more touching and relates to the domestic lives of the many men on board. Nearly 1000 men had to work, eat, sleep and entertain themselves for up to three years away from home inside this steel town. These areas have been preserved wonderfully.  Everything is here from the lino on the floor, through the small flip down seat for the Admirals’ butler to take a well-earned break, the gruesome hospital, the chapel, the bars of chocolate in the NAAFI shop. Parts of this are a memorial to the strict social stratification of Britain in the 1930s and 1950s: the wood panelling for the Captain and the 24 inch hammock for the ratings. Other parts have a strange domesticity in an environment which was all male but still had to cook food and do laundry.  The feel of these areas is helped by the authentic dummies in dramatic poses, although younger children may find them spooky.

For the historically minded there are permanent displays on the seagoing career of the ship and on life on board.  There is also a decent and reasonably priced café and various toilets scattered about. Tickets are not exactly cheap but children under 16 are free.

At the moment there is a temporary attraction which you can see but not touch. Because of the security concerns during the Olympics the real Navy ship HMS Westminster is moored alongside Belfast. This currently features a helicopter, some scary looking missile launchers, machine gun emplacements and sailors with live weapons.

PWT rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

HMS Belfast, The Queen’s Walk, London, SE1 2JH
T: +44 (0)20 7940 6300 For more information