HMS Belfast, London - A Review of Our Visit
In August 2012, we visited London for the day with our two children, aged 12 and 4. I love London and could quite easily spend a day there without doing much at all, but the children like to be occupied. Since we had already visited a number of major tourist attractions the previous summer, I carefully considered how we would spend the day - because bored kids can mean a miserable trip.
I came across reviews of the HMS Belfast on TripAdvisor. To be honest, I was not personally very interested in visiting a warship, but I did think that it was something my 12 year old son might enjoy. Like most boys, he likes learning about wars and guns. I thought his Dad might like it too, although I wasn't sure about my 4 year old. The fact that children under 16 are free of charge was a plus point. Even the adult price, £14, is reasonable for an attraction in central London. What's more, if you travel to London by rail, like we did, you can currently claim a 2 for 1 offer online on daysoutguide.co.uk, as long as you have a valid rail ticket to produce at the ticket desk (offer currently expires April 2013). £14 entrance for a family of four and you really can't go wrong. We even splashed out on the excellent souvenir book - it is full of interesting information and well worth the five pounds it cost.
We arrived at the HMS Belfast just after midday on a Friday afternoon during the summer holidays. The nearest tube station is London Bridge, although we actually walked from Liverpool Street since it is really not that far (and my husband knew the way). The ship is situated on the Thames, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge - you can take a great photo of both Tower Bridge and the Tower of London just down from the Belfast. There are several eating and drinking facilities at Hay's Galleria leading up to the ship - we didn't try them, but the Horniman looked quaint and inviting.
The reviews on TripAdvisor are excellent - but did the HMS Belfast meet our expectations? I would definitely say that it thoroughly exceeded them. This is probably one of the best attractions I have visited in London, and it can be enjoyed by anyone of any age (except for people with mobility problems, who will not be able to ascend or descend the many steps - it is also not possible to manoeuvre pushchairs around the ship, although you can leave them at the entrance).
The HMS Belfast is a very visual experience. Because it is spaced out over several decks (nine in all), there is something to discover around virtually every corner. This pleased my 4 year old very much - although he is a bit young for the intricacies of a history lesson, he loved discovering all the different areas of the ship. Not once did he announce he was bored! We also had the free audio equipment, with which you can listen to additional information as you go round, but we didn't really use it. I never find it to be very practical when you have small children in tow, but it didn't really matter - you can get a sense of life on the HMS Belfast simply just by being there. Information is provided about the different areas as you follow the tour, and there is the opportunity to listen to real-life recordings of ex-marines discussing what it was like on board in the Life at Sea room.
Gun Turret Experience
On the HMS Belfast, there are arrows guiding you around the ship. It is useful to follow them, although you are free to go wherever you like. One of the first places the tour took us was to the Gun Turret Experience. As we stood in the darkened room, we heard an account of the day the Royal Navy ships, including HMS Belfast, gained victory over a German warship on Boxing Day, 1943. The experience was very short but the sounds and the vibrations left a powerful mark on my memory as we learned exactly what it felt like to be on a warship, in the gun turrets, at the time of action.
Day to Day Life
The HMS Belfast might have been a warship, but for me the day-to-day life encountered onboard was equally as fascinating. We all learned a great deal about what it was like to live at sea for months at a time. Over nine hundred men could be on board at one time, and all of their needs had to be catered for. The ship was refitted in the 1950s, and so you will see it as it was from then on - some facilities are better and bigger, for example, than in the very early days (laundry became easier, for example). I must admit that I did not realise the extent of what actually existed onboard for men in the Navy. Everything necessary was there, from the huge galley, to the dentist (it was considered very important for the men to look after their teeth), to the sick bay, post office and laundry room. The children really enjoyed seeing the fantastic recreations of people at work. I thought it was all extremely well done, but I was particularly impressed with the sick bay - a large room in which we could wander right beside the 'sick'. The surgeon was at work as well.
The 'mess', where people slept in small hammocks, played cards and dominoes, and generally passed the time, was also an excellent reconstruction. Museums like this go one step further than institutional history lessons, which so often focus on the main facts and do not delve enough into the real lives and feelings of those affected. On the HMS Belfast, you really can imagine what it was like to be there. You will also learn about the atmosphere on board; about how the men felt about living on the ship and whether they were happy or not.
Inner Workings and Operations of the HMS Belfast
Every area of the HMS Belfast can be explored, from the boiler and engine rooms, to the shell rooms where the shells were stored and operated. My youngest son and I did not visit the boiler and engine rooms, since children less than 1.20m in height are discouraged from entering. You are free to do so at your own discretion - we started off down the steps but found it to be a complicated maze with many ascents and descents, so we ended up heading back upstairs. My oldest son and his Dad thoroughly enjoyed this experience and were down there for a good while - after all, boys tend to love finding out how everything works.
Seeing the huge amount of weapons in the shell room brought back the reality that the HMS Belfast was a ship at war - especially after viewing the more 'day to day' areas. You can learn quite a lot about how the shells were operated - and why men in the handling room might have to be sacrificed in times of trouble.
Children can sit in the Captain's seat and find out what it was like to be in charge of steering the ship from the Compass Platform. On the top deck, you can stand right in front of the six huge guns (a great photo opportunity) - whilst on board, you can find out exactly what area of London they are 'targetting' today. You can also visit the Gun Direction Platform and the Operations Room, where you can learn about radar communications and tactics - there are some hands-on activities for children here.
All in all, our visit to the HMS Belfast was a great success and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone thinking of visiting (except those who have difficulty managing steepish steps). Although I had read several visitor reviews and looked at the official website beforehand, the sheer vastness of the ship, plus the attention to detail, meant that the trip outshone all expectations. You do not have to be especially interested in either wars or ships to enjoy this fantastic museum - but you will learn a lot, regardless. The staff on board were very friendly and forthcoming with extra information at times - why does the bath in the sick bay have four taps? was the question posed to us. We spent about two and a half hours on our tour. There is a shop and cafe on board as well, and those wanting to eat or drink could spend a bit longer.
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