If you stand on London Bridge and look east, you get a rather magnificent view of the iconic Tower Bridge directly in front, and the Tower of London to your left. However, it probably won't escape your attention that in front of you on the river Thames, next to the Norman Foster designed, glass buildings of More London to the south, is a war ship. This is the HMS Belfast and is in essence a floating museum, giving you the chance to see what life was like on a WWII war ship.
HMS Belfast is the Royal Navy's last surviving ship classed as a cruiser, and the largest preserved warship in Europe. Designed for speed, the ship was launched in 1938, shortly before the outbreak of WWII, but in November 1940 was struck by a German mine, breaking the ship's keel and was subsequently out of service for the next two years. She returned in 1942 with new anti-aircraft guns, advanced radars and thicker armour and supported the advance of British troops in to France on D-Day in 1944. At the end of WWII, the HMS Belfast served in the Korean war and was eventually decommissioned in 1963. She became a floating museum in the 1970's and has been part of the Imperial War Museum for the last 35 years.
Once on board the quarter deck, you're then free to explore the nine decks and discover what life was life on board the ship for sailors during WWII and throughout the 1950's. You're immediately thrown in to the thick of the action with the Gun Turret Experience which recreates moments from the Battle of North Cape in 1943, when the HMS Belfast was engaged in a battle with the German cruiser Scharnhorst. They even manage to make the whole turret shake which has no doubt given quite a few people a shock ... myself included.
It's probably best to navigate your way around using the map provided and I think my overall feeling after wandering around for a short while was just how massive the ship is, and how every single space has an allocated use, a bit like a giant puzzle that has been expertly assembled. It's also not dissimilar from wandering around a maze; the air thick with the smell of metal and brass as you pass the laundry, kitchen, post room, chapel, store rooms, dental surgery, infirmary and many other rooms which all played a part in the day to day running of the ship. Many of them are dressed with models to give you a better idea of what went on there.
The other overriding sensation I had, was how much I would have hated to have been living on the ship during war time. Admittedly, I'm not exactly military material anyway, but none-the-less, it is pretty claustrophobic now, with the tiny corridors, climbing up and down very steep ladders and ample opportunity to bang your head. Then you have to imagine actually being on the rough seas with those huge guns (which have a 12 mile trajectory) pounding and close to 1000 sailors all running around a compact floating metal village. As you make your way around you can listen to an audio guide which gives you a bit more depth to what you're actually seeing, peppered with commentary from sailors who did actually live on HMS Belfast. I seem to recall that one such narrator, as I was descending in to the boiler room at the bottom of the ship, described the sensation as something like "stepping in to the bowels of hell". Both the Boiler Room and Engine Room wouldn't have looked out of place in Ridley Scott's Alien film. Aside from lots of pipes, there's also an abundance of dials, and no doubt, someone somewhere knows what they were all for.
It's actually quite a good feeling to head back upstairs and get a bit of fresh air on the deck before exploring the Operations Room, Admirals Bridge and Admiral's and Captain's Sea Cabins, as well as being afforded a rather great view of the city.
All in all, you can while away quite a few hours on the ship, but is perhaps not recommended for those with mobility issues as there are a lot of small, steep steps and cramped spaces. It costs £15.50 per adult, but is an ideal visit for families as children under 16 go free. Also, if you're visiting London and have pre purchased the London Pass, then HMS Belfast is one of the attractions included with that, so you can walk straight in. Even if you don't have a particular interest in the Navy, it's a fascinating insight in to life on board a WWII war ship and quite literally, a unique experience.
Bowl Of Chalk
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