Following last week’s successful attempt to look at a bit of London from the perspective of a tourist, we thought we would have another go at visiting a ‘tourist attraction’ that we’d not yet encountered. A friend had recommended HMS Belfast, and we didn’t think we had been before (apart from possible vague memories of a school trip many decades ago), so we traipsed off to Tooley Street to check it out.
A bit of background for the uninitiated, courtesy of the website…
HMS Belfast is the largest surviving example of Britain's twentieth century naval power and is now a museum moored on the Thames between Tower and London Bridge. She was the first ship to be saved for the nation since Nelson's HMS Victory due to her historical importance.
So now you know. Having paid the £8.50 admission fee and wandered along the walkway onto the ship itself, we were handed a colour-coded map of the ship’s main areas. This was to prove quite useful – to our admittedly nautically naïve eyes this was a pretty big ship, and with 9 floors (sorry, decks) to explore there was plenty of scope for losing our bearings. The map partitioned the ship into zones, numbered 1 to 7, which suggested a good route to take around the ship.
In our explorations we tried to follow the suggested sequence as closely as possible, with reasonable success. However, we did find ourselves straying from the recommended route a few times, either because we found ourselves distracted by something interesting-looking in another zone, of to avoid the ubiquitous crowds of tourists that blocked our intended path on several occasions. It’s probably not the best idea to deliberately visit ‘tourist attractions’ if you cannot stand large groups of aimless idiots getting in your way, but we gritted our teeth and tolerated them reasonably well. Either way, diverting from the prescribed path wasn’t really a problem at all – only a few parts of the ship (such as ladders) are marked as ‘one-way’, so it doesn’t really matter which direction you take.
In many of the zones, there were a couple of televisions showing short loops of documentary information that was specifically relevant to the area we were standing in. For example, as we stood next to the anti-aircraft guns on one of the upper decks we were treated to footage of seamen operating the guns at full-pelt, as well as rudimentary information about how the guns’ designs evolved over time. And as we stood in the ship’s bowels (a.k.a. ‘boiler and engine rooms’), a couple of videos told us all about how the ship’s ‘propulsive machinery’ worked. Cool!There was a lot to see. We explored all nine decks, feeling a rush of boyish satisfaction looking at all the big guns, looking out from the admiral’s bridge, checking out vast amounts of serious looking machinery, squeezing our way around the cramped shell rooms, walking through the galley (complete with huge pans full of fake scummy water), turning our noses up at the mess rooms and the even less hospitable ‘punishment cells’ and peering in at the chapel. We would have also liked to check out the fo’c’sle (an oddly pointless nautical abbreviation if ever there was one), but it was closed for ‘essential maintenance’, preventing us from standing right at the front of the ship and imagining we were invading London. Boo.
Throughout the upper decks, equipment was manned by seemingly inbred gurning mannequins, clothed in shabby naval uniforms and sporting exaggerated and earnest expressions. Why some attractions choose to populate themselves with these ridiculous dummies is a mystery to us. Still, at least HMS Belfast’s dummies weren’t as absurd as the ones in the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker when we stumbled into it a few years back (don’t ask).
For the most part, we spent our wanderings hitting our head on just about everything, or walking with a very stooped gait (once our head was sufficiently bruised). The ship was so full of head-height obstacles that we could only conclude that seamen from the early and mid 20th century were abnormally short.
And our ergonomic challenges didn’t end with a bruised cranium, either. Visitors to HMS Belfast probably need to be reasonably able-bodied to navigate the many narrow and steep staircases, climb through hatches that have been conveniently located halfway up walls, or squeeze through the tight spaces around the lower decks. These cramped spaces don’t favour the large, tall or claustrophobic; the situation is not helped by the crowds of milling idiots.
Still, having overcome our personal mobility issues to squeeze down to the ship’s guts, we were rewarded with an up-close tour of the gargantuan boilers and engines that combine to produce as much as 80,000 ‘shaft horse power’ (whatever that means) to drive the ship’s huge propellers. This was propulsive power on a scale that we had never seen before, and it was seriously impressive stuff.
On our way out we popped into the ship’s small permanent exhibitions, covering a brief history of the ship and other Southampton-class cruisers and giving a limited insight into ‘Life at Sea’, as well as an exhibition about the Battle of Jutland that is due to run until next June. We finally checked out the onboard ‘Walrus Café’, which was monumentally unimpressive (and pricey). If you visit the ship, we suggest that you take your own refreshments.
One of the big differences between this sort of attraction and a purpose-built museum is the nature of the ‘exhibits’. In a purpose-built museum, the exhibits are usually clearly marked out as such, and often ‘off-limits’ within glass case. However, with an attraction like HMS Belfast, you find yourself inside the main exhibit – actually surrounded by it. From our perspective this created a much greater sense of immersion, where even the more mundane features of the ships (such as the arcane technical signage next to electrical systems) gave us a glimpse into another world. If you can handle the sometimes cramped environment and tolerate (or avoid) the tourists, then this big old iron warship is well worth a visit.