“ River Thames. Tel: +44 (0)20 7940 6300. OPEN: daily 10am-6pm: last admission 5.15pm (Nov 1-Feb 28 last admission 4.15pm and closing time 5pm.) CLOSED: 24/25/26 Dec. Admission: adults £5; under 16 free; concessions £3.80; discounts available for groups and „
I have visited the HMS Belfast twice, the first time was for a couple of hours as part of a London school art trip the second time was for another school trip for the start of my art foundation course on which we actually stayed on the boat for three nights (I didn't know this was possible either!) so hopefully my review will offer a different perspective from the usual public experience.
The ship is an original WWII ship that is now anchored on the River Thames just 2 minutes away from Tower Bridge. Admission was free for me as the first time I was under 16 and the second time it was a paid school trip, however I have heard they are quite cheap for London, costing only about £5. To access the boat you have to walk a 2minute bridge which was quite tiring the amount of times we had to board it when we stayed! The boat isn't disabled accessed unfortunately as some of the halls are quite thin and the stairs are more like ladders.
There are lots of places to explore on the ship, you can go below or climb up two stories. There are rooms full of life like mannequins playing the roles of what people would have been doing on the ship during war time for example there is a kitchen, a sick room, a living quarters and more. There is also a room that has all the electronics part that has lots of lights and noises everywhere so seem as if you actually on the ship during WWII, I personally found this to be a little naff and cheap however talking to some of the staff the ship has a very small budget so can't afford to jazz it up, at the same though it adds to the creepy feel of the ship. Having said this it is still a great experience for people interested in history and ships as it is very informative and for people like me who found it a little boring, it is fun to take silly pictures with the mannequins. There are seats dotted around one side where tired parents can sit and leave their kids to explore too! The boat is very cold mostly, even on hot days it's still pretty cool as it is on the river and inside doesn't really have a heating system so it needs to be treated as an outdoor activity!
There is a small presentation available at times, mainly for school trips I think, where you sit in a room and watch a small video and someone tells you about life on the ship, the general story and gets some props out. These include two different jackets, thermal socks, a hat and one of the large canons. The presentation is very short and simple but still interesting (and that's coming from me who isn't interested in warships!) and usually amusing as the person doing the presentation will get people to dress up the clothes to see how heavy it is. You also get the chance to swing up into a hammock which you need upper body strength for! You have the choice of looking round the rest of the ship being told more facts aswell as being able to look in the big canon/gun part where they would have been loaded, aimed and fired. I think one of them actually still works and is let off for extremely rare occasions like the Ships anniversary (shows how much I paid attention...) but it was very interesting as the staff man let us get into places that the public are not usually allowed.
There is a very small café on board that offers some basic food and drink at typical London prices, when we stayed on board we had breakfast free and a small packed lunch for the day. None of us were really impressed with the food we were given as it was fairly cheap, the breakfast was especially tasteless but as it was free for people staying overnight I can't complain too much. It would have been okay for younger kids though, as it is usually younger children who have overnight school stays.
My favourite part of the ship is the Captians Room! In here you get a great view of the river and get to sit in the captions seat, great cheesy tourist picture moment. You can play around with the wheels and some of the buttons and pretend you are on the phone etc. (Just think of the episode of Outnumbered when they visit the HMS!) Although you have to be careful of some of the switches as I got told off once for flicking switches as many of them are still in use and actually control lights and things on the ship, although to be honest if they don't want people messing with these they should state so or cover them! Me and my friend were luckily enough to be in the room when two of the people who kept an eye on everything walked by and went into a little compartment and produced captain hats, coats and binoculars for us to play around with and gave new cheesy photos opportunities. This was fun as the coats swamped us because we were so small, the staff were friendly and told us more about the ship too and took photos of us together.
So onto my actual stay on the ship, which might be interesting for you as it is only on offer to schools or guides/scouts (if not, feel free to skip!). There is one person who stays on the ship at all times to look after the people staying and lock them in at night, at the time we stayed was early September and we were the only class on there so there was 8 pupils and 2 teachers (a very small art foundation course!). The part we stayed in is down below and was made up of two large rooms, usually one side for boys and one side for girls however as there was only one boy in our time group it was fair for him stay with all us girls for company! He did use the other rooms shower and toilet though haha. So each room has a small toilet room that was made of two cubicle style toilets and 2 showers, the toilets reminded me off school school toilets and I really would have hated using them if there had been more of staying on the boat. However I'm sure this would have been okay for younger children (I was 18 at the time so I like privacy!). The showers were fine, not overly tiny and easy to use. There is just one big button to press and then the water runs at a decent pressure for about 3minutes before it needs to be pressed again. It takes about a minute to warm up as it was FREEZING at first though. There is also a small compartment joined to the large room for the teachers to stay with their own bathroom.
The room looks pretty cold and very uninviting, almost a bit prison like actually, as it is supposed to remind you of how the men on board would have had to sleep. It has many of the original bedding that men in the WW2 would have slept on, fold out metal bunk beds with a thin hard plastic coated mattress on top with a horrible plastic pillow. The only windows were two small circles which could be opened but not large enough for anyone to climb out of. You have to bring your sleeping bag to stay overnight and I definitely suggest a pillow as the one offered is terrible. We all had a top bunk each as the bottom ones were so low to the floor and we were already so afraid it would be cold and it was difficult to sit on the bottom without crouching over.
When it was time for bed (for us 18years olds after a night at the pub hehe) was about half 11, the room is very dark when the lights get turned off but there are still emergency lights around the room that stay on all night. For me this is was very annoying as it was too light but it was a safety requirement and would probably be needed for younger people staying on the boat as I imagine it would probably be quite scary for them. The nights sleep was actually really, really hot, I'd hate to imagine what it would be like if the room was full and the middle of summer. The next night we opened one of the small windows and it made a slight difference, the two people closest the window were really cold and the rest of us slept a little better, although that might just because of the all walking we did! The room had about two small mirrors just about the right height for me (but luckily little kids don't need to see themselves to apply their makeup!) and a few plugs dotted around for hairdryers/ straightners. I think there was also a tv and vhs player but we didn't know about this so hadn't bought a video to play, but this would be a great idea for younger kids if they have trouble sleeping.
As scary as the staying on the ship sounds, we felt very safe as we were locked in every night and no one is allowed on at this time anyway, plus it's warship so it's pretty durable and can take any attacks... not there would be any haha. I wouldn't want to stay on the ship again as it was very uncomfortable plus I'm a 19 year old girl, it's not my idea of heaven, however not everyone can say they stayed on an original WWII ship can they? As much as I didn't particulary like it, it did bring our small group close which was the idea of it. I think it's a great opportunity for school trips as it's something different and also a lot cheaper than most hotels/hostels around London too plus you get breakfast and lunch included. Breakfast was bland and simple but there was quite a lot offered in the packed lunches and because we were such a small group we all ended up with two lunches each! Which we ended up passing onto some homeless people instead of eating or throwing away.
Overall I would recommend visiting the HMS Belfast as it is a cheap and interesting 'museum' type activity that offers something different to the usual history museums, some of it is quite boring but even after staying on it for four days we did not get to see the entire ship so I'm sure there's even more to explore. Another plus is that the boat doesn't move so no worry of sea sickness. I would recommend staying overnight on the ship to groups of children that are old enough to not get scared staying there (as it is a little scary!) and not in huge groups as there isn't many toilet/shower facilities available. We stayed on the boat as a 'team building' activity for everyone to get to know each other which really worked so I suggest it as a near the start of school trip too!
Wow this is the longest review I've ever written, hope I haven't bored to many of you who read it!
HMS Belfast was launched on St. Patrick's Day 1938 and used by the Royal Navy until 1965. In 1971 it was refurbished with a view to preserving a piece of British Naval History. It took part in many instrumental missions of the Second World War, including protection duties for Allied forces during the D-Day landings of 1944. If you have children or are secretly still just a big kid, or if you have an interest in Naval History you will have a whale of a time aboard HMS Belfast, located as she is right next to Tower Bridge and The Tower Of London. Admission rates are extremely reasonable for London, and came in at £5.50 for an adult last year, with significant reductions for children under 16 or full-time students. As part of the Imperial War Museum, tickets can be combined for further savings. There is no shortage of stairways to explore, revealing static displays of the ships crew, radar rooms, kitchens, engine rooms etc the list is endless!! The sheer size of such vessels has always been a surprise to me, as have the huge turrets and other armaments bristling along the upper decks of the ship. There is also an adequate cafe on board, which provides light refreshments etc, and the usual facilities. Disabled access is unfortunately somewhat restricted due to the very tight spaces and steep gangways etc. Nevertheless go and see it if you can and you'll end up learning much more than you would think, I certainly did!! The deck is also a great place to take pictures of Tower Bridge and the Thames, especially at dusk when the lights are on. I must warn you though that some parts of the ship are extremely claustrophobic, particularly in the lower decks and I found myself going outside for air quite often: goodness only knows how her crew put up with being inside for months at a time!!
If you need more information, the official website is: hmsbelfast.iwm.org.uk/
In the school holidays I thank my lucky stars that we live so close to London. What shall we do today? I know, lets get on the tube and go into town! Most of the time we don’t have any plans, but not knowing where we’re going is half the adventure. Last time I did this with Callum, who’s five, we ended up at HMS Belfast and decided to take a turn or two around its decks. You do have to pay to get on but if it’s a family outing it should be fairly inexpensive as under 16s go free. HMS Belfast is a cruiser, which was built in 1938 with the purpose of protecting convoys. She served extensively throughout WW2, providing cover for merchant fleet in the Arctic convoy, taking vital supplies to north Russia. She also played an important part in the D-Day Landings in Normandy. Later she served a lot of time in the Far East and supported UN forces during the Korean War. Anchored in the Thames just by Tower Bridge since 1971, she’s the sole surviving example of a Royal Navy gun armoured warship from the first half of the 20th century. It’s quite easy to reach; just a few minutes walk from London Bridge station. You get your tickets in the small shop that’s landside and then enter the boat via a long walkway or gangplank if you want to be nautical. Upon your arrival you are given a map of the boat which at first seems incomprehensible but if you just follow the numbered sections that are signposted throughout the ship, it’s quite easy and you can make it right around without missing anything out. You start the tour at the Quarterdeck, and the first of many steep stairs, more like a ladder, up to the Y Turret and its guns. Callum thought all this was great and marvelled at all the equipment, if a little put out that things like the phone receivers were screwed down and couldn’t be played with. We moved on through the ship, along the boatdeck where aircraft and boats used to be stored wh
en not in action. There was the first of several video information monitors here – TV screens showing a short video about the relevant part of the ship, with a combination of old footage, graphics and narration from a newsreadery type. We watched this first one because they were showing old reels of planes being launched into the air by a big catapult thingy, but afterwards we’d walk on by the screens. It was a bit like watching the History Channel on cable and we could have stayed at home to do that. Much more fun for children is the gun deck where they can play on two 40mm Bofors guns, winding big levers to elevate and train the guns. They also like sitting in the captain’s chair on the Bridge, fiddling with various buttons and controls and listening to the tape recreating the HMS Belfast’s part in the battle with the German warship Scharnhorst. Lots of shouting and gunfire create a sense of drama, but I found it slightly embarrassing. I much preferred to look out of the windows and imagine for myself, what it must have been like to be up on that Bridge out at sea. The drama on tape continued in the Operations Room, with spotlights lighting up various figures sitting at desks, or plotting out their course. The Wireless Room was stacked full of old radio equipment and faded black and white photos. The Officers Cabins were also restored to how they would have looked during WW2, before the boats refit. Even the Captains cabin looked basic with just a bunk, desk and chair, some shelves and a washbasin. Then you descend into the Mess Decks and realise it was luxury in comparison to the living conditions of the crew who slept in hammocks strung above the long wooden tables where men played cards, read and wrote letters to their loved ones when they weren’t on duty. In fact, there were so many crew on board during WW2 that some had to sleep in the Capstan Machinery Space, their hammocks strung between the machinery us
ed for anchoring the ship. In the far corner of this space are the Punishment Cells where sailors could be locked up for misdemeanours such as sleeping while on watch, being drunk on duty, or absconding without leave. They were locked up with basic rations and were only allowed to read The Bible or other books of a religious nature. A small section of the ship is given over to a permanent exhibition which takes you through the history of the HMS Belfast with artifacts including pages from a diary written by a young seaman who served on the ship. There’s also, poignantly, the telegram his mother received stating that he was missing in action, whilst serving on HMS Hood when it was sunk by the Bismarck in the Battle of the North Atlantic. There were also pictures of the handful of German sailors who survived after the Scharnhorst was sunk. From a crew of almost 2000 only 36 survived and they are shown here after they had been captured, blindfolded and being led off an Allied ship. Section seven on the HMS Belfast shows how the living quarters looked after the extensive refit following World War 2. You can see the sick bay, complete with operating tableland bunks. There is a dentist’s room and a small chapel, which is still sometimes, used today, and the galley where all the food was prepared. Further down, well below the waterline is the engine rooms, and the place where they stored all the shells and magazines for the ships guns. Surprisingly, the steering position is also situated down here. The man responsible for steering was actually all the way down in the bowels of the ship, in virtual darkness, taking instructions from someone up on the bridge who could see where they were going. Much of the boat has been kept as it was and you do get a real feel for what it must have been like to serve on-board all those years ago. Of course, some modifications have been necessary in order for it to cater for the visitors. The
re is a ca fé – the Walrus Café – next to the boat-deck that serves sandwiches, drinks and hot-dogs at not tooextortionate prices. HMS Belfast also caters for childrens parties and corporate functions. See their website for more details: iwm.org.uk/belfast/index.htm. I’ve just been there and noticed that in the October half-term they are going to have actors on board playing the part of crew, who will answer any questions you have about seafaring life. For the rest of the year, there are quite a few staff around who seem quite helpful if you have any questions. It is an interesting place to visit although there are a lot of very steep steps so it’s not advisable to go with very young children, ie under 2, unless you don’t mind carrying them everywhere. Access for the disabled is limited too. It takes about two hours to get round it all and if you have time afterwards, take a look at the new City Hall just nearby, and check out the exhibition inside that shows all the new building work going on in London at the moment.
HMS Belfast is a cruiser. She was launched in March 1938 and served throughout the Second World War, playing a leading part in the destruction of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst at the Battle of North Cape and in the Normandy Landings. After the war, she supported United Nations forces in Korea and remained in service with the Royal Navy until 1965. In 1971 she was saved for the nation as a unique and historic reminder of Britain’s naval heritage in the first half of the twentieth century. This is one of the paces that I have visited in London and it has to be one of the best. You can go look round the entire ship and relive the battle scenes that it encountered by listening to the tapes and looking at the models of the sailors all around it.
HMS Belfast is a World War 2 (WW2) Battle Cruiser moored on the south side of the River Thames just up river from Tower Bridge. The quickest way of getting to the ship is to take the tube to London Bridge, exit onto Tooley Street, and walk onto the embankment via the Hayes Galleria (also worth a look !). Its well sign posted. The Ship is part of the Imperial War Museum collection. Admission prices are pretty standard. When we went in February 2000, an adult cost £4.70 and children up to 5 were free. HMS Belfast was built in 1938 and served in WW2 and the Korean War. As battleships go, she is reasonably big but nothing compared with the preserved North American battleships e.g. USS North Carolina (or that one used in the Cher video). For the anoraks amongst us, she has 12 6-inch guns which makes her a relative minnow. In comparison the Bismarck had 15-inch guns. So what’s it like ? There’s quite a bit to see and climbing to do. Like most ships of its type, it has a mixture of steep stairs and steps. I would not recommend it for those who are disabled, very young or don’t like clambering around. My son (who was 3 at the time) hated the idea of climbing a vertical ladder but eventually found the gun turrets fascinating. On the shore side of the ship can be found an anti-aircraft gun. One person can turn the gun whilst another can raise the barrel. We managed to point it at Tower Bridge and would have blown it away had we had the ammo !! Going below decks, you can visit the bridge where a noisy tape recreates the chase of the one of Germany’s battleships during WW2. I think it was Bismarck. You are able to visit the Mess and see some wax figures making a meal. There is also a museum describing the workings of the Royal Navy. If you like ships and want to spend half a day seeing what it was like aboard a battleship – give it a try. However if you find climbing up and down ladders is not for you – the
n give it a miss.