diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 22, 2008

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 24: HMS Belfast

Location: Morgan's Lane, Tooley Street SE1 2JH [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (10-5 in winter)
Admission: £10.30 (under 16s free)
5-word summary: explore a preserved battle cruiser
Website: hmsbelfast.iwm.org.uk
Time to set aside: half a day

HMS BelfastI must have passed HMS Belfast scores of times, thinking it couldn't possibly be particularly worth a visit. I mean, it's just an old warship dumped in the Thames, and since when was a mothballed naval vessel interesting? But I was persuaded by visiting family members to give it a try, not least because two of them were still young enough to visit absolutely free of charge. And what do you know, it's fascinating. The whole multi-deck experience was like a cross between a museum and an assault course - perfect for keeping a couple of boys engaged and active. And all this plus a great view of Thames-side London too. Come on, down the gangplank.

It soon became obvious that mid 20th century warships didn't really do stairs. Steep ladder-type ascents yes, but gently-rising staircases no. You won't get up to the first gun turret in heels, that's for sure, but we were a testosterone-only party so we scrambled up with ease. Then through a doorway into the massive ship, along the main deck past a huge torpedo and some fairly unconvincing mannequins. We listened to our audio wand commentary relating not-quite thrilling stories of the laundry, the chapel and the mail room, and we hoped that the historical thrills picked up soon. They did.

HMS Belfast (Engine Room)No young children under four foot beyond this point. Youngest nephew was delighted to discover he was a few inches over, and we headed off down two steep ladders into the bowels of the ship. Voila, the boiler room - capable of being sealed off from the rest of the ship in case the steam ever erupted into an uncontrollable explosion. It's proper pipe-y down here, with valves and wheels and dials (and an informative video recording explaining how the stokers did their job). And just when we thought the designated route might be ascending back to the main deck, no, it was right back down again into the claustrophobic engine room nextdoor. It's not every day you get to clamber around a series of metal chambers in the middle of London below the level of the Thames, and we relished the opportunity.

Upstairs was still full of dodgy plastic soldiers, cooking plastic vegetables in the galley or hanging from ropey hammocks on the messdeck. There were also a couple of small museums, not quite interactive enough to entertain the youngest but still a necessary part of the experience. HMS Belfast, we learned, was a town-class cruiser commissioned four weeks before WW2 erupted, and survived only a few months into the war before being crippled by a single magnetic mine. It took three years to make her seaworthy again, just in time to protect our Arctic convoys and take the lead in the D-Day landings. She then saw post-war service in the Far East, before finally being saved from scrap and relocated in the Pool of London as a museum ship in 1978. Yes, it's OK kids, we can leave the museum now and go for a couple more scrambles down to the steering chamber and the magazine.

HMS Belfast (from the fo'c'sle)Eventually we climbed back out into the fresh air on the boat deck. It was impressive to stand at the front of the ship, beside chunky snaking anchor chains, and to look back towards the main gun battery. Photo opportunity now, boys. And one last ascent, this time right to the top of the ship via the bridge and wireless office. An opportunity to see the slightly more luxurious officers' quarters and lots more guns, plus an excellent view of the Tower and Tower Bridge from the highest platform. We were, by now, experts at scurrying up and down near vertical steps, which was just as well because there were several more sets here.

We gave the cafe a miss, sorry, because we had Borough Market in mind as a more discriminating lunchtime experience. So once the final audio history snippet had played out, we handed in our guides to the smiling officers on the quarterdeck and trooped back up the pier to the gift shop. Such restraint, not even a novelty captain's hat or a souvenir pencil sharpener. And we were pleasantly surprised to discover that, without trying, we'd spent nearly two and a half hours touring around London's finest maritime time capsule. How many times have you been past without exploring inside?
by train/tube: London Bridge  by bus: 47, 343, 381, RV1

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