Take a tour aboard the historic HMS Belfast

Date Posted: 17/06/2011

Sophie Maddern climbed aboard the HMS Belfast for a taste of the latest tours that have just been launched.

The Imperial War Museum’s HMS Belfast is a retired ship that is now permanently moored on the River Thames, and the 73-year-old vessel has just begun to host private tours on board. The Yeoman (fully trained members of staff that have unparalleled knowledge of the Belfast’s history) will show groups around the 7 habitable decks of the ship, stopping at various focal points along the way. I shall tell you more. 

Tour Highlights

With the chance to view the areas where the men used to sleep and eat, tours include the Navigation room and the Operations room – the nerve centre of the entire ship.

On the tours, groups will get to see the Navigation room, where the actual log book is on display. You will even be able to examine the page where the HMS Belfast was one of the first to fire on D-Day. From here, follow your Yeoman up and down the ladders, making sure to duck your head under the various pipes, and pick your feet up over the many edges and dips in the floor. As you walk around group members may even be able to feel the boat move, as it can go up and down 20-feet over the year with the river.

Tour groups are limited to a maximum of 12 people, and are available outside of the hours that the ship is normally open. Each tour lasts about an hour, and an interesting extra is being able to go behind the barriers for special photo opportunities. If you’re part of a group of six to twenty people, you can also book various food packages for your excursion to the vessel – afternoon tea, a sandwich lunch, or a lunch bag for children.

What I got up to...

At a special event on board, I got to sample the tours, meet the “captain” Rear-Admiral Burnett, and listen to The Sweethearts, a band that dressed in period clothing and played war time music as well as more modern tunes. Our Yeoman, Michael Smith, even told us about the times he’s spoken with veterans that have served on the HMS Belfast in the past, and how 90 per cent of the crew members on board would have chosen to join the Navy, rather than being conscripted.
Visitors will be able to hear about how the ship assisted in the sinking of the Scharnhorst, was one of the first to fire on D-Day, and assisted with the evacuation of the survivors of the Japanese prisoner of war camp from Shanghai, China. These are just a few of the interesting anecdotes and pieces of information that guests aboard the HMS Belfast will have the chance to hear as they tour the vessel.

There are models of the ‘crew’ all over the ship in various situations – men napping in their hammocks or having their teeth pulled. If you look overhead as you wander through the maze that is the ships internal workings, you will be able to look up and see hooks around and about. These hooks would have been used to hang hammocks up for excess soldiers on board.

New features

For returning groups, the operations room (which you can see on the tours) has recently been decked out with simulation radars, just like the HMS Belfast would have had after its modernisation in 1956, as well as games for visitors to play. There are two touch screen games in the room, both of which are based on the real-life Pony Express exercise of 1961, and are apparently quite addictive, according to my guide, Michael.

In July, the HMS Belfast will be launching the Gun Turret Experience: A Sailor’s Story, 1943. Visitors will get to stand in an area where there would have been 26 men all working at one time to keep the guns going. The experience will be brought to life with lights, videos and projections. There are four gun turrets on board, and the two at the front (or ‘aft’ of the ship) are aimed 12.5 miles away at the London Gateway Service station on the M1, as a reminder of the power these ships have.

General admission rates for groups of 10 or more are £10.40 for adults, and senior citizens and students can enter for £9.10. The new tours are limited to a maximum of 12 people and priced between £190 to £360, depending on the seniority of the staff and the time of the tour.

Useful contact:

HMS Belfast:
020-7940 6333

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