HMS Belfast review
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I wouldn't mind joining the Navy for six months and sailing around the world on a boat. Six months in Hawaii would be nice... maybe stopping off at the Bahamas and the Caribbean for a few days. As long as there's not an actual war going on then it would probably be quite fun. I could be the good-looking guy who presses all the buttons on the bridge. As soon as they've decided what to shoot I could tell everyone to stand back and then press the button and retire to my cabin and listen to Mozart -- job done for another day. (Knowing me I'd probably press the wrong button and sink the ship.)
The last time I came to HMS Belfast I definitely remember enjoying it, but the thing that most sticks in my mind is the scary stairs between decks. This is a war ship so there's no room for proper staircases.
Luckily my knees are okay today so I should be fine (not that you care).
One of the reasons why I like this boat so much is because it is staffed by a full compliment of waxwork sailors, but they do actually have some real Navy crew walking around in uniform too, and sometimes you mix them up with the waxworks (seriously!). I walked into a communications room filled with computers and radios and heard the sound of someone going "bravo, niner, you are cleared for loading" (or something like that), and assumed that it was just a tannoy recording to set the scene; but then I turned the corner and found myself face-to-face with a Navy sailor doing his day job! It's almost like being aboard a working boat.
You can pretty much walk wherever you want and explore every deck from top to bottom. You don't have to do it in any particular order (you just punch a number into your audio guide when you find a room, and it will tell you what it was used for). You can visit the mess, the cabins, the chapel, the engine rooms and communications equipment, the gun rooms and armoury, the bridge and the dentist... it's never ending. Even the mundane stuff like the baker's and sailmaker's workshop have been properly kitted out to look exactly like they were in their hey-day. The audio guide is about as detailed as it you'd wish it to be. Along with the descriptions they've got recollections from the actual crew and memories of what life was like on board. I suppose we should be grateful that HMS Belfast led a lucky life, as there are plenty of recollections to go around. If they re-ran the war then this is the boat you want to be on.
The ship is almost like a little city with every kind of amenity you need. They've got a little tuck shop-style canteen selling 1940s groceries like Bovril and Lifebouy soap (remember Spangles? and liquorice torpedoes?) They've got a little hospital ward and an operating room too, with a poor waxwork patient being sliced up by a waxwork doctor (I hope he knows what he's doing — he seems half asleep to me).
The mess deck is pretty fantastic with the hammocks strung across the walls and the sounds of conversations and card games coming out the speakers. These waxworks are noisier than the humans! You can see them playing dominoes and writing letters back home, laughing and kipping in a quiet corner, all frozen in a snapshot of time. Some of them have got one arm hanging out the bunk with the mouths lolling open. I'm always complaining about traffic noise in my hotel room, but jesus christ... these guys have got their hammocks strung above the actual machinery! Imagine sleeping two inches from two more blokes and five inches from a boiling steaming machine pumping out oil and smoke and water.
The whole boat is alive with the sounds and noise of life on board. When you go into the Operations Room for example, you get a flood of radio messages and helicopters flying high overhead, and people barking out the orders. All the lights are flashing and the radar screens are spinning and it feels like something serious is about to kick off.
I love the period music being piped out of the speakers too — they've got old World War II tunes and Dame Vera Lynn floating through the cramped metal corridors and it gives you a real nostalgic feeling.
The deepest you can go is the shell room below the water line. Hopefully they are all duds because they've got a couple of hundred lying around where any idiot could fiddle with them. You can racks full of them and where they fed them up the tubes to the big guns at the top. I hate to think what it must have been like working down here... can you imagine? In a boiling hot claustrophobic metal box filled with deafening clanks and bangs and the rocking and rolling of the boat, surrounded by fire and flames if you make a mistake.
At the top of the boat is the Admiral's Bridge, where you can have a sit down in his seat and pretend that you've spotted the Bismarck sailing past London Bridge. They've got one of those rotating radar screens with orange blips on it (German tourists?). I'm not sure what all the other buttons and levers are for, but I still pressed them anyway. Nothing happened. Nothing blew up. So I tried pressing them harder but still nothing happened.
The highest you can go is up to the Director Control Tower (the turret that sits above the main deck guns). Once you get up there and have a look around you'll be surprised how high you've climbed -- you're probably about the same height as a four-storey building. You get some good views of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London from up there.
There's nothing like standing on the open deck of a battleship with the cold wind in your face and the Arctic rainwater coming in sideways and getting you drenched. Especially when you're in the shadow of a 6-inch cannon.
I notice that they've plugged up the barrels of all the guns to stop the kids dropping bananas down them. The big ones at the front seem to be pointing towards St. Paul's Cathedral, which is a bit worrying -- I hope they haven't loaded them by mistake. (Can you imagine the trouble they'd be in if they blew up St. Paul's?) While you're on the deck try and find the A-Turret and step inside there — what a smell! It's almost like a burning oil smell and it feels like the guns have been firing all morning.
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