HMS Belfast – Welcome Back Aboard

Last year, the impact of the Global Pandemic saw the closure of the entirety of the Imperial War Museum estate to public access, museums and cultural attractions across the nation closed for the first time in decades to events outside their control. With the easing of restrictions last summer, nearly all attractions under the organisation reopened under Covid secure guidelines and ever since, where laws permitted they have attempted to operate providing a cultural attraction to a predominantly domestic audience desperate for new or familiar experiences to draw comfort from. At Duxford, benefiting from the wide open spaces afforded by the converted airfields this was relatively easy to accomplish and the impact was less visible and felt, to returning audiences. In the Churchill War Rooms, the experience was largely the same though more formal with a directed route through the interior that was previously open to explore at whim. The one attraction that has remained closed for the duration of the Pandemic was the former battleship HMS Belfast moored on the River Thames, visible on the riverbank but shut off given the confined nature of a visit to the ship. Many aspects of Belfast below decks were historically, and indeed remain constricted in their access and it was understandable without significant restrictions to access how she would remain a viable attraction over the last sixteen months.

With Government Restrictions starting to ease and significant work undertaken in the intervening months, it was an absolute delight to once more, step aboard this historic battleship in the heart of the Capital on it’s opening weekend to the public. Perhaps, fortuitous this year marks the 50th anniversary of its arrival in London as a floating, historic museum, plans had been prepared to mark this occasion though of course no one could have foreseen the devastating impact to the cultural sector in the UK, so it was a relief to finally walk down the gangway and to step foot aboard Belfast. It was with a slight trepidation, a significant aspect of visiting the ship involves the ability to explore the restricted spaces of the engineering deck below the waterline accessible by narrow and tight walkways and closed spaces, not ideal during a viral pandemic. Equally, the narrow passage ways and ladders leading to the upper decks. Before this first visit in almost two years, the main concern was of course would these areas be open still or accessible or like other aspects of visits to sites on its estate, would their be restrictions to your access curtailing the enjoyment of your visit. Would it be a singular route within the interior transforming the experience of your visit similar to Britannia that managed to open and operate where Belfast struggled to do so.

Given its location and exposure to the elements, it was impossible to simply close this ship down and wait for the storm to pass. Instead, during the intervening months, the restoration and conservation teams have been working to bring this ship up to standard. Looking to freshen up many of the more tired and aged displays aboard ship that personified certain compartments and areas but did feel a little of their time. It was in desperate of modernising the visitor experience aboard ship and it was nice to see they have used this time to create a more interactive and informative onboard experience without sacrificing the historical character and nature of the vessel. From the exterior which has benefited from repainting the hull and smartening up her appearance to new exhibits aboard focusing more on her deployment and service during the Korean War which was touched up previously but now has a greater visibility and exposure. You do lament the enforced closure over the last sixteen months, and the financial impact its had upon this organisation, equally, it has afforded this type of restoration work to be undertaken without the interruption of visitors and guests aboard that has notably improved the visitor experience in contrast to other visits. It is an historical military vessel, there are only so many changes you can make, but with Government restrictions starting to ease, you hope, once more, the significant investment made to preserve this ship for prosperity sake will pay off in the long run.

“HMS Belfast is so much more than a museum, she is a historic site, a witness to the world during the most challenging times of the 20th Century, and a veteran in her own right. Over the past year and a half we have gone to great lengths to ensure the necessary conservation and restoration works have taken place in order to preserve this veteran of war, as well as enhanced the onboard visitor experience and exhibition spaces to bring the history of this Royal Navy warship to life.”

Diane Lees, Director General of the IWM – Royal Navy MOD

Finding Your Way Below Deck

The nature of HMS Belfast as an historical museum meant it was unable to reopen last year when other aspects of the Imperial War Museum opened once more for guests. In that intervening time, there has been a concerted effort to clean up and modernise this attraction whilst retaining its historical charm and qualities. Stepping aboard this historic ship, you immediately realise how much more spacious and open the aft deck towards the stern of the ship is with the audio guides and ticket collection now relocated on land. It affords a more pleasant view of this part of Belfast without feeling constrained by a clutter of deck furniture. The basic layout and attractions are almost identical with no significant changes although a number of auxiliary rooms and compartments have been restored and opened back up to the public that made a welcome change to see more of the story of the ship during her operational history. Stepping into the main deck corridor, the usual familiar signs of operating in a new world after the Global Pandemic with the presence of directional markers and hand sanitiser points at regular intervals. There wasn’t an observable effort to control guests or visitors, left very much to there own judgement to enter compartments where others were present though with timed entry aboard the ship certainly in contrast to prior visits it did feel a little quieter and less crowded. The main area of concern or intrigue on this particular visit was to see how access to the lower decks which are incredibly confined and narrow was managed, it was interesting to note with the exception of the usual distancing markers there really wasn’t that much entry control in operation.

The engine and boiler rooms are one of the ships more unique areas to explore on your visit. In contrast to Britannia, of a similar age but designed and built for a very different purpose, which closed off its engine room to visitors, you do have some access to explore below decks, to feel and see the crew experience during operations and conflict. It is incredibly narrow and tight to navigate around, advisory warnings on height to those looking to take children and minors down into this part of the ship. As such, there is little room to navigate and in the present day, you were more aware of those around you being in close proximity to each other. It requires a degree of common sense and self discipline in waiting patiently for others to move forward along the gangways before proceeding forward. It has been cleaned up a little with the interactive elements repaired and working again or replaced entirely and modernised. Of interest, the audio guide provided at the start of the tour had no commentary on this section of your visit, discouraging guests and visitors from stopping too long in these tight spaces and compartments which worked, to an extent although it did take away from the informative nature of visiting an historical museum ship. Understandable, and perhaps an area when social distancing isn’t a determining factor will be expanded but in contrast to other areas of the ship you did feel its absence. There weren’t many changes to this aspect of the tour, directing you back through the workshops up to the main deck though in the steering compartment near the mess hall, this area has been transformed with an interactive steering game and experience that was enjoyable to try out.

Artic Deck games tables
Steering Compartment
Boiler Room

One of the more noticeable changes is the removal and replacement of the character models situated in the various rooms and compartments, replaced with video screens detailing more personal accounts and narratives of the ships operational history. Back when I last visited Belfast, they felt and looked antiquated and of their time, a fun, quaint inclusion but certainly it didn’t feel in keeping with the more serious and sombre nature of the location as an historical museum ship. They always struck me as more fitting to a haunted house or wax work museum, thankfully, a fortunate benefit of the enforced closure over the last year has been their removal and a concerted effort to modernise these areas of the ship which were both welcome and moving in their narrative and accounts. An example of this, the ships medical bay which now has a visual presentation of the efforts of the ships doctor and medical staff serving during the ships deployment during the Korean war that was humbling to watch the efforts of the Navy to save lives. Situated beside the consultation office which has now been opened for public access, it was great to see this recognition and effort to bring this attraction up to standard for a modern audience. Using a similar approach to the RAF Museum in Colindale, life size cut outs of the ships real crew and officers are present on the open desks that serve to give a name to a face when you tour the ship and read about their service to the country. The Main Deck has seen the majority of the changes over the last year, the old museum on the Port Side replaced with a new interactive gaming area allowing visitors to play a level from World of Warships with the use of Belfast as an exclusive addition to this popular online game. Another compartment with media stations allowing you to listen and watch the history of this vessel. Here, perhaps a step too far towards the modern day with a number of exhibits removed entirely but on balance an understandable approach to appeal to a demanding audience.

The Artic Deck towards the front of the front of the ship has been tidied up with a number of the closed off sections where the rope hammocks were situated cleared to allow a more spacious and open environment to move around. This is certainly an improvement from before, whilst projecting an image of life aboard ship it always felt a little confined and repetitive. Instead, a number of tables are now open to sit at with various games and past times the crew would have used to entertain themselves when at sea. It reminded me of a similar approach used at Hampton Court that introduces historical board games to a modern audience. The front compartment, accessible through an access hatch is still largely unchanged and home to one of the more enjoyable pastimes of a photo as a prisoner aboard ship. It affords you a brief exposure to everyday life as a crew member aboard the ship, for example when you see how four crewmen had to sleep above the anchor housing you feel a great sense of privilege to have a bed to yourself, but equally, opens up as a more pleasurable viewing experience that balances the need to both educate and entertain in equal measure. Personally, I feel this new approach here works and was a great example of the effort over the last year to modernise and transform the interior of the ship into a more appealing attraction to visit. Little else above the main deck has changed, the tower experience and upper decks is enjoyable to explore and affords an opportunity to capture a photo sitting in the Captain’s seat that appeals to the adventurous Naval spirit in us all. There was scope to modernise the operations room I felt but for the most part, with the exception of the Main Deck, the experience of visiting Belfast remains the same, with certain limitations in place to direct visitors but a more relaxed enforcement in contrast to other attractions.

In Summary

It felt like the last, great attraction in London to open up to guests and visitors after the restrictions enforced upon the culture sector over the last year. Having visited this ship on numerous occasions in the preceding years, it was a welcome relief to receive notification that Belfast was reopening again after a period of enforced closure and could once more operate in a practical and safe manner for the well being of its guests and staff. Having visited this ship before, when the decision was made to keep her closed due to the challenges of operating an attraction that required its visitors to move in close proximity to each other during a time where a transmissible virus was present, it was entirely understandable so I was curious to see how she operated given these same challenges remain in the world around it. For the most part, from observation it’s reliant almost entirely on the self control and judgement of visitors to practise social distancing from each other inside the interior of the ship. Admirable, though it does leave you feeling a little hesitant moving into more confined spaces when exploring the lower decks and engine rooms for example. It uses a similar approach to Britannia, the former Royal Yacht docked in Edinburgh that we visited last year that faces a number of similar challenges in terms of space and access but manages to overcome this limiting numbers aboard at any one time with a strict directional system in place between decks as you move progressively down towards the engine room.

On Belfast, given her design and the fact a number of compartments remain sealed and closed off from public access in particular the rear of the ship, the direction system aboard feels more advisory and whilst there is scope to move freely between sections, you do have to practise some self control to avoid causing obstructions. In an ordinary world, not too great an issue to manage but in the here and now, you are acutely aware of others around you. That said, as we move back towards a more open society with responsibilities returned from Government to the general public, it seemed more of a successful example of personal judgement than I had expected and served to show reducing the volume of guests aboard at one time could serve the same purpose as strict enforcement measures which can work but take away the spirit of enjoyment in a location such as this. As noted earlier, one of my main objectives was to see how the ship had adapted to the modern world it finds itself, in particular the narrow walk ways of the engine room which were closed off and tight before. In short, given their historical design and purpose, very little has changed beyond obligatory distancing signs and hand sanitiser placed sporadically throughout the compartments. It worked, to a degree, but I was relieved when we climbed up the access ladders onto the Main Deck and stepped outside on the Upper Deck to enjoy a brief respite from being inside. I wouldn’t want to be down there on a busy day in the Summer.

The work to modernise the interior has been a remarkable success and brings to life the personal narratives of the sailors and officers in a more meaningful way in contrast to the use of aged wax models placed sporadically within. The use of technology is evident, from the interactive cooking stations in the galley that were fun to play with to the video presentations in the medical bay that highlighted the Belfast role in the Korean war. The use of gaming is a novelty and the collaboration between the Imperial war Museum and the World of Battleships game to introduce the ship as exclusive content was a smart marketing touch but does use an area of the ship that was previously an interesting museum in its own right and seems to focus more towards the interactive over the educational. As the ship celebrates its anniversary year it makes a real difference to those returning after a long absence to see how this museum has transformed and changed in this period of history. There is of course scope to continue to open up and modernise throughout its interior, there are a still a number of compartments and bays closed off including a substantial amount of the engine bays below decks that would be interesting to explore in its entirety. With restraint and self control, it remains one of London’s more unique and distinct attractions on the Thames to visit, with returning numbers back aboard it provides a valuable source of income to the Museum group who were impacted by the events of the last year. You just long for the moment when all restrictions are lifted and the ship can open up to a larger audience that will afford her the opportunity to continue the push towards modernisation and restoration.

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