What?: Along with the National Army Museum and RAF Museum, the HMS Belfast is one tourist attraction I’d never have bothered with pre-child. While I find the human side of war fascinating I’d be fibbing if I said warships and military aircraft excite me, but then we’ve had such success with London’s other war-themed museums (the NAM has an amazing soft-play area and the RAF Museum’s playground is hands down my favourite in London) that it seemed rude not to give this one a whirl – despite the slightly exorbitant entry price.
Initially part of the British naval blockade against Germany during the Second World War, HMS Belfast was also used during the Korean War before being extensively modernised in the late-1950s and eventually opened as a museum in 1971. As you’d expect, the ship is a time-warp; less artefacts in glass cases, more “let’s pretend it’s 1950 and you’re a petty officer in the Royal Navy”. In places it’s a little bit too realistic thanks to the museum’s band of merry mannequins – all of whom appeared to be related and reminiscent of characters from the classic edition of Guess Who.
There used to be dozens of these mannequins demonstrating the various duties and pastimes of those aboard the Belfast but in 2016 the IWM commissioned contractors to remove 57 of them, leaving just a skeleton crew of waxy workers. I didn’t visit the museum pre-cull but it does seem a bit of a shame that they axed so many since they really help create a sense of what it must have been like to be a sailor on the ship – particularly for young children. Babu loved the mannequins and kept holding their hands as if she felt bad for them being stuck down below deck with no windows, and even though they were proper creepy it would have been a bit dull without them being dotted around, eagerly peeling potatoes and drilling holes in their shipmates’ teeth (the dentist bit was actually awful and I had to sit on the floor with my head between my legs for a little bit afterwards).
The biggest bummer about the museum, aside from the recent loss of mannequins, is its pretty extreme inaccessibility. While there is a lift running between the gangway and the Quarterdeck, if you want to get the most out of your £18 and visit all nine decks you will find yourself doing a lot of carrying children up ladders and I’d recommend one adult per child (including unborn children) and slings for pre-walkers, else it just ain’t happening. The engine rooms are also only suitable for those over 4ft, so they’re out for under-5s anyway (unless your child is unusually lanky). At eight months pregnant (and unable to fit through the ladder shaft without first removing my rucksack), I have to say I was pretty knackered by the end of our two-hour visit and I wasn’t even the one carrying Babu. So, y’know, think on that.
Ladders aside, I did actually really rate the museum for under-5s. You’re completely left to your own devices – unless you happen to bump into one of the freakishly knowledgable volunteers – and you can basically touch whatever you want, including all the controls on the bridge, which obviously Babu loved. The maze-like interior of the ship with all of its various dioramas more than makes up for the lack of techy interactives since you feel like you’ve literally stepped back in time, which actually helps form a better understanding of what you’re dealing with – particularly for young kids who haven’t yet learnt to read.
Where?: HMS Belfast can be found on The Queen’s Walk, opposite Hay’s Galleria. London Bridge station is a six-minute walk away.
Best Bits: Hands down the mannequins, who all looked like they should have names like Ricky and Glen.
Worst Bits: The ladders were a pain. That and it’s not exactly the cheapest day out.
Facilities: Baby changing, buggy parking, cafe, no step-free access.
Price: £18 per adult on the door, free for under-5s.
Would We Come Back?: No, I feel like we’ve seen it now.
Babu makes friends below-deck at the HMS Belfast, London Bridge.