Museums reviewed by parents: HMS Belfast
Put yourself in the place of WWII British sailors by exploring the decks, guns, sleeping quarters, engines and control rooms of the HMS Belfast, one of only three surviving bombardment vessels from D-Day. Launched in 1938, the HMS Belfast served 24 years of active service spanning both World War II and the Korean War. After a passionate campaign to save the ship from being scrapped, in 1971 it was opened to the public from a berth on the Thames in London. Now a stately 80 years old, the HMS Belfast is a landmark that all ages can enjoy.
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Best for nursery and Reception kids
Decks 1 and 2 are accessible without stairs and allow access to the forecastle, forward gun turret, café, boat deck (all on deck 1) and many of the crew facilities such as the galley, laundry and the restored 'Arctic' messdecks (on deck 2). The route through the boiler and engine room is off-limits to carried children and anyone under 120 cm (4 foot) tall.
Best for KS1 kids
Other highlights were the forecastle on deck 1, where you can go right up to the bow of the ship, see the anchors and look back towards the forward gun turrets and the bridge. On the captain's and admiral's bridges, you can sit in the tall chairs, pretend to give orders through a microphone, and try out other bits of equipment. Also, in the map room there's an interactive game based on searching for a wrecked fighter jet during a NATO exercise (based on a real incident that the HMS Belfast was involved in). My son never found the jet, but he had fun trying!
As well as the ship itself, we loved the clear views of nearby landmarks such as The Shard, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. If you can make it all the way up to the flag deck then you'll be rewarded with even better views than you get from the main decks and a great place to watch the boats go by on the river.
While my son is tall, he's below the 120cm/4ft minimum height allowed to explore the boiler and engine rooms so we weren't able to see those.
Best for KS2 kids
Each of the areas that KS1s would find exciting would also have that bit more meaning to children who have started learning about World War II and D-Day, and as it's such a large ship there are sure to be new discoveries with each visit.
Look out for the ship's cat, Frankenstein, 'asleep' on his own hammock in the Arctic messdecks. And, for those who really want to experience the life of sailors on board the HMS Belfast, groups of children can 'Kip in a Ship' and stay overnight, sleeping in sailors' bunks!
Half-term and holiday events for families
Check out "Ship shape Saturdays" – included with the price of admission – in which you can not only learn about what it takes to keep the HMS Belfast in good condition but also help out yourself! You could be restoring fittings and furniture, caring for fabrics with specialised tools or participating in pest control.
Food and drink options
The café may look small, but it's well stocked with the basics. We spent about two hours on the ship and couldn't have made it without stopping for lunch, taking advantage of a generous "5 items for £5" deal that includes sandwiches, crisps, a drink and sweet treats. There are also cakes and hot drinks, and a continually-playing documentary about the HMS Belfast that my son was entranced by.
Getting there, prices and opening hours
Entry is £17 for adults and £8.50 for 5-15-year-olds, or go for the range of family tickets that start at £28.90. Book online for 10% off all ticket prices. Under 5s are free.
Opening hours are 10am-5pm, with last admission is at 4pm (closed 24, 25 & 26 December)..
Pocket-money shop purchases
The shop is small, but there is a range of items under £10. My son gravitated towards a £9 fighter jet (with sounds, of course). At a slight splurge is the £14 soft toy Frankenstein cat.
Online treasures if you're too far to visit
You'll find lots more about the history of the HMS Belfast on the website, including a detailed, interactive timeline of the ship's history. You can even see a video of the 1938 launch!
Links to the National Curriculum
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