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Belfast is back – veteran cruiser reopens to public after major revamp

Dazzle-painted Belfast at her mooring near Tower Bridge
7 July 2021
The passages, mess decks, turrets and myriad compartments of HMS Belfast will once again echo with voices tomorrow as the legendary warship reopens to the public.

The veteran cruiser – the last reminder of an era when guns were the Royal Navy’s principal weapon – has completed a 15-month refit on the Thames.


The ship – which celebrates 50 years as a floating museum in London on Trafalgar Day – hasn’t welcomed a single tourist aboard since March last year and the first days of the first lockdown.


Curators, historians and conservation experts have used the enforced closure to bring forward their ten-year plan to overhaul the cruiser and significantly improve the visitor experience.


They have drawn on the extensive collection of first-hand accounts, private papers, documents and diaries held by the Imperial War Museum – which looks after the warship on behalf of the nation – to begin re-telling the Belfast story.


So far they’ve revamped 2 Deck – the main deck open to visitors – with the focus on the ship’s role after World War 2 and her time in Korea.


These are stories less well-known than Belfast’s actions on the convoys to the Soviet Union or off Normandy.


And in due course the curatorial team intend to re-tell those famous episodes anew as part of the ongoing overhaul of the ship.

I hope that we have got the balance and tone right – between the serious side of HMS Belfast, and the fun, the life aboard for the men

Rob Rundle, Curator, HMS Belfast

But for now, curator Rob Rundle is delighted to celebrate Belfast’s role off Korea at the beginning of the 1950s.


“We are blessed with a wealth of rich personal stories, memoirs and the like. The widow of Surgeon Lieutenant Tony Rowan left us his papers and his recollections of Korea were so vivid we decided to tell the story of that war through the sick bay.”


As a junior doctor, Rowan dealt with all manner of ailments – from venereal disease to the casualties of war, all thoroughly documented, at times in bleak terms.


His story is brought to life through film, a recreation of his office and soundscapes – probably the first thing visitors will notice stepping aboard.


Peppered around the ship are 3D speakers which bring compartments to life with chatter, the noise of machines at work, the chippies toiling in the workshop, the cooks (as they were then) in the expansive galley. It’s effective, authentic and definitely not gimmicky. 


For younger visitors various interactive displays have been installed – especially in the galley – to give them a flavour of life aboard and what it took to run a major warship (5,600 sausages a week, inter alia, apparently.)


Serving sailors who have never visited Belfast will find her closer to today’s warships than they might imagine – piping, wiring, ducts and vents are everywhere, there’s little space in the mess decks, and meals are still served from a food counter (the offerings in 2021 are a little healthier than the meat and two veg on offer to the cruiser’s crew).


“I hope that we have got the balance and tone right – between the serious side of HMS Belfast, and the fun, the life aboard for the men.


“We think of Belfast as a ‘living machine’. Looking after her is a formidable challenge – there is a huge amount of maintenance required. But it is also hugely rewarding.”


HMS Belfast is open daily from tomorrow until September 5. Visitors must book a time slot in advance to tour her via:

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