LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Stride the bridge like a captain, trawl through the massive engine room and learn all about how Britain built the ships which ruled the waves onboard a British battleship that survived World War Two.
Climb aboard the HMS Belfast, which is permanently moored on London’s south bank between London Bridge and Tower Bridge to see its “Launch! Shipbuilding Through the Ages” exhibition, which is on until the end of the year.
You’ll have to do a bit of looking to find the exhibition, wandering the vast ship until you hear the sounds of hammering and tinkering coming from a hatch in the deck.
Clamber through this hatch, down the steep steps, and you’ll find yourself in the mess deck where sailors used to sleep in a ship which served the nation during World War Two and Korea.
Here in the mess deck, the exhibition covers hundreds of years of ship-building methods, from wooden boats in the Middle Ages through to the steel liners of today.
“This is more authentic than a regular museum,” Canadian tourist James Hailstone said as he viewed the exhibits.
“It’s different, it’s unique, it’s fun,” he added. “You don’t see much information like this around.”
The tinkering noises, you discover now you’re inside the room, come from interactive video displays about boat building.
The exhibition focuses particularly on large ships, and HMS Belfast itself certainly is enormous. The vessel’s mast reaches 35 meters and the boat, at 187 meters long, stretches as far as 18 double decker buses parked end to end.
It took 144 men to manually raise the anchors of this vessel which could consume as much as 26 tonnes of furnace oil an hour.
The boat’s six inch guns, meanwhile, could hurl a 51 kg shell about 22 km or 14 miles.
Grainy black and white photographs in the exhibition take visitors back to the day HMS Belfast, built in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, was launched in 1938.
But not all boats built at Harland and Wolff lasted as long as HMS Belfast. The shipyard also built the Titanic.
The exhibition explains that the ship which fatally struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 had been kitted out with a swimming pool, gymnasium, Turkish bath, squash court and libraries.
Launch also celebrates the important role women played in ship-building during World War Two when many men had gone off to fight.
With many British shipyards under attack from the German Luftwaffe’s bombers, much of the ship-building was outsourced to the United States where women were vital to the workforce.
Illustrating the importance of the women’s work in U.S. ship-building, an exhibit shows the front cover of the Saturday Evening Post from May 1943. A Norman Rockwell image depicts “Rosie the Riveter” who represented women working in factories in the Second World War.
Rosie, her biceps bulging, holds a ham sandwich in one hand while a rivet gun rests on her lap and one foot crushes a copy of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf.”
Some staggering facts in Launch underline the hard work that has gone into ship-building over the years.
HMS Victory, the 18th century flagship of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar was built using about 6,000 trees. And the Cutty Sark tea clipper, undergoing repair work at its dock in Greenwich and built in 1869, had nearly 10,000 square meters of sail.
But for those who aren’t into naval architecture, 60 percent of the rest of the ship is open to the public. Visitors can go all the way up to the top of its bridge and down through its nine decks to the boiler and engine rooms.
You can even peep through windows into rooms where there are reconstructions of life aboard. If you glance in the mail room, for example, you will see the model of a grumpy-looking mail officer sorting the post.
But if you’re with someone who’s taking a really long time with their visit you can pop into the ship’s cafe or sit on deck and enjoy the view of the Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral.
“HMS Belfast serves as a reminder of Britain’s great maritime past showing what life was like in the Royal Navy during one of the most momentous periods in twentieth-century history,” said a spokeswoman from the Imperial War Museum.
Wheelchair users and visitors with pushchairs can see all the main museum areas of the ship but access is limited.
“Launch! Shipbuilding Through the Ages” on until December 31.
HMS Belfast on the River Thames near London Bridge.
Opening times are 1000 BST to 1800 BST.
Adult tickets are 12.95 pounds, children under 16 can go aboard for free.
Editing by Paul Casciato