The last place you would ever expect to see a submarine is on the side of the road. Well, for years I used to drive past just that. A gigantic submarine, sat to the side of the road somewhere between Wallasey and the Mersey Tunnel. And before you ask, the water levels weren’t previously that high!
The mysterious submarine on the side of the road was in fact a museum with a mysterious past. To be honest with you, I didn’t really care one jot about the weird spectacle when I lived on the Wirral. I struggled with and subsequently hated history. Partly with thanks to comparing and contrasting very over photocopied random sources. (Did you have to do them to? Compare and contrast a picture of a president with a one line sentence from an old newspaper article… The absolute bane of my teenage years.) Anyway, digression aside and years later to when my inner geek developed I suggested to my family that we visit the museum.
To my surprise, I discovered that the famous submarine had been chopped into bits and moved to Woodside in Birkenhead. And that my Dad had actually been inside the submarine when it was in the original spot. You learn new things every day.
To my utter surprise, I have become increasingly interested in history and heritage. (I talk a bit about my discovery at the end of this post) To think that I would be excited to visit a museum about a WWII submarine was like expecting me to win the Olympic ski jumping. But there I was, eager to go in to find out more. It is bizarre the way life turns., and honestly, I love the way it has turned out.
Meeting up with family meant that we had lunch first in order to catch up. There is a lovely cafe inside the building, which is an old transport depot. Ornate metal work adorns the walls and furniture and the views over the Mersey are the decoration from the window. Even on a rainy day you can’t go wrong with watching the water ripple and swoosh around in the wind.
Lunch, although lovely, was a bit of a disaster with the veggie breakfast having not more than the eggs in stock. We chose alternatives and all enjoyed what we had in the end though. I felt so sorry for the poor girl taking and un-taking our order over again, though. The plus side was that they had soya milk, so everything has to be OK if I can have myself a proper brew.
Once we were finished we were ready to venture into the museum. We got a good discount for the lot of us, because we all come in as concessions (Jit and I have NUS cards, you see)
Rebels without a cause
I use the word rebel lightly here, but it makes me feel that little better about the fact that all five of us went around the museum backwards. Despite the arrows on the floor and the large sign overhead. Really, though, it didn’t particularly make too much of a difference to the experience. I actually thought that it worked well until we were leaving and I wondered whether it could have been different the other way. Definitely different, not better.
The U-boat that we were to venture into the cold to see had been sunk in 1945 after all U-boats had been ordered to surrender. This is where the unusual tale comes from.
In the display cabinets, we were taken through the life cycle of the u-boat. We were introduced to the crew and their rather gruelling conditions on board the submarine. They even had instructions for operating the rather complicated toilet system, among other things. One of the things that stood out for Claire and I was imagining the stench of having around 52 men smoking in such an enclosed space. And the fact that very often a spread of tummy bugs would take hold. I won’t go further into those kinds of details, but you get the picture.
Medical supplies and food all had to be taken on board for the duration of their tour. That meant that there was only pretty basic equipment and meals.
You might notice from the pictures that everything is a bit grimy. That is because it has survived, along with the submarine, for 40 years beneath the water. It was lifted in 1993 in the hope of finding valuables. There were no valuables, but it did raise questions about why it continued after being requested to surrender.
The lure of the big grey metal beast was too much after a while. Well, after we managed to have a go on the virtual Enigma Machine. The cold out there, however, wasn’t so enjoyable. It is once you get out there that you realise that the u-boat is both massive yet with cramped conditions. And you start to see why it was chopped up when leaving the other site.
Each part of the u-boat has been preserved as well as can be expected for a vessel that spent 40 years under water. The glass windows allow you to see inside them and admire the way that the boat was cut ready for transportation.
Peering through the tiny gaps, you begin to get an idea about how awful the conditions must have been inside the u-boat. Confined for months in a tiny space with 52 other people. I think it puts space into perspective when you visualise living in there for even a day or two.
The thing that fascinated me about the pieces of the u-boat were the intricate systems that ran around the outer skin of the vessel. Not only that, how they engineered it in the first place. I am no engineer, so it seems spectacular to me, especially for the age and size!
We made our way around the displays, peering in and trying to outwit the reflection on the glass by contorting ourselves to get a better view inside. I felt rather envious at that point that my Dad had been able to adventure inside. It would have been fun to get a closer look.
Walking around the u-boat, you really start to feel very small indeed. I climbed up to the crow’s nest which although a flight of stairs above the ground, only gave a glimpse into how high it would have been on the intact boat.
Around to the back of the U-boat, you can see the damage that was the eventual end to the vessel. Luckily the majority of the crew survived despite the damage and were able to live to tell the tale – although, this didn’t include debunking the mystery around why they failed to cease their journey. I do wonder whether the reason will ever come to light?
As I stood looking at the vast vessel in awe, I realised that the disinterested teen has long gone. It occurred to me that history is made in experiences rather than on paper in the class room. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not prescribing how it should be taught, only that it is a much better way for the likes of me to become interested.
Filled with enthusiasm to find out more, we bee-lined for the warmth of the museum to continue our reverse tour of the exhibition space.
Ending at the beginning
…and I don’t mean because of the way we mistakenly walked around the museum! Remember how I mentioned the u-boat used to be plonked on the side of the road. Finding it ever more weird when trying to explain it to Jit, we happened upon a picture of it. It really was a help to show that I wasn’t making it up in a flutter of miss-remembered happenings from my youth, but actually real. Strange and real in total glory!
Coming back to the idea of starting at the beginning too, the walkway to the exit shared the whole photo journey of the boat, allowing you to see the changes as well as the mission they went through to cut it up and transport it. I personally would have liked to have seen this while dwarfed by the u-boat. Having my questions answered was more than enough in the end, anyway.
The U-boat story
To be honest, I was surprised how long we spent in the museum. It isn’t the largest of places which made me think that it would be a swift visit. However, there is definitely enough information in the history and stories to keep you interested. You know, we stayed in there until they were closing. It’s not every day you get chucked out of a museum for outstaying your welcome. (only kidding, they did have to go home at some point, as did we!)
If you’re down on the Wirral, I would highly recommend that you make the trip to visit the U-boat story. Perhaps we can come up with all kinds of ideas as to why the continued after orders… Even if that’s not your bag, I am sure you’ll find enough to keep you entertained in the museum.
I am now looking forward to booking onto the Mersey Tunnel Tours and seeing the air raid bunkers in Stockport – there are so many different places and so little time!
Now tell me, were you into history as a teenager? Have you ever been up close to a u-boat before? And what caught your interest when it comes to history and heritage?
Let me know in the comments below.