What comes to your mind when I say Bristol? Probably the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by Brunel, who sadly died before seeing it finished. Few people realise what an accomplished engineer he was. He was the first to build a tunnel under the Thames (now used by the Underground but at the time, you would have walked across), was given the task of creating railway stations from Paddington to Bristol then decided to try his hand at transatlantic ships… His masterpiece was the SS Great Britain, now a museum docked in the city’s harbour…
Let’s travel back in time a little. We’re in 1843 and this gorgeous passenger steamship is the longest in the world… Not only that, she was built of iron and equipped with the most powerful screw propeller ever used at sea. Genius! Some said, Crazy! It is too heavy to float! others replied (the propellers alone weighed 340 tons) – but all agreed it was “the greatest experiment since the Creation”. There were, of course, a few challenges along the way, like modifying the shape of the harbour as the ship was much larger than anticipated but it did travel successfully to New-York back and forth then to Australia before being used to carry coal. Partly demolished for her steel during WWII, it was finally decommissioned. She could finally retire.
The SS Great Britain was brought back to her birth place, the dry dock in the Great Western Dockyard but renovations proved trickier than expected. Although taken off the water, a 1998 survey showed that the hull was continuing to corrode: the atmosphere simply was too humid. In 25 years it would mostly disintegrate. To save it, it was enclosed in a special casing with a glass roof, complete with 2 dehumidifiers. It finally reopened to the public in 2005.
From a distance, you first notice its many flags, little touches of colour dancing in the wind. Getting closer, you notice the stunning contrast between the black paint, the white line going all around the boat, the gold decorations. Magnificent indeed. See the guy in the top hat over there, cigar in hand? This is Brunel, of course, who will gladly give you little anecdotes before directing you to the stairs leading to the hull, under the ground level, the glass roof bringing natural light in. I did not expect to be impressed: after all, it’s like the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, right? But the size really hits you. The power needed to make it journey across an ocean. And despite it all, looking closely at how the metal was affected by time, how delicate it is… The brick walls encasing the space really add to the atmosphere, as if you were looking at the statue of an ancient God instead. Yes, you feel… respect, a lot of respect for that ship indeed. It’s humbling.
To access the deck you must get out and walk through the Dockyard Museum. It’s worth spending some time there: the galleries feature quite an extensive collection of objects (photographs, bells, graffiti carved by the crew…) bringing the SS Great Britain to life. You’ll read about the passengers’ memories, how the boat served during WWII, who wrote a full novel on board.
And here you are, back in the open air, on the deck this time. The vibrant little houses of Bristol suddenly feel out of place – your mind stayed in another era! There probably will be a small group getting harnessed too if you are visiting in summer. For an extra fee, it’s possible to climb the rigging to over 30 metres above ground level then edge out onto the side, which will take you nine metres out across the Great Western Dockyard below. Talk about a memorable visit!
There is more to see yet: the passengers’ cabins, beautifully staged… scents included (medicine cabinet, sea breeze, bread…). Amazing how narrow the beds were – it seems impossible to even turn! If you were a first class passenger, you could at least escape to the sheltered promenade deck and the dining saloon for a little entertainment. Second class travellers had even less space nor light in their room. Weeks at end must have been maddening, even if you weren’t sea sick. The steerage (or third class) had no privacy at all: this was more a huge room filled with bunk beds. Don’t forget to get have a look at the engine room, with its full-scale working model turning beautifully. The heartbeat of the ship…
Highly recommended with kids too.