Books Magazine

All Aboard Brunel’s SS Great Britain

By Mmeguillotine @MmeGuillotine

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I can’t believe that I haven’t posted about the SS Great Britain before – even though it is my absolute favorite thing in my hometown of Bristol! Now, unlike my sons, I have to admit that I’m not all that crazy about ships but there’s something really special about the SS Great Britain that really captures my imagination and it’s really no surprise at all that it has been hailed as one of the country’s finest visitor attractions.

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Due to my aforementioned lack of interest in ships and maritime history, it took a really long time (about eight years!) before we paid the SS Great Britain a visit but as soon as I set foot on board I was wondering why on earth it had taken so long!

The SS Great Britain was the brain child of engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who is something of a hero here in Bristol and was originally launched by Prince Albert in Bristol in 1843, at which time she was the biggest ship in the world and fitted out to make epic journeys across the globe.

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‘She was…the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, iron-hulled steam ship – a truly revolutionary vessel and fore-runner of all modern shipping.

Designed initially for the emerging trans-Atlantic luxury passenger trade, the ship carried 252 first and second class passengers and 130 crew. The ss Great Britain typifies Brunel’s innovative approach to engineering and also marks the beginnings of international passenger travel and world communications.’ — SS Great Britain website.

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She was in fact the world’s first ever ocean liner and was as luxuriously equipped as you can imagine for her journeys to America and beyond. In 1852, the liner was bought by Gibbs, Bright and Co and fitted out for journeys to Australia, where she would carry emigrants, wealthy honeymooners, cricket teams and adventurers hoping to strike it rich. Later on she would become a cargo ship, transporting wheat and other supplies between England and America.

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However, the SS Great Britain’s story came to a seemingly premature end in 1886 when she was badly damaged in a storm off Cape Horn and ended up being abandoned on the Falkland Islands where she remained until her rescue, rusty, scuppered and mouldering in 1970 – at which point she was tugged across the Atlantic back home to Bristol, where she remains to this day.

The SS Great Britain has been wonderfully renovated since then and is displayed in the most incredibly innovative way, which displays both the restored ship and also the work that goes on behind the scenes. The ship is displayed on a translucent glass ‘sea’ which you can go beneath to view the entire underbelly, now sadly rusted and pitted with holes but kept dry and stable by a complicated looking system of tubes and filters. It really is fascinating and actually quite moving to see so much effort dedicated to keeping it safe and sound.

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Visitors then make their way through an excellent museum, which has displays devoted to the history of the SS Great Britain at all points in its long and chequered history. The boys love the steering wheel but my favorite part is the costumes – I can’t resist putting on a bonnet! You can also sound the original horn, which makes a wonderfully eerie sound.

You then enter the SS Great Britain via a gangplank and are free to explore the ship with as much excitement as the original Victorian passengers must have done at the start of their amazing journeys.

The interior of the ship has been restored to its original splendour and there are installations and models to show how it must have looked during its years taking people to and from Australia. You can wander around first class cabins, the beautiful dining salon, the bright and sunlit promenade deck, the doctor’s surgery, the kitchens and the cramped and malodorous steerage quarters amongst many other treats.

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My favorite thing though is the engine room, which is huge and where you can still see the huge wheels and pistons working just as they would have done during the SS Great Britain’s heyday. It really is fascinating and I could honestly watch them at work for hours. I feel sorry for the poor men whose job it was to keep them going by constantly shovelling coal into the furnaces though – their job was arduous indeed!

It makes me feel so happy that the SS Great Britain is back home in Bristol again and is now a major part of the city’s cultural history and everyday life – with a constant round of school trips, visitors and weddings to make it a part of everyone’s memories. That’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it?

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The SS Great Britain is open every day from 10am until 5.30pm (4.30pm in the autumn and winter) and costs £12.95 for adults and £6.75 for children over the age of five. The best thing is that once you’ve bought a ticket, it is then valid for the next twelve months – we got SO much use out of ours last year as our youngest son is OBSESSED with big ships and gets wildly excited when we take him to pay a visit (he calls it the ‘yes yes gritten’ – so sweet!).

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All Aboard Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Melanie Clegg

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