From bridges and tunnels to railways and ships, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s achievements transformed Britain during the 19th century. Many of his groundbreaking designs and ingenious constructions are still in everyday use today.
One of these innovative designs was the SS Great Britain. It was the first propeller-driven, iron-hulled transatlantic liner and when launched in 1843, was the largest ship afloat.
The SS Great Britain is now a museum ship and sits in the old dock in Bristol, where she was originally built. As well as the ship itself, the museum also features many all-weather things to see and do including the dry dock where you can get under the ship, the old dockyard and dockyard museum and the newly opened ‘Being Brunel’ exhibition.
The Being Brunel exhibition takes you into Brunel’s life. From a reconstruction of his original Duke Street, London dining room to the sights, sounds and smells of his office. There are sketches and plans from many of his famous projects as well as examples of his extraordinary artwork.
As you enter the main room you are greeted by an 8m giant head of Brunel complete with stovepipe hat and cigar. Take a trip into the ‘mind’ of Brunel where you can see a short film from Brunel’s point of view as he struggles with the major engineering projects of his career.
You can also experience the shaking of a 1830s broad-gauge railway carriage, see if you can complete the simple tasks onboard.
In the dry dock, which is sealed by a glass plate around the water line of the ship, you can see the iron hull, propeller and rudder of the ship. In this area of the original 19th-century dry dock, the air is kept dry by a giant dehumidification system (it actually keeps it as dry as the Arizona Desert). The dehumidification is required to stop further corrosion of the iron hull, you can see the damage from its past when the ship was abandoned in the Falklands Islands.
Before you get onto the deck of the ship you pass through the dockyard museum. This takes you on a timeline from the salvage operation of the 1970’s through the two world wars, its conversion from steam to a Windjammer and back to the launch in 1843.
Onboard The SS Great Britain
The ship, decks and cabins have been restored to their original transatlantic days, as they appeared when the ship was first launched. The weather deck was divided into different areas for passengers travelling first, second and third class, only passengers travelling first class were allowed to cross the white painted line!
You can also explore below deck including the impressive dining salon and the lowly third class cabins. Of course, you have to visit the engine room to see a full-scale working model of the original three-storey high steam engine.
Little did I know that Mrs W had booked me on the ‘Go Aloft’ experience. A climb up the rigging of the SS Great Britain until you are 25m above ground, then a shuffle out along the main yard.
Although I’m not a big fan of heights I did manage to do it. I had to as I was the first in line and there was quite a crowd watching.
The SS Great Britain is definitely worth a visit and there’s so much more than the ship itself. As the dockyard museum, the Being Brunel exhibition and the interior of the ship are all undercover you can enjoy your visit whatever the weather. Don’t forget to allow yourself at least a few hours to get around all of the attractions. If you are looking for a hotel to stay near the harbourside we can highly recommend The Bristol Hotel.
Have you been to Bristol?