VISITORS are spoilt for choice in Bristol, with the city offering all manner of ways to pass the time, but the jewel in the crown must be the SS Great Britain.
Built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843, the iron ship began as a passenger liner, became a cargo vessel and ended her days as a floating warehouse in the Falkland Islands where she was eventually scuttled.
In 1969, however, a plan was hatched to raise the ship and bring her home, across 8,000 miles of ocean, and the SS Great Britain returned to the Bristol dock in which she was built, exactly 127 years after her launch.
Now visitors can wander the restored vessel and step back in history with an impressive range of interactive displays to enjoy.
Right from the start, the visitor is thrust back in time, with entrance tickets in the style of passenger contracts from 1867. From there you can head to the Dry Dock – well worth a visit, with the light filtering through a glass ‘sea’ to give the illusion of being underwater – then on to the Dockyard Museum to learn the ship’s story, stamp your ticket and have your picture taken as a passenger.
Then to the ship where there are three decks to explore: the lower deck, with cargo hold and first-class dining saloon; the middle, with steerage accommodation, galley, captain’s cabin and promenade saloon; and the top deck with crates for livestock, the ship’s wheel and the chance to climb the mast and venture out onto the yard arm.
The Go Aloft! Adventure is weather dependent but our visit coincided with a beautiful day and young visitors aplenty were queuing to shin up the ratlines and then step out: all were safely clipped on but I was happy to sit in the sun and marvel at their daring, with no intent of joining them!
But there’s more! The newly-opened Being Brunel Museum presented more photo opportunities plus an insight into Brunel’s career as an engineer, before we were guided into Brunel’s Dock Office as our last port of call.
At £16.50 per adult this might seem pricy but on reflection there was so much to see and do that it was incredible value, and each ticket gets you in free for the next 12 months. Over-65s pay £14.50, there’s a family rate of £45, and if you’re called Isambard you get in free (although you have to have ID to prove it). Booking online gives a 5% discount.
We were very impressed by the number of activities, the interaction with volunteers in costume and the wealth of information. Pretty well every area is accessible for the disabled (the cobbled area of the Dry Dock might be tricky for wheelchairs but there is a level viewing area), with lifts and ramps, while there are plenty of toilet facilities and a Dockyard Cafe.
My favourite bit was the chance to make the most of photo opportunities, from the glass sea of the Dry Dock providing some beautiful lighting, to the giant head in the Being Brunel Museum. We spent several hours browsing and I’m sure we’ll find plenty more to enjoy on subsequent visits.
Excellent value, I’d recommend this for anyone with an interest in history and in finding out about the man behind the SS Great Britain. Just don’t forget your camera!