Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Exploring The Iconic SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain is a Bristol landmark, of huge local and historical significance, and an Instagrammer's delight, so it seemed odd that despite my love of Bristol and all the beautiful things in this wonderful city, I'd never visited. A couple of weeks ago I decided to change that, and headed off to explore this huge iron ship.

The SS Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built in Bristol in 1843. Her design was innovative for her time, and she was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic. Throughout her seafaring life she had various incarnations. For thirty years she was a passenger ship, taking passengers to Australia, either for holidays or immigration. Then her engine was removed, and sails added to convert her into a "windjammer", a massive sailing cargo ship. During this time she was used to transport coal from Wales to San Francisco, and wheat from America back to the UK. Eventually she ended up in the Falkland Islands, used as a sort of floating warehouse, before falling into a state of disrepair and being scuttled in 1937. She hadn't been entirely forgotten though, and in 1970 she was towed back to Bristol, making her triumphant return to the harbour, which was lined with onlookers. She was carefully restored, and is now open as a museum ship, in the same dry dock that she was built in. It's a pretty amazing story.

When you enter Brunel's SS Great Britain, you are greeted by the huge and impressive stern of the ship, looming over you. The surrounding are has been made to look like a Victorian dockyard, with various equipment, cranes and maritime objects, which really sets the scene.

The ship appears to be floating, as she is surrounded by (extremely strong) glass panels, topped with water. Above ground this is pretty and evocative...

but it's when you descend into the Dry Dock area that you really see the full impact. The sunlight through the water creates a beautiful underwater effect, which really adds to the atmosphere. Of course, as I love all things mermaid-y, I loved it and took way too many photos of different watery patterns. The Dry Dock is amazing in itself, and quite a feat of engineering, but the main attraction here is the hulking hull of the ship.

You can walk all the way around the ship's hull and get right up close, seeing the panels riveted together, the textures and patterns of rust and corrosion from over 160 years of wear and tear, and the impressive propeller.

After the Dry Dock I entered the Dockyard Museum, which tells the story of the SS Great Britain and is packed with artefacts and documents from her journeys. It's also brilliantly interactive, with opportunities to have a go at steering the ship via a computer animated game, climbing the mast top, hoisting and lowering the propeller, and dressing up in clothing of the time. There's even a little photography studio with backdrops and dressing up clothes so that you can take some souvenir photos.

After that I emerged onto the upper deck of the SS Great Britain! 

As it was quite a windy day, I really felt like I was on board a ship at sea. It really struck home just how huge and imposing she is. It was so lovely seeing the colourful houses and harbour of Bristol through the Great Britain's rigging and flags, and it felt so exhilarating being on deck!

Next I went below decks, and found the huge and powerful engine. It's really quite stunning.

The lower decks of the SS Great Britain are recreated to show how the ship would have looked during her time as a passenger liner, with stores, kitchens, and steerage cabins. 

I was really impressed with the level of detail. Each area had obviously been carefully put together to look, sound and even smell as close to the reality as possible, and it was really immersive.

The bunks in steerage were littered with kid's toys, and there was even a sleeping (mannequin) cat under one of the bunks! It seemed so real. So real in fact that I was completely startled by mannequins a few times, because I thought they were real people. 

Coming out of the cramped steerage cabins and into the Promenade Saloon was a complete change of scene-while steerage was gloomy and crowded, the Saloon was light and airy and beautiful.

I peeked into a few of the cabins, which although not exactly luxurious by modern standards, were still vastly more pleasant than steerage.

The First Class Dining Saloon, on the other hand, was pure luxury, even by modern standards. All gilt and mirrors, with pillars and velvet benches, it was difficult to believe that this was inside a ship. It must have been a wonderful place to eat.

And with that, my visit to Brunel's SS Great Britain was concluded. Although not before I had given her a few last admiring looks, especially to the spectacular golden unicorns on her prow.

I loved looking around the SS Great Britain and hope I can go back again, because I feel like I could have spent hours more exploring. It's easy to see why Brunel's SS Great Britain is an award winning attraction-the attention to detail is quite astonishing, from the reproductions of Victorian posters which are pasted around the entrance, to the fact that every staff only area is marked "Crew Only", stepping aboard really is like stepping back in time. I love anything that involves fun and learning, and the SS Great Britain is the perfect example of that.

You can learn more about Brunel's SS Great Britain on their website: ssgreatbritain.org

Disclosure: I was given free entry to Brunel's SS Great Britain in return for coverage, but all views and words are my own.


  1. Ooooh, she's beautiful! If I ever come to Bristol we must visit her! I love the storage room and kitchen and the bunks (so yeah, besically everything). ❤️

    1. I did think of you when I was going around, I think you'd love it! There are a lot of very good old lamps on her too, but I thought half a post of pictures of lamps might be too much.

  2. Loved this post! I used to walk past this whenever I visited Bristol during my time at university in Bath and I never actually went and explored it, so posts like these make me happy, and also make me realise I need to go back down South and explore this properly! Stunning photos. - Tasha

  3. This was such a lovely read! The SS Great Britain museum sounds absolutely amazing :) I love that they have put so much thought into recreating all of the little historical details. I would love to visit and see it all with my own eyes! - Sarah x