A trip to the SS Great Britain is a must if you’re in Bristol. We went round on our recent visit to the city and the whole family agreed that it was an absolutely brilliant day out.
SS Great Britain was launched in Bristol in 1843 by Prince Albert and was designed by the engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, famous for the Great Western Railway and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. At the time, she was the largest and the fastest ship in the world. Built out of iron, she was a steamship with a screw propeller instead of the conventional paddle wheels.
SS Great Britain was the world’s first great ocean liner and built for luxury transatlantic crossings to New York. She was later used to transport emigrants and gold hunters to Australia, carrying up to 700 passengers at a time on the 60-day voyage.
The tour starts in the dry dock where the SS Great Britain was built. Once you’ve inspected the world’s oldest iron hull, make your way into the Dockyard Museum where you can read letters and accounts written by real passengers and walk around an exhibition showing how the ship would have looked through the ages.
One of the things that makes the SS Great Britain such a successful day out for children is that everything is so interactive. You can try lifting the giant propeller and attempt to steer the ship while watching film footage of the ship at sea in a storm.
The highlight for us was definitely going inside the ship where they have recreated the cabins, galley and dining room as they would have looked in Victorian Times. Wandering around the ship you get a real feel for what life was like on board for passengers in the mid 19th century.
As you walk through the long galley where meals were prepared, you can see the rats scurrying behind food cupboards and when you peek into the doctor’s surgery you’ll see him performing an operation. The first class cabins have all been set up as they would have been in their Victorian heyday so you can touch the sheets on the bunk beds, look at the books on the shelf and see the shaving brush and jug set up next to the sink.
In the Ladies’ Boudoir you’ll find sofas where women could read, play backgammon or sew. There are even a couple of cabins adjoining the boudoir for those single women who wanted to minimise their contact with men.
The Dining Saloon is a wonderful way to see what the restaurant would have been like for the first class passengers, with its plush chairs and tables laid out with fancy crockery and glasses. Passengers at the time would have eaten very well, with food like grouse, veal pies, soup, blancmange and jelly served up regularly.
“I really liked how you could go exploring on such a large ship. You can open doors and wander inside. It was all so grand. I liked the first class cabins and the dining room best. It was too good to be true. You could even sit in the chairs and pretend to sip from the wine glasses.” Harry, age 9.
It’s a totally different story in steerage where you can see the cramped conditions passengers would have had to endure on the two-month crossing to Australia where large families were squeezed into a six-bed berth. You can hear some of the passengers arguing as you walk around and if you’re lucky, you’ll see Brunel himself wandering around the ship in his frock coat and top hat.
Up on deck you can find the pens for some of the live animals kept on board – the cows, pigs and chickens (you’ll find the horses in their stables in the hold). You can even try scrubbing the deck and climb the rigging.
“I liked going into the engine room best and walking in the footsteps of people who’d actually sailed on the ship. Seeing the Dining Saloon and cabins was brilliant too.” Edward, age 12.
The SS Great Britain http://www.ssgreatbritain.org is open daily. Adults, £14; children aged 5-17, £8; family ticket, £37. There are also grandparent and mini family tickets available. Tickets are valid for a year.