Visit to the SS Great Britain in Bristol

16 June 2016

With impeccable timing, seven members of Exeter and Bristol branches met at Temple Meads Station within moments of each other, before making our way to the dry dock where this famous steamship now lies. The waterfront alongside Bristol’s Floating Harbour has been redeveloped in recent years with much new building, but fortunately the original dry dock in which this massive ship was built still remains.

Waiting for us under a sun umbrella beside the Dockyard Café was the eighth member of our group and we soon joined her with a selection of meals and snacks as we chatted over a sociable lunch. Then it was time to go on board. What an amazing afternoon we had, exploring this huge vessel, designed by Brunel and launched in 1843 as the world’s largest iron-hulled ship. She had three lives – first as a passenger liner to the USA and Australia, then as a windjammer sailing ship plying between America and England and finally as a cargo vessel transporting coal to and wheat from the USA west coast. Storm damaged at Cape Horn in 1886, she limped into the Falklands where she remained until a remarkable salvage operation brought her back to Bristol in 1970.

Mike Aspray beside part of the iron hull of the SS Great Britain
Mike Aspray beside part of the iron hull of the SS Great Britain

Since then a transformation has taken place. Her fragile iron hull, rusted through in places and still pin-holed in many areas, has been repaired and preserved in a dry atmosphere to halt progress of the rust and the ship is now held upright in the dry dock. The interior decks have been faithfully reconstructed so we were able to go into the richly decorated dining saloon and sit where the first class passengers had sat, we peered into the tiny first class cabins, looked with concern at the cramped bunks of the steerage passengers and saw with interest how the food was prepared in a central galley with big stoves all giving out a lot of heat and no apparent air circulation. We were amused to watch a realistic animation of rats running around in the food storage areas and see the ship’s cat ready to pounce! Low ceilings and low light brought home to us the difficult conditions experienced by those on board – especially on the long journey to Australia. It was a relief to go up on deck into the sunshine and fresh air! Here we heard the unmistakable sound of a cow mooing and chickens clucking – reminders of the need for some fresh food during the long voyage and the enterprising solution – to keep some livestock up on deck in suitable housing.

Group photo on the SS Great Britain
All hands on deck!

The wonderful dockyard museum deserves a second visit, with its powerful sound effects and remarkable archive film of the vessel at sea together with its interactive displays and information boards, so also does the well-stocked shop and the Brunel Institute next door. After a welcome cup of tea, we split up to make our various ways home; strolling along the dockside, taking the harbour ferry or the bus to Temple Meads or the cross-harbour ferry into central Bristol. Thank you, Gwyneth, for proposing and leading such a fascinating trip.

Louise Clunies-Ross

June 2016

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