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Bristol bucket list: SS Great Britain

When I was 17 and choosing which universities to apply for, location was a major factor. Having grown up in London, the thought of going to a small academic backwater or remote concrete campus filled me with dread. Bristol, it seemed, had everything. Small enough to walk (almost) everywhere, but big enough to never be bored, it has been the perfect home for the last four years. But now, faced with graduation and an uncertain future ahead, I will soon be moving back to London to live with my family, and will be leaving my beloved Bristol behind.

When I was trapped in my house over Easter madly typing up my dissertation, I swore to myself that I would try and make the most of my final term at Bristol. For some people, this means trying to get drunk in clubs on the Triangle, but for me it meant enjoying the other things the city had to offer, revisiting favourite haunts and discovering new places, especially those I’d always meant to check out but had never got round to.

The SS Great Britain was one such place that I’d always planned to visit eventually. A few weeks ago, my friend Jon got in touch to say he had a spare ticket to visit the boat as part of the Museums at Night festival and so off we went to visit Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous ship.

IMG_0135I’d heard great things about the SS Great Britain -most notably that my brother, who ‘hates’ history, actually enjoyed his visit with my dad – and she didn’t fail to impress.

We started off underneath the boat. Although she looks like she is fully submerged in water, the bottom of the boat is in fact dry, and a glass platform, covered in a few inches of water, gives the illusion of the boat floating. Walking beneath the water to look at the ship’s propeller was bizarre and brilliant.

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The huge propeller

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Underwater but dry

The ship’s history is long and complex and to understand it best, it is well worth paying the (somewhat hefty) entrance fee to the ship and its adjoining museum. The Great Britain was launched in 1843, and for a long time was the biggest passenger ship in the world. She was also used as a quarantine ship and warehouse before being rescued and returned to Bristol.

Today the ship is a lively museum, telling the story of not just the ship, but of the people who built and used her. The adjoining museum building is organised as a timeline, taking you through what happened from the ship being built right up to her being rescued from the Falkland Islands and returned to her home in Bristol. On board, you can wander through the various rooms and cabins on the ship. Walking through these rooms, you are transported back to a different time and place, thanks to both the careful dressing of each area, and the smells permeating through the ship. This multi-sensorial approach was great for helping us forget that we were in a museum, although it wasn’t exactly pleasant. The room that was used for storing fish smelt like a fishmongers in hot weather, while we had to run straight out of the hull where the animals were kept due to the overwhelming pong of manure.

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In the dining room, a lady played old time tunes on the piano, while another trio of musicians played among the cramped cabins in the first class area. We poked our heads into the tiny rooms, which got smaller and more uncomfortable the further down into the boat we went, and visited the ship’s barber, doctor and other miscellaneous characters.

When we finally emerged onto the top deck, the sun was beginning to set. The flags that cover the riggings fluttered in the evening breeze and we watched steampunks wander around, occasionally getting stopped for photos.

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Because we visited as part of Museum’s at Night, our tickets only cost us £1 each (a complete bargain!) Regular tickets cost £12.95 for adults (or £10.95 for students), and they allow you to return as many times as you like within the space of a year. I left wishing I hadn’t left it so late to visit, as I would have liked to go back again in a few months’ time.

More info here http://www.ssgreatbritain.org

Have you visited the SS Great Britain? What did you think? Where else should I add to my bucket list?

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Filed under Adventures, Archaeology, History, Outings