So on the way back from Cornwall in September, we took a slight detour, first to visit Bristol and then to stay over with a friend en route.
My family lived near Bristol when I was between the ages of 2 and 11, but I don’t remember a lot about the actual city, or really got my bearings on other brief visits. We only had a couple of hours to spend there this time so the main attraction was the SS Great Britain.
Miraculously we managed to drive in near Clifton and find a street parking space near the waterside. From there it was a pleasant riverside stroll, past Underfall Yard. Bristol was transformed in 1809 by the opening of the Floating Harbour. Eighty acres of tidal river was impounded to allow visiting ships to remain afloat all the time. Underfall Yard was crucial to the operation and maintenance of the harbour which needed constant dredging of the silt. Over the next two centuries the Harbour grew as a busy port until it closed in 1975. Now the area has been regenerated for leisure, commerce and living spaces.
From the riverside there were great views up to Clifton, with the pastel coloured houses up the hill, towards the suspension bridge, and past vivid canal boats.
Brunel’s SS Great Britain is one of the most important historic ships in the World. It was restored and opened as a museum in 2005.
When launched in 1843 she was allegedly called the “greatest experiment since the creation!” No-one had before designed so vast a ship or build it of iron. Brunel fitted her with a 1000 hp steam engine, the most powerful yet used at sea. He also gave the ship a screw propeller, the newest invention in maritime technology.
The ocean liner had four decks, a crew of 120 and fitted to accommodate a total of 360 passengers with 1200 tons of cargo and another 1200 tons of fuel. Like other steamships of the era the Great Britain also had secondary sail power, with one square rigged and five schooner rigged masts. The rigging was iron cable rather than traditional hemp rope.
Initial voyages were from Liverpool to New York but in 1852 the ship started a thirty year career of carrying passengers to Melbourne Australia carrying emigrants following the gold rush trail.
At the museum, you first view the ship displayed in a dry dock which has been sealed by a huge water line glass plate and beneath the plate the air is kept dry by a giant dehumidification plant to ensure the atmosphere preserves the iron hull. Incredible to think you are walking under this historic ship. From the top a thin layer of water makes it look like it’s afloat!
Then through to a museum, which tells the story of the ship over the decades. Finally you are on board! Where it feels like you’ve just stepped back in time!
You can explore the ship at will, peering into cabins, where you may find a passenger suffering from seasickness, or the cook working in the galley! You get to experience the contrast between the crowded bunks of the crew and steerage passengers and the grand entertainment rooms of the upper class passengers!
An excellent museum, well worth a visit! Bristol we will be back!