I finally (as of October – it’s taken me a while to get this post up) made it to the SS Great Britain, which I had been meaning to visit for YEARS. And oh man, was it ever worth the wait. The most important thing you need to know is that they have a giant Brunel head, and it is AMAZING. Literally an Isambard Kingdom Brunel the height of the entire Brunel Museum building. On a lesser note, I guess you need to know that admission is £19.50, which might seem a little steep, but the site includes two museums, the ship itself, the dry dock, and your ticket is an annual pass, so you can come back as many times as you like within a year (not so convenient for someone who doesn’t live in Bristol, like me, but I’m going to try to go at least once more, maybe in nicer weather). I was gutted to miss the Halloween turnip trail, because carved turnips are creepy af, but considering our first visit was at the start of October, October half-term seemed a little too soon to make a return visit. (I did go back to Bristol in late November for the last day of the Cary Comes Home Festival, which was great (anyone who knows me knows how much I love Cary Grant), but I didn’t have time to visit the SS Great Britain since I was in the cinema all day.)
Anyway, to get back to the subject of Brunel, we’d unfortunately picked a very gloomy day to visit, with the wind and rain both picking up when we got out of the car, so we were very glad to head directly into the dry dock, which the ship is sitting in. They trick you into thinking it’s in a proper dock with a little fountain thing surrounding the ship, but it’s very shallow and you actually end up standing underneath it when you’re in the dry dock, which is fun. Makes you feel like you’re underwater. So you are essentially just walking around the base of a ship, but it’s so toasty and warm down there thanks to a massive dehumidifier. I seriously need this thing for my house, which is hella damp and humid and prone to black mould. And there’s bits to read about the history of the preservation of the ship, so it’s moderately interesting too.
We then went into the Dockyard Museum, which was about the history of the ship. They’d taken the decision to lay out the museum in reverse chronological order, which I’m not entirely convinced worked, as I would have preferred to learn where and why the ship was built before learning where it eventually ended up, and I felt a bit disorientated throughout. To give you a brief synopsis, the SS Great Britain was designed by Brunel as a luxurious passenger liner for the trans-Atlantic crossing – at the time it was completed, in 1845, it was the largest passenger ship in the world. However, it was beset with a lot of problems, most related to its screw propeller technology, and also wasn’t particularly fast, so was soon readapted for use for emigrants travelling to Australia for the Gold Rush, with much less luxurious accommodation. It served this purpose from 1852 until 1874, when it collided with another ship, so this was more successful than the luxury liner phase, despite the lengthy two month time it took to make the voyage, which must have seemed like an eternity for those in third class. This was probably the most interesting section of the museum for me due to the discussion of the disappearance of SS Great Britain’s most popular and longest serving captain, John Gray. He wasn’t known to be in poor mental health, though he did have some physical ailments. He was seen walking on the deck at midnight one night, and was gone the next morning, so must have gone overboard, though whether it was intentional or accidental remains a mystery.
Finally, the ship was used to transport coal before being stranded on the Falkland Islands during WWII. It was salvaged in the 1970s and returned to Bristol, where it opened as a museum in 2005 (conservation of wet things is not a fast process, as we learned on the Mary Rose. This was all interesting enough, but my favourite part was the Flash Bang Wallop photo room, where we could put on Victorian clothes and pose for photos. There was an actual old timey camera in there, and it wasn’t totally clear if a staff member was meant to come take our photos, so I just settled for sticking on Brunel’s iconic stovepipe hat in lieu of full Victorian attire and letting Marcus take a picture with his phone. At the end of the museum, there were two large leaflet racks with cards you could choose representing different passengers, who were all referenced somewhere on the ship, so tracking them down was a bit of a scavenger hunt. Unless you were like me, and opted for the ship’s rat, who was seemingly everywhere on board and very easy to find!
We stepped outside into yet more rain, and onto the ship itself. After getting a quick photo at the helm, and appreciating the sound effects of the (fake) cows, chickens, and pigs on the deck, we ducked down the stairs to the promenade deck pretty damn quickly. I love the Warrior at the Historic Royal Dockyards in Portsmouth, but this was so much better. Authentic smells, loads of interesting fake food and old packaging in the galley and pantry, and plenty of sound effects made this such a fun experience. You could go into almost every room, many of which had “passengers” being seasick in them, and my chosen identity (of the rat) even made a cameo appearance in a few rooms.
They also had fake toilets with an angry voice shouting out when you tried to open them. But even better, they had actual public toilets on the ship that may have been original (or a very good restoration), with the old Crapper pull chain toilets that I LOVE and beautiful Victorian tiles everywhere. The ship was so great, and even the group of noisy schoolchildren passing through couldn’t ruin it for me, as it was a big ship and they were easy enough to mostly avoid.
Finally, we went to Being Brunel, and thanks to the giant Brunel head I mentioned at the start, I’m hard pressed to decide whether this or the ship was my favourite part. We first walked in to a room full of cubbyholes filled with more copies of Brunel’s iconic hat and a wall of chains for the perfect Brunel photo op, before progressing into a recreation of the Brunels’ dining room. I then spotted the giant Brunel and that’s when I decided I was completely in love with this museum! There were multiple fun games in this gallery, including a slot machine where you had to try to gain funding for Brunel’s projects, and moving train carriages where you had to try to draw a perfect circle, something Brunel made job applicants do (though I don’t think they had to sit in a moving carriage). Given my lack of artistic ability, I was surprised that I was way better at this than Marcus, achieving 79% accuracy, though he may have been distracted by the woman sitting opposite him who was slowly running a nit comb through her hair (she carried on doing this the entire time we were in this gallery).
The timeline showcasing Brunel’s many accomplishments made me feel a bit bad about myself. By the time Brunel was my age, he’d already built the Thames Tunnel, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway, and the Great Western (SS Great Britain‘s sister ship). Granted, he did die at 53, and I hope to make it a bit longer than that, but it’s still hard to not feel inferior next to his staggering career.
There was also what I think was a film with some additional light and sound effects called Brunel’s Mind, which was literally inside Brunel’s head, but there was a wait for the next showing, and we’d already spent quite a bit of time there, so we’ll have to save that treat for the next visit. I’ve been to a lot of historic ships, and though this doesn’t quite surpass the glory of the Fram in Oslo, I do think this is my new favourite ship museum in Britain. It was such a fun, interactive day out, with quirky design elements throughout, right down to the stovepipe-hatted stick figure in the Slippery When Wet signs on the deck of the ship. Highly recommend visiting this one if you can. 4/5.