The SS Great Britain

I’ve always wanted to find interesting gifts for people for birthdays and Christmas. I also want to avoid repeating myself but the longer you’ve known someone the harder it becomes and socks just won’t cut it.

So it was that I found myself on a train making my way to Bristol to meet my Dad for a trip round the SS Great Britain. The latest in our trips to various museums around the country.

We got a taxi from the shopping centre to where the SS Great Britain is permamently held in the dry dock where it was built. As ever I got talking to the taxi driver and an interesting conversation about the business of being a taxi driver ensued. It turned out that the driver rents his cab from someone from Reading that owns several hundred cabs in Bristol. The driver pays a fix price a week for the cab (just over £200 if my memory serves me correctly, which it probably doesn’t) which, just like a lease, includes the service and maintenance. Whether they then get to keep all the fares wasn’t established as there was a mild panic as Dad thought that he’d lost the entry tickets and so that took precedence over the business lesson!

This visit being in the time of Covid there were certain hygiene rules and regulations that had to be explained to us before we were set free to roam. We spoke to a number of people and in almost all these conversations the traffic light system they had in place featured prominently – more of which later.

The museum was split into three (four if you include the gift shop😉) distinct areas and like so many museums these days it was all brilliantly explained with clear signage and hands-on exhibits. There was a walk through museum on the life of the ship itself which, it has to be said, was not very successful. While it was in service for a reasonable length of time it ended its days off the Falkland islands rusting away. There was another museum on the life of Brunel himself which included the frankly monsterous floor to ceiling head and shoulders model shown below. And, of course, the ship itself.

Somewhat oddly and frustratingly I couldn’t find anywhere where it was explained just who decided it would be a terrific idea to drag back a rusting boat from the Falkland islands to Bristol and how the hell they paid for it. This, it seems, is to remain a mystery along with other unanswered questions such as how much money did Brunel make and what was he worth?

Of course the main event is the ship itself. You can go all over it – on the deck, below deck and, most interestingly, under it. You could wander through below decks which had been recreated as they might have been on the voyages. As you walked further through it got posher. Quite honestly it is very difficult to portray just how squalid it must have been and the smell and noise must have been horrendous but nevertheless it was well done.

To get below the hull itself you had to go via the infamous traffic lights which were policing a set of steps. In these days of Covid no two parties shall pass on a set of stairs and hence the traffic lights. It was interesting to be beneath the hull which seemed to be held up only by a few wooden pit props and actually was surprisingly small.

I enjoyed my trip around the museum but we didn’t really allow ourselves enough time to do it justice – we had a lunch appointment back in town. Like so many museums these days your ticket allows you entry to the museum for the next 12 months too so it would be possible to go back again but I suspect we won’t. Is that what the museums hope when they offer 12 months of access? Anyway, if you’re in Bristol it’s worth a visit.

Whoever thought that this was a good idea?