Sometimes we don’t realise what historical gems we have right on our doorstep. Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol has been on my UK bucket list for ages, and I can finally cross it off my list.
This summer, I was invited along to Bristol to visit the SS Great Britain and see the incredible acrobatics and feats being performed by the Invisible Circus. Dressed in period costume the 6 members of the crew juggled, flipped upside down, and downside up and entertained the visitors with their antics.
A little history about the SS Great Britain
The SS Great Britain was the inspiration of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and he was also the Chief Engineer. He tried out innovative designs and ideas including the screw propeller and sculpted iron hull. Brunel’s SS Great Britain was hailed as ‘the greatest experiment since the Creation‘ when she was first launched in 1843. She was able to cross the Atlantic in a record 14 days.
In her sea-going days, the SS Great Britain travelled 33 times around the world via both the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa and Cape Horn in Chile. Negotiating nearly one million ocean miles and calling at more than 15 ports around the world.
In her long history, the SS Great Britain has been an ocean-going passenger ship and a floating warehouse before being left to rot in the Falkland Islands. After mouldering away for 32 years, she was finally rescued in 1969 and towed back to the UK in an 8,000 mile audacious but successful venture.
The SS Great Britain was finally brought back to her home on the Great Western Dockyard in 1970. This grand old lady of the sea has been lovingly restored and painstakingly preserved.
Great Western Dockyard
Step onto the dockyard and you are instantly transported back to the 1840s when the SS Great Britain first set sail. Barrels, chains, weathered wood and even canons are stacked on the ground, as horses wait patiently in the stables to transport cargo or passengers.
The SS Great Britain appears to be floating in the dock, but actually, it is fixed in position just below the waterline. Reinforced glass covered with water acts as a ceiling to the temperature-controlled dry dock beneath.
Iron and water don’t mix, and as you walk around the hull you will notice the damage the SS Great Britain has sustained over the 180 years since the hull was first created. In order to stop further damage, the air under the glass shield is kept at a constant 20% humidity; the optimum aridity to minimise any degradation of the hull.
The dockyard museum will take you through the history of the SS Great Britain working backwards from 1970, when she was rescued, right back to her launch in 1843. Be entranced by the letters, pictures and personal items as well as the artefacts from the ship.
The museum is filled with videos, interactive activities: match the stamps on the time gates with the SS Great Britain through the ages; use to the handles to winch up the giant propeller or dress up in period costume. Near the end of the museum, are passenger boarding cards, where you can follow in the footsteps of 36 different people. Maybe you will choose independent and creative Elizabeth Parsons, an artist travelling in Second Class from London or fashionista and dressmaker Rachel Henning who was a keen chess player and was a First Class passenger? Who would you choose?
Walking up the stairs from the Dockyard Museum and across the walkway, you reach the upper deck of the ship.
The Upper Deck or Weather Deck
The upper deck looks similar to how it was in when the SS Great Britain first launched. The areas for second and third-class passengers are the first-class passengers had their reserved area marked by a white painted line on the deck.
To help with supplies of fresh eggs, milk and meat, cows, chickens and pigs were also kept on the upper deck and you can hear them mooing and oinking as you pass by.
The masts and rigging are decked out in colourful nautical flags which flap in the breeze and if you are feeling brave enough, have a go at climbing the rigging!
Go Aloft – climb the rigging like a Victorian sailor
For those brave enough and with a head for heights, you can get rigged up with helmet and harness and clamber up the rigging on one of the masts.
Sadly for health and safety reasons, you cannot take up any cameras or video equipment. The view from the top is breath-taking, a full 360° round the docks and beyond. For the extra brave, you can inch your way across the yardarm.
On your arrival back on deck, you are presented with a Certificate of Discharge to prove you did it.
Age limit: over 10s only
Height: at least 4’5” /1.4m
Weight: maximum of 18 stone/114kg
Go Aloft is extra to your entrance ticket and can be booked at the booth on the top deck. You will need to fill in a health Price is free for under 18s and £10 for over 18s.
*Price correct at August 2019
For first class passengers who didn’t want to get wet or blown about on the upper deck, the Promenade Deck was the place to see and be seen. You could dance, talk, flirt and enjoy yourself.
Either side of the Promenade Deck are cabins where you can meet some of the first class passengers who sailed on the SS Great Britain between 1845 and 1875. The cabins for second and third class passengers were not quite as luxurious and were mainly bunks.
Eating on the SS Great Britain
Once they were over the seasickness, the passengers and crew looked forward to freshly prepared meals. First class passengers ate in their own dining room on the lower deck, complete with SS Great Britain china, linen napkins and glasses.
The galley was kept busy with 600 hungry mouths to feed though not all the ingredients were fresh and had to be salted and dried to keep over the journey. Every day bread was baked in the bakery and the aroma of fresh bread drifts out as you pass by.
To power the mighty SS Great Britain, the engine room had to be up to the job. Although the original parts have been replaced by lighter weight replicas, you can still get the sense of what conditions might have been like as you smell the coal and oil and hear the sounds of the coal being shovelled.
Being Brunel Museum
On the opposite side of the ship to the Dockyard Museum is the Being Brunel Museum. The SS Great Britain was not the only feat of engineering for Isambard Kingdom Brunel; he was also instrumental in the Great Western Railway and for building the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.
The Being Brunel Museum brings all the aspects of his life together, home and working and gives you an insight into the great man. You start off in a replica of the dining room from his home in 8 Duke Street in London. Brunel commissioned paintings of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and the room became known as the ‘Shakespeare Room’. Here, with his wife, Mary, he entertained guests and family and friends.
As you move further through the museum, you can learn more about the different sides of Brunel, the Engineer, the Entrepreneur, the Celebrity and Brunel the Artistic Designer. Finally, watch the audio-visual show and see the world as Brunel saw it as each of his projects come to fruition.
Authenticity at the SS Great Britain
The restoration of the SS Great Britain has been carried out meticulously and great care and attention to detail have been taken in all areas to give you a genuine feeling of what it was like to be on the ship as a passenger or member of the crew. Various characters are in period costume including Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself!
Your entrance ticket or “Passenger’s Contract Ticket” is similar to the ones given to passengers travelling in 1867. The sounds of the engines, smell of the coal, cracking of the fires in the galley and the aroma of freshly baked bread in the bakery are all so evocative of a bygone age. The lady being sick in her room while being eyed by an unwelcome stowaway rat make you feel as if you are sailing with them.
The Lowdown on Tickets & Travel
Your ticket gives you unlimited return visits for a whole year from the date of purchase.
Child (5-16 yrs):
Nipper (4 and under):
Senior (65 plus):
Student (with valid ID):
Family ticket (2 adults or 2 senior with 2 or 3 children):
You can book your tickets in advance and get 5% discount on the website.
Is your name Isambard??? If you are lucky enough to be called Isambard, you get free entry to the SS Great Britain!! Just bring along your birth certificate, drivers licence or other personal identification! Read the Ts and Cs on the SS Great Britain website.
*Prices correct at August 2019
10.00 hrs to 18:00 hrs April
10.00 hrs to 16:30 hrs November to March
Open daily except 24 and 25 December 2019 and 13 January 2020
Getting To the SS Great Britain
The address of the SS Great Britain is:
Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Great Western Dockyard
Gas Ferry Road
Bristol BS1 6TY
There is parking just outside the SS Great Britain for cars and coaches. Prices for parking start from £2.00 for 2 hours. When you buy your ticket to enter the SS Great Britain, you can get up to half your parking ticket refunded on production of the slip.
The nearest train station is Bristol Temple Meads. You can then choose from a 30-minute walk, ferry or bus ride to the Dockyard.
The ferry runs every 40 minutes from Temple Meads Station and various other stops around the harbour – see Bristol Ferry Boat website for more information or Number Seven Boat Trips which run from Hotwells to Temple Meads stopping at Brunel’s SS Great Britain on the way or between
The new Metrobus m2 route from Temple Meads stops at the ‘SS Great Britain’ bus stop, located on Cumberland Road close to Spike Island. From here you can walk five minutes to Brunel’s SS Great Britain.
If you are looking for more things to do in Bristol, check out the Get Your Guide trips around Bristol.
This post about the SS Great Britain was created in collaboration with SS Great Britain team.
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Larch has had wanderlust all her life, travelling as much as she can whenever she can. Now in her 50’s, she writes about her adventures on her travel blog The Silver Nomad to encourage travellers of all ages to look at different destinations. In early 2019, she qualified as a CAA PfCO Drone Pilot and now travels with her DJI Mavic Pro to capture aerial videos and photos to enhance her work.