As a born and bred Bristolian, the words ‘Bristol SS Great Britain’ made up a fair chunk of our Primary School education. Being brought up in a maritime City, it felt like each year we’d have a project somehow linked, however tentative, to this ship.
She’s changed A LOT since my visits in the early 90’s. Back then, The SS Great Britain, in all honesty, was nothing much more than a rusting shell of a ship, with rickety wooden boards on the deck set in an uninspiring dry dock.
But WOW! how she has changed!
So, if you're not in the know, here's a brief bullet-point history as to why The SS Great Britain is so important.
- The SS Great Britain was launched in 1843
- She was designed by the engineer Isambard Kindom Brunel (You’ve probably seen Bristol’s famous Bridge – the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Temple Meads Station, well he designed those too! – smart guy!)
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel was voted the second Greatest Briton of all time, Winston Churchill pipped him to the post.
- The SS Great Britain was duel powered (duel-fuel, 1800s style!). She was powered by sails AND steam.
- Brunel fitted the ship with a Screw Propellor which, in the 1800s was the latest invention in marine-based technology.
- Not only was The SS Great Britain the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, iron-hulled steam ship* but at the time of her launch, she was the largest ship in the World!
So, now do you see WHY she is so important?!
A big Birthday calls for big celebrations!
On a balmy Bristol evening, the 19th July 2018, The SS Great Britain opened her doors and played host for a fabulous Birthday Party. A celebration in the exact spot from where she was launched 175 years ago!
As with all great parties, there was delicious food, cake and live music. The event boasted plenty of other stuff happening, canoe sessions, deck games and rope/knot crafts.
Walking around the ship and the Dockyard, you would mingle with the Victorian passengers. Actors and actresses dressed in Victorian costume, doing a mixture of activities from their day-to-day lives; deck scrubbing, ship maintenance or just swanning about if you were an affluent Victorian!
And of course, I couldn’t resist a photograph with the man himself; Isambard Kingdom Brunel, wearing his iconic top hat and smoking a cigar.
Ever wondered what it would be like to climb the rigging of a ship? Wonder no more, and Go Aloft!
Go Aloft! gives visitors to the SS Great Britain the opportunity to do just that, climb the rigging.
In the safety of your harness and clipped on, you can experience what it would have been like to scale up the nets to a platform, 25m metres above the deck. If you’re really brave, then you can even shuffle out the 9 metres of the Main Yard, where you will precariously balance out over the Dockyard. Yes, it’s a long way up, BUT the view from up there is stunning!
The whole Go Aloft takes about 40 minutes. This includes filling out medical forms, kitting up, briefing, the climb and kitting down.
If you’re like me, you turned up to The SS Great Britain in regular clothing, in my case a denim skirt and shoe-boots, then they will provide you with some fetching clobber suitable for climbing in. You will also be required to remove any jewellery and bodily attachments and if you have long hair, to tie it back.
Time to clamber into the harness. And yes, it’s a full body harness (kinda like wearing a pair of braces and a belt, with tight garters attached). It’s not flattering, nor comfortable BUT it’s going to keep me safe AND I can pull out some funky dance moves with my new found, fetching yellow ‘jazz’ braces. You’re also going to don an oh-so-stylish helmet.
You look awesome! and after a short briefing, you’re all ready to climb.
Two people can climb the rigging at a time, however, you aren’t allowed to take a camera onto the climb with you (even a GoPro on a body or helmet mount!). So to capture the whole thing, my friend and I took it in turns – one climbing while the other one stayed at deck level with the camera.
We both opted to do the Main Yard (these are the wooden bits that stick out sideways to the mast). It’s definitely a 9 metre shuffle step motion while precariously balancing on a wobbly bit of rope underfoot and sliding your hands along the bit of rope at chest height.
At this point I was thankful of the unflattering harness – there isn’t much to hold onto and it’s a long way down. We were doing Go Aloft! on a sunny, warm, dry day whilst The SS Great Britain was stationary, it’s the stuff of nightmares to imagine people had to do this in the rain, wind, perhaps in the dark all while the boat would be swaying on the ocean. Those sailors must have had nerves of steel!
Still not convinced to Go Aloft! ?
We both had an absolute blast taking part in Go Aloft! and experiencing just a small proportion of what it must have felt like to be a 1800’s sailor on the ship; safe in the knowledge of having 21st Century equipment. It’s fun, it’s exhilarating and it’s slightly unnerving, even for adrenalin junkies likes us.
When else are you going to get the opportunity to climb the rigging and out the Main Yard of a world-famous vessel?
I would certainly recommend taking part in Go Aloft! on your visit to The SS Great Britain. If you are a little uneasy with heights, you might feel uncomfortable doing the Main Yard as it is the tiniest bit of wobbly rope you have to shuffle along, but the staff were professional on every level. They don’t push you to do anything that you didn’t want to do. I felt 100% in safe hands with the crew providing this activity.
With so much happening on the ships deck, it was easy to lose track of time and see what's inside
With all the excitement of things happening on the deck of the SS Great Britain and the fantastic Go Aloft! experience, we left ourselves very little time to see what other offerings were on the inside of the ship.
A quick dash downstairs just before the staff started to herd visitors off home (it must have been like herding cats with us!) we were both so desperate to see as much as we could.
From the little bit we saw, the insides are beautifully recreated to show upper-class cabins through to how the low-class passengers would have travelled.
The recreation of the kitchens, pantry, store areas and even doctors cabin and a slaughterhouse are all there to submerse yourself in.
From my childhood memory and my visits back in the 90’s it’s evident how much care and attention has been put into making this into a top-notch educational attraction, there’s so much here for both adults and children.
Top Tip – Look Out for the Interactives
Even though we only managed a quick dash through the inside of the ship, it was still enough time to find some of the interactive features. We particularly loved the man on the toilet, with a door that didn’t quite open (See if you can find it). I’m not sure how many times we opened and closed this door, giggling like little children each time. Needless to say, the interactives are fun for both adults as well as the little ones.
And what a wonderful 175th it was!
And so the sun was setting on what was an absolutely outstanding event hosted on board the SS Great Britain. This has definitely been a teaser to come back again.
It’s a good thing that there are a string of events happening onboard the ship throughout the Summer then!
You can check out the full itinerary here for whats happening.
A visit that will make you want to come back again and again!
The SS Great Birtain have a fantastic deal when you buy a ticket. It’s valid for a full 12 months! So you can keep coming back as many times as you like.
What’s more, if you purchase a ticket online, you also get 5% discount. Click here to take advantage of this offer.
Want to get in FREE?!
If your parents happened to bless you with the name Isambard then you can visit The SS Great Britain for absolutely nothing.
How’s that for a bargain? a cool name AND free entry!
Full Ts & Cs here.
I’d love to hear any stories from your visits to SS Great Britain, so do get in touch. After visiting this beaut of a ship, I’m keen to see more, so please feel free to comment below.
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* a huge thank you to my fabulous friend Gabriel Thornton for helping me out with some of the pictures and capturing some great memories.