After travelling almost one million miles at sea, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ss Great Britain is enjoying a well-earned retirement in a Bristol harbour. No ordinary museum, the vessel is a living, breathing experience that offers a unique insight into life onboard for the Victorian passengers and crew during her heyday. This remarkable ship played a major part in transforming transatlantic travel, being not only the largest and fastest vessel afloat when she was launched in 1843 but also the first ocean-going ship to combine an iron hull and screw propeller and a massive 1000-horsepower steam engine, and the first steamer to cross the Atlantic, which she did in 1845 in 14 days, easily breaking the previous speed record.
Yet this beguiling boat – undoubtedly one of Brunel’s finest hours – went from record-breaker to ruin when she was stranded and sold for scrap before being converted to sail in 1881 and retired to the Falklands three years later – where she was used as a floating warehouse until being scuttled in 1937. After an ambitious salvage effort, her return in 1970 to the dry dock where she was first built attracted huge publicity, and now this award-winning attraction draws more than 150,000 visitors each year, helped by an ever-changing series of events on board. This Easter saw the launch of ‘Flash, Bang Wallop!’, a Victorian photographic studio and dressing up experience that allows visitors to step back in time on board this historic vessel, while visitors will soon be able to experience the ss Great Britain after dark as it participates in the nationwide Museums at Night.
A visit onboard is an enlightening experience, with the opportunity to discover the true stories of those who worked and travelled at sea – rich and poor travelling in hugely contrasting conditions. You can also descend under water below the glass ‘sea’ to touch the world’s first great ocean liner. No other museum recreates the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era in quite the same way as ss Great Britain.
ss Great Britain, Great Western Dockyard, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol BS1 6TY. Tel: 0117 926 0680. www.ssgreatbritain.org