Back to Bristol-Steampunk Days Out

The restored bow of S.S. Great Britain

I wrote for several weeks about the joys of Clifton, a suburb of Bristol. Now let me talk some of that great city itself. This was the heart of Brunel’s Great Britain. He built two of his three ships here. The S.S. Great Britain has been returned here for restoration and display!

If you want to spend a glorious day steeped in the shadow of the Great Engineer this will be one of the best places to do so.

In the 1970s after decades of service and then more decades of neglect in the Falkland Islands the ship was recovered and towed back to the port and the very drydock in which she had been built. Now she rests in that dock being restored by talented and loving craftspersons.

On one trip we stayed at the Holiday Inn right across the street from Bristol Temple Meads Station, which was part of the GWR and designed by Brunel. It is still an amazing station and well worth visiting even if you are not coming into the city via rail.  The hotel is a standard Holiday Inn. It has no character and the only things that recommend it are location and a car park. Although there are a number of eateries in the Temple Meads area the first time Shannon and I came to Bristol we had a terrible time finding food. There was a football match that day and many places were out of food. It also appears that Bristol has a strange tradition of not serving food between 2 in the afternoon and maybe 6 PM. We did finally find a tapis place on a barge. The food there was excellent, or maybe we just hadn’t eaten in 24 hours (long story, having to do with an “adventure” on Britrail!)

Bristol is close enough to Clifton to either walk down or take a cab. I’ve done both. I’ll remind readers that Clifton has many great restaurants as well as a wonderful hotel.

Now back to Great Britain herself, and the museum and new Brunel Institute. Tickets are 12.50 and are good for an entire year. The gates open at 10:00 AM and close at 5:30 PM in the summer and 4:30 PM in the winter. Getting there is easy. It takes 30 minutes to walk from the Temple Meads Station, and maybe 45 down from Clifton. There are a number of buses and ferry boats that stop at or near the ship as well. Additionally there is car parking in the vicinity.

I’ve been to the UK five times and I’ve been onboard Great Britain every time, some trips more than one day. Every time the ship is in better shape, more of it is open and I learn new things about the vessel, her designer and the times which bred them both. Since the early 1990s when I first saw her she the Museum has opened and then been relocated to a new building. Now the Brunel Institute and archives is open as well. It was almost too much for a VSF fan to handle!

The Museum has a huge number of excellent exhibits. Many are interactive. There are excellent photos of the ship at various times in her life and a great short film dealing with her salvage and return to Bristol. Many artifacts from the years of service are well interpreted.

The ship itself is the main attraction. An audio tour takes visitors around the vessel. There is a huge amount to see. The tour starts on the deck and goes deep into the hull. Passenger and crew quarters are fully restored. The first class dining area is amazing. At some point I’d love to go to one of the events hosted aboard. They have holiday dinners and the vessel can be rented for weddings and such. They sound like amazing fun!

The engine spaces have been rebuilt with reproduction engines. The engines don’t power anything any longer but the mechanical parts move. Especially interesting is the huge chain drive. The moving parts are immense and watching their interaction is a joy.

Finally there is the Brunel Institute. All of the Great Engineer’s notebooks are here, as well as an excellent naval and maritime history and technology library. All of the historic documents are digitized which is very nice, but even better was getting to handle the ORIGINALS! Yes I touched the very note books in which I. K. Brunel had drawn the sketches of so many of his amazing projects. The staff there was very helpful. They assisted in locating the specific books needed for the research I was doing (on Brunel’s little known ordnance work) and retrieved them from the secure storage. I put on my archival gloves on and turned the pages. It took all my willpower not to put bare skin on the notebooks, but I was able to suppress the urge (just barely!)

The archives are free with admission to the Museum. To do research you need to email ahead, but the staff is wonderful and extremely helpful.

To round things out the Museum houses both a cafe and a great shop. The shop is one of the most dangerous one I’ve been in. I ended up dropping a large amount of hard earned money and could easily have bought more. The selection of books was wonderful. I also picked up some reprints of period ship rules and menus. Very, very nice but again be warned, visiting the shop can damage a bank account quickly!