by Janis / 0 comments - Orginally published:2nd November 2021

Explore Brunel’s magnificent pioneering steamship

SS Great Britain, the commanding transatlantic ocean-going ship, was the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and revolutionised the future of naval engineering.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth in 1806; by the age of 14, he was enrolled at the University of Caen in France. Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked as an assistant engineer to his French father Marc, who built the Thames Tunnel in 1843. Now known as the Rotherhithe Tunnel and many people, including us, has saved an endless amount of time crossing the River Thames.

In 1833 Isambard was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway and transformed train travel during Victorian Britain, from London to Bristol and the southwest of the UK.

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A view of SS Great Britain in the dry dock on the southern bank of Bristol Harbour
SS Great Britain in her dry dock

One of Brunel’s most awe-inspiring sights is the Clifton Suspension Bridge which opened in 1864. Brunel never lived to see the completion of the bridge as he died in 1859 at the age of 53. However, it remains one of Brunel’s most iconic legacies and is a magnificent feat of human engineering.

The view back from the western tower over the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon gorge below
The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
So, let’s don our seafarer’s attire and immerse ourselves in the captivating sights, sounds and smells of the world’s first luxury cruise liner, SS Great Britain.

Where is SS Great Britain?

How to get to SS Great Britain?

- By Train
The nearest mainline railway station is Bristol Temple Meads, around 1 ½ mile away

- By Foot
If you are in the city centre, you can enjoy the delightful stroll along the harbourside.

- By Ferry
Alternatively, from the city centre, head to Hanover Quay on the north side of the River Avon and hop aboard the Cross-Harbour ferry which disembarks adjacent to SS Great Britain.

Where in Bristol?

The voyage home of SS Great Britain

Brunel’s iron lady returns
The SS Great Britain was launched in 1843 from the same dry dock that she returned to in 1970. The magnificent ocean liner that departed 127 years earlier was unrecognisable to the rather sad and forlorn shell that she had become after her abandonment in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.
A poster of the SS Great Britain scuttled on the Falkland Islands with the story of its neglect, titled 'Abandoned'
SS Great Britain abandoned in the Falkland Islands
The aft or stern of the SS Great Britain in its dry dock in Bristol Harbour
SS Great Britain back home in Bristol

The salvage operation was made possible by a generous donation from Sir Jack Hayward, an English businessman and philanthropist. SS Great Britain was towed 8,000 miles across the stormy Atlantic Ocean. She arrived at the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, her birthplace, in 1970. The extensive restoration and unwavering meticulous ‘TLC’ began.

The museum ship SS Great Britain is now a shadow of her scuttled and abandoned state, and today is a beloved grand old lady waiting to be explored by the young and old.

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Explore the Great Western Dockyard

From the depths of the ‘glass sea’
The start of our adventure begins in the Great Western Dockyard. We are immediately greeted by SS Great Britain’s cheerful Visitor Experience crew, offering advice and tips on visiting the museum.
The dockside of the Great Western Dockyard carefully littered with heavy accessories, next the SS Great Britain
Great Western Dockyard

Strolling into the wharf, you instantly feel like you’ve stepped onto a working quayside with gnarly rusting chains and huge weatherworn anchors are strewn about. If you listen out, you can hear the local dockworkers chatting amongst themselves and carrying out orders.

It’s time to head below the waterline into the dry dock and explore this vast ship from beneath the ‘glass sea’.

In the dry dock of the Great Western Dockyard underneath the bulk of the SS Great Britain looking at its giant replica rudder & propellor
Screw propellor on SS Great Britain

You’re free to wander all around the dry dock; just watch your footing at times. You’ll come face to face with SS Great Britain’s magnificent iron hull and see the innovative huge screw propellor that was designed by Brunel and moved this iron lady into a league of her own.

The dry dock dates from the 1830s, and you can just imagine the shipbuilders clambering up and down the steep exposed cold steps. Working painstakingly to send SS Great Britain off on the voyage of her life.

In the dry dock of the Great Western Dockyard looking at the bow of the SS Great Britain under cover of glass with a thin layer of shimmering water
SS Great Britain in dry dock
The sealed ‘glass sea’ rippling high above you creates the perfect environment along with the dehumidifiers to ensure that the fragile iron hull is kept at its ideal ambient dry temperature.

Tourist Information

If you’re tempted to visit the vibrant city of Bristol, and its striking street art, take a look at the ‘Visit Bristol’ official website.

Visit the Dockyard Museum

Journey across the open seas

The next voyage of discovery is to the Dockyard Museum.

This fascinating part of the museum describes in detail SS Great Britain’s life journey. From its early days as an ocean-going sea liner in 1845 through its other convoluted expeditions until its return to Bristol in 1970.

A video and photographic records from the salvage of the SS Great Britain from the Falkland Islands in the Dockyard Museum
Salvage of SS Great Britain

In 1852 SS Great Britain set sail from England to Melbourne, Australia carrying 630 emigrants. This route to Australia continued for almost 30 years, with a brief spell taking troops in the mid-1850s to the Crimean War.

In 1882 she was converted into a sailing ship to transport coal. Her turbulent voyage in 1886 to South America proved to be her last cargo route. It was extensively damaged by an onboard fire. She lay abandoned on the Falkland Islands for many decades until her rescue in 1970.

A rudder and propeller exhibit in the Dockyard Museum of the SS Great Britain
Explore the Dockyard Museum
A replica iron propellor in the Dockyard Museum of the SS Great Britain
Replica propellor

Within the Dockyard Museum, you can beef up your muscles and spin the 1850s replica propellor, navigate the ship’s helm, or interact with the many visual displays.

This is an incredibly interesting part of the museum and gives an extraordinary insight into the ship's voyage and that of its passengers and crew.

Where to stay in Bristol

- Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel - Our choice, located in the heart of Bristol and easy walking distance of many of the city's historic sites. This charming hotel is in a peaceful location, and on-site parking is available.
- The Bristol Hotel - Overlooks the bustling quayside of Bristol harbour and just a short stroll to SS Great Britain. The stylish hotel is surrounded by plenty of restaurants and bars and a great place to base yourself while discovering Bristol.

Let’s jump aboard SS Great Britain

Feel the wind in your hair

There are three decks to explore on the SS Great Britain, so let’s start from the upper deck.

As you step onto the magnificent wooden top deck, you instantly get a feel of the ship’s enormity. SS Great Britain stretches 322 feet (98m) in length, far as the eye can see are fluttering flags unfurled high amongst the masts. Endless miles of rigging winched far into the skies, ready for the brave young sailors to compete with the elements.

She must have looked quite a vision in the open seas with all the sails hoisted across six of her masts.

A view of the rigging adorned with semaphore flags, on the upper deck of the SS Great Britain
Top Deck of SS Great Britain
A close-up shot of the rigging of the SS Great Britain
Rigging on the ship

As with many luxury ocean liners of her era, class played a significant role throughout the ship, and the top deck was no exception.

There was a white line painted across the upper deck floor towards the stern of the SS Great Britain. Only passengers travelling in first class were allowed to step across the boundary line and enjoy the view from the ship’s wheel.

The First-class boundary line on the upper deck of the SS Great Britain
 First class boundary line

Life in Steerage

Discover the unique sights, sounds and smells

We step down from the upper deck to navigate our way through Steerage, where the hard work takes place, and life can be a challenge.

The care and attention to detail that has been given to every element of recreating lives on board are extraordinary. Each minute feature brings to life the day to day living within the steerage quarters of the ship’s middle deck.

I know I shouldn’t give away any spoiler alerts. However, as you weave your way amongst the cabins, not only are the sounds of chatter from the Steerage crew echoing around, but you also become immersed by the smells wafting through the decks.

A view of a small steerage cabin comprising of four bunks on board SS Great Britain.
The steerage bunks
A pathway between the steerage bunks, offering little privacy, on board SS Great Britain.
In steerage

It is incredible; at times, you don’t realise the full effect of the aromas and then it becomes quite prominent, and you’re absorbed by the whole experience.

The bunks and living quarters have been recreated so well you feel like you’re interrupting peoples lives. Peeking in during their card games and watching mothers attending to their children. The whole experience is incredible.

Take a peek into the galley; life must have been frantic here preparing food for hundreds of passengers. Keep a lookout for the scurrying rats and the bubbling pots and pans. You must also step into the galley with the bread ovens; the smell of freshly baked bread is so comforting.

A reconstruction of how the galley would have looked on board the SS Great Britain.
The galley on SS Great Britain

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A little more comfort in First Class

The luxuries of space and tranquillity
Progressing Further through the Middle Deck, we reach the Captain’s Cabin, Promenade Saloon, and the surgery; yes, we’ve reached First Class.
The wooden floor and open spaces of the Promenade Deck on SS Great Britain
Promenade Deck

All through the stern of the Middle Deck, are where the officers’ quarters are located. Many have their own cabins; little luxuries are indulged. The peace and relaxing surroundings make for a pleasurable sail across the Atlantic Ocean or the long voyage to Australia.

A healthy crossing cannot always be guaranteed, so the skilfulness of an onboard surgeon may or may not be a welcoming sight.

The more comfortable cabins of the first-class accommodation on the SS Great Britain
Life in First-Class
The bathroom area of the the first-class accommodation on the SS Great Britain
Cabin comforts
The First-Class cabins have the simple privacy comforts of a closing door as opposed to a curtain, and they even have their own washing facilities. Life at this end of the SS Great Britain appears to be somewhat pleasurable to life in Steerage.

Lower Deck of SS Great Britain

From First-Class dining to the engine room

Stepping down to the bottom level of SS Great Britain, we are greeted with the magnificent First-Class Dining Saloon. You would never believe you were on a Victorian ship, with the beautiful pillars lining the elegant dining hall.

Rows and rows of the finest crockery and silverware would have been meticulously laid out, waiting for the elegant guests in their finery.

Creating the ambience within the dining room you’ll overhear chitter chatter from the wealthy passengers enjoying their supper, all the while a three-piece orchestra playing soothing melodies while they dine.

The opulent first-class dining saloon aboard the SS Great Britain
The elegant first-class dining saloon
As we now head forward to the bow of the luxury liner, we pass by the beating heart of the ship, the engine room. You’ll get to see a vast replica of Brunel’s original 1000hp engine that powered the remarkable steamship around the world.
The huge mechanicals of the powertrain inside the engine room of the SS Great Britain.
SS Great Britain engine room

Being Brunel

The genius behind Victorian engineering

The Being Brunel Museum is housed within the Victorian dockside offices adjacent to the ship. These traditional offices are where Brunel oversaw the design and building of SS Great Britain.

Within Being Brunel, you get to experience life at Brunel’s London home in Duke Street, how his 1850’s office would have looked and interact with the displays.

The familiar black and white picture of Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the giant iron chains of the SS Great Britain
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
A huge bust of Isambard Kingdom Brunel smoking his familiar cigar, waering his top hat in the Being Brunel exhibition at the SS Great Britain
The familiar face of Brunel

We loved the main exhibition hall; it really showcases what an incredible engineer Brunel was and his many astonishing achievements before he died at the young age of 53.

Watch the map of southwest England come to life as the Great Western Railway weaves its way through the English countryside and truly brings Bristol to the forefront of engineering.

Brunel’s plans, sketches and inspirations can be seen throughout the exhibition. Discover how he undertook the impossible and how his accomplishments paved the way for transportation today.

A mock-up of Isambard Kingdom Brunel draughtsman's office at the Great Western Dockyard
Brunel’s meticulous planning

Brunel’s family grave

Kensal Green Cemetery, London
Discovering the life of and history of Brunel and especially SS Great Britain has always been of interest to us, and one of the reasons we were inspired to visit Bristol.
The white marble block headstone at the Brunel family plot that includes the graves of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel at Kensal Green Cemetery
Brunel’s grave
Our interest in Isambard Kingdom Brunel also took us to Kensal Green cemetery in northwest London. Kensal Green is one of Victorian London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries. On a cold January morning, we found Brunel’s family grave, which was also the last resting place of his father, Sir Marc Brunel, also a civil engineer.


This article was produced in partnership with Visit Bristol and SS Great Britain exchange for an honest review and an account of our personal experiences.

* This post may contain links to affiliated sites where we earn a small commission at no additional charge to you.

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