The SS Great Britain is one of the most famous and important ships in British history. Her revolutionary design inspired modern ships and she was in service for around 90 years. Today she’s been rescued from her resting place in the Falkland Islands, restored, and is on display at Bristol docks.
History of the SS Great Britain
The SS Great Britain was the largest steam powered ship of her time. She was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who also built many things including a railway between Bristol and London; the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and tunnels under the Thames) using brand new technology – a screw propeller. She was built in the same dry dock in Bristol that she sits in now, and was launched in 1843.
The SS Great Britain was used to transport passengers between the UK and the USA, and later on, the UK and Australia. After a stint as a passenger liner, she was recommissioned to transport cargo. She was finally abandoned to rust in the Falkland Islands, before she was rescued in 1970 – somehow the engineers managed to refloat her and transport her back to the UK. Here she was restored and set up as a museum.
There is loads to see and do at the SS Great Britain. You need at least two to three hours to make the most of your visit; we stayed for five hours and almost got round everything. Some activities and exhibits are on all the time, others are seasonal or on for short periods. We were particularly interested in the special activities put on for the upcoming October half term.
When you arrive at the SS Great Britain the first thing you notice is how beautiful the ship is. She’s been beautifully restored; her smart black hull contrasts with the gold decorations and the cheerful flags adorning her masts.
Our little kids hadn’t ever seen a ship like it and were suitably impressed – they couldn’t wait to get onboard and start looking around.
Half term activities at the SS Great Britain
SS Great Britain has a range of activities scheduled for October half term; when we visited we were able to take part in two.
Gruesome Scars and Grisly Cuts
If your kids like all things gruesome and macabre, then they should definitely try out the Gruesome Scars and Grisly Cuts! You’ll find this inside the Dockyard Museum (just follow the signs). The kids can be made up to look as though they’ve been in an accident on board the ship, and the makeup artists will make their “wounds” look very realistic (a bit too realistic for our small kids, as it turned out).
While you’re waiting you can take a look inside a booklet which tells you all about the horrible diseases that people would catch on board ships like the SS Great Britain, and how they were treated. These booklets are very interesting and well done, but perhaps not suitable for small kids (we didn’t let the boy look). But they make a great resource for kids of about seven and up.
The girl agreed to have a cut on her hand, and she was quite happy to watch as her makeup artist carefully applied a gloopy paste to her hand, set it with powder and then started to add some colour to it. However she drew the line at having fake blood put on it, and the boy flatly refused to have anything done. What a shame! Our kids are only 5 and 3 so perhaps they were a little young. (As a side note, the makeup came off easily, with just a baby wipe and didn’t hurt at all).
But we saw plenty of older kids quite happily having their faces made up, and as the day went on there seemed to be more and more children having “accidents” on the ship – some even had glass still sticking out of the wound! They certainly seemed to love their makeup.
The Ragged Victorians
We were among the first to arrive at the SS Great Britain and we were greeted by several actors dressed (and in character) as Victorians, about to set sail on the ship to Australia.
The Victorians call out to you as you walk past (I was reproached for being out in my bloomers) which is a great way of getting shyer children to interact. We met plenty more Victorians on the ship too, and all of them were happy to chat away to us.
We asked them about what they were doing, what their lives were like, and each of them appeared to have a real person to draw on for inspiration. So meeting these costumed guides was a good way of learning about people’s lives back when the SS Great Britain was launched.
More activities on this week
The Spooky Ship is an evening only attraction and it’s only for kids aged 8 and up, so unfortunately we couldn’t participate in this. But it promises to be very spooky indeed, with actors dressed as Victorians hiding inside the ship, ready to tell you some gory tales of life at sea.
Go Aloft! at the SS Great Britain
Go Aloft! is set on the deck of the SS Great Britain and offers the opportunity to channel your inner sailor by climbing the rigging to a platform high up on the main mast. From this platform you can walk out on the main yard, the horizontal pole that holds the sails. Who wouldn’t want to?
The Go Aloft! experience starts with a briefing on how the climbing system of hooks and ropes works. I was shown how to put on and tighten my harness, and then I practised using two hooks to tether myself to the ropes. Only one of the hooks will open at one time; the other is always locked. You use a key to lock your hook onto the rope and only then will the other hook open so you can move between different ropes. It was all fairly straightforward to pick up and in any case there was always someone supervising who you could ask for help.
Once I was confident with using the hooks, I was taken over to the rigging where I clipped myself onto the ropes and began the climb! From the deck, the platform on the mast doesn’t look that high; that changes when you’re up there though!
I’m not very fit at all but the climb wasn’t difficult; however the experience would be somewhat different at sea. I can’t imagine having to climb the rigging while the boat swayed about, let alone during a storm. And I was completely safe; one slip for a sailor and that would be it – you’d be overboard or splattered on the deck. Being a sailor in the days of yore isn’t something I’d ever really thought about but I came away from the experience with an appreciation of how tough their lives must have been.
Stepping out onto the main yard would have been even worse. The rigging climb was fairly easy as it was like climbing a ladder, but out on the main yard you’ve just got a length of rope to balance on and you’ve got to hold onto the handrail pretty tightly. It was slow going across and back, but the main yard was the best bit of the rigging climb. It’s a shame I couldn’t take my camera up as the view was great (but of course, you can’t risk dropping the camera on someone’s head).
A tip: if you’re visiting on a cold day then take gloves with you. When I climbed the rigging it was the coldest day of the autumn so far and the part of the rigging that you hold onto to climb is metal. By the time I got to the top my hands were completely numb!
Go Aloft! is suitable for kids aged 10 and up. Kids climb free and adults pay £10. It’s recommended!
Explore the SS Great Britain and its museums
Even if you’re not visiting the SS Great Britain for any special activities, there is enough here to keep you occupied for several hours. There are four areas in total to explore (five if you count the Brunel Institute, which was not open the day we visited).
The Dry Dock
After we’d admired the SS Great Britain from the outside and met the Victorians at the dock, we decided to explore more of the ship. It’s recommended to start in the dry dock where you descend under ground level to walk around the ship’s hull. The dry dock is really clever; as you approach the ship, she appears to be floating, but it’s an illusion. A thin film of water covers a glass floor, giving the impression that you’re underwater when you’re in the dry dock.
There are huge dehumidifying machines here which keep the hull dry, and of course there’s plenty of information telling you how it’s done.
You can see how old the ship is; there are holes dotted all over her hull, and you can get up really close. Down at the stern you can examine the huge red propeller and keel, and up at the bows there’s a huge anchor, and a floating dam which keeps the dry dock, er, dry.
To get inside the SS Great Britain you walk through the Dockyard Museum, which goes into the history of the SS Great Britain in depth. Pick up a boarding ticket when you arrive, and stamp it at the four checkpoints as you walk through the museum.
Here you can see how the ship was saved from the Falkland Islands when she was refloated and sailed to the UK to be restored back in Bristol. Other major points in her history that you can read about include how the ship was converted to a sailing vessel to transport goods, her steam power only being used if there was no wind. Original objects and parts of the ship are scattered through the museum on the walls.
There’s a wealth of information on the SS Great Britain as a cruise liner; you can read excerpts from passenger diaries and see some of the possessions they bought with them. Conditions were not always optimal and these first hand accounts were, for me, the most interesting parts of the museum.
Kids will find plenty of interactive things to do in the Dockyard Museum; they can try steering the ship, they can operate some of the engine mechanisms, and there are child-friendly information panels throughout the museum. Our kids especially enjoyed raiding the dressing up area and pretending to be Victorians setting sail!
The SS Great Britain
From the Dockyard Museum you can access the deck of the SS Great Britain itself. It’s been lovingly restored and you can look around most areas of the ship – there’s much more to see inside than I thought there would be. The deck is pristine, and you realise that there wasn’t much room for the passengers to walk around, especially when the ship was at full capacity.
On deck the kids can play with the ship’s wheel, scrub the deck, and see how livestock such as cows and chickens were transported. There’s plenty for them to find.
Once you’ve looked around on deck, choose one of the staircases to start your exploration of the ship’s interior!
Our kids made a beeline straight for the kitchen. The kitchen area was the part that our kids were the most interested in. They loved the recreations of upper class food and had fun spotting the occasional rat running past in the cupboards – lovely.
Make sure you try the doors as you’re walking around – open the wrong privy door and you’ll hear an indignant man shouting at you, which the kids thought was beyond hilarious.
We were surprised at the size of the berths – even in first class they were absolutely tiny. There’s no way I’d have fitted into the bunks. The rooms were minuscule and there wouldn’t have been much space for possessions. However first class passengers would have had more space to walk around – they had a promenade deck and a large dining room with more options for dinner. Looking around the steerage section was fun as there are several models of real passengers sleeping or working (see if you can find the two women fighting!) and we met more costumed Victorians singing drinking songs, which added to the atmosphere!
The designers of the ship have added a very clever touch; as you walk around the smell of the ship changes – by the bakery you can smell bread and cooking; the sick bay smells of antiseptic and down in the bowels of the ship there’s a rather pungent smell of horse. This adds to the immersive and somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere on the ship – I really can’t imagine spending several months cooped up, especially in steerage.
Being Brunel is a newly opened museum about the life and works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous inventor who built the SS Great Britain. It’s beautifully laid out, with recreations of Brunel’s London home, his office and even a 6 minute film called Brunel’s Mind about his most famous inventions (small kids might find it a bit scary as it billows smoke at you, and there’s mild peril involved). Again, there are plenty of hands-on things for kids to do, although I’d say this museum is aimed at slightly older kids than ours.
In the centre of the museum is a huge edifice of the man himself, displays of his work and a train carriage ride. There’s a lot of information here on the sort of person Brunel was. The curators of this museum have tried hard to present a balanced view of his character rather than simply idolising him for his remarkable achievements.
Know before you go
Getting to the SS Britain
The SS Britain is in the centre of Bristol, which is easy to reach from both the M5 and M4 motorways. There’s a small car park on site (pay and display). I’d get there early to get a space. You can get £3 back if you show your car park ticket in the museum.
Use the postcode BS1 6TY to get to the car park.
Tickets and entry
You can buy tickets on the SS Great Britain website. Tickets cost £16.50 per adult and £9.50 per child aged 5 and up. The tickets are valid for a year after you use them, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t manage to see everything in one go. And if you’re called Isambard then you can visit for free!
The SS Great Britain is open most days of the year – it’s only shut on 25 and 26 December and the second Monday in January. In the summer the ship is open until 6pm, and until 4.30pm in the winter.
Where to eat at the SS Great Britain
There are two cafes onsite; a larger one outside the main entrance and a smaller one by the Being Brunel museum. We ate in the large Harbourside cafe, which serves kids’ packed lunches and snacks as well as hot food such as jacket potatoes and cold pies, salads and cakes.
Alternatively you can leave the museum to have lunch and return later.
More things to do in the area
Bristol is a great city to explore for a weekend. It’s one that remains on our list to visit properly, so other than the SS Great Britain I’d recommend the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Bristol Zoo (including the Wild Place) and seeing more of the harbour area. With luck we’ll return before long and I’ll write up a complete guide.
Bath is nearby and this is a city we’re very familiar with. You can read our complete guide to Bath here. More places in this area of south west England that I’d recommend visiting with kids include Stonehenge, Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole caves, and the city of Wells.
And of course, you’re not far from the Cotswolds, so read this post if you fancy taking a look around the Cotswolds with your kids!
Disclosure: I was given tickets for the SS Great Britain and Go Aloft! in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Would we recommend the SS Great Britain?
Absolutely. There is a wide range of things to see and do here which ensured that nobody got bored, even the 3 year old boy. Different activities will appeal to kids from a range of ages so it’s great for all families.
The half term activities were great and added to the authentic feel that you get from a visit to the SS Great Britain, especially the colourful Victorian characters. And while our kids were a bit too squeamish for the gruesome makeup, we could see that other kids were having a great time having the most disgusting injuries created. Give ours a couple more years and they’ll be joining in too!
If you’re in the Bristol area then the SS Great Britain really is unmissable.
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