After the previous day’s glorious sunshine, we woke to grey skies but as we’d planned to spend the day visiting two of Bristol’s top cultural highlights which were both indoors, it didn’t bother us too much. So, after our usual cooked breakfasts and large cappuccinos we felt suitably nourished and ready for a day of sightseeing.
Our morning activity was to explore the SS Great Britain, and what better way for us to travel to this iconic museum ship than by water. Bristol Ferry Boats operate a scheduled water bus service around Bristol Harbour and so we boarded their first service of the morning from Temple Meads at 10.00 a.m. There are 17 stops along the harbour, some of which are request only, so if you see the blue and yellow ferry boat approaching, just stand at the landing stage and give the crew a wave and they will stop and pick you up. Detailed timetables are affixed to each of the stops and boats run at 40 minute intervals.
It was a 30 minute journey along to the SS Great Britain and we enjoyed viewing the city from the perspective of the water. Matilda, our ferry boat, took us alongside houseboats, barges and sailing ships including a replica of The Matthew on which John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland. Since the 1970’s Bristol harbour-side has undergone a huge amount of regeneration and is now both an attractive and vibrant part of the city centre.
SS Great Britain was launched by Prince Albert in July 1843 and was at that time the largest passenger ship in the world. She was also the first screw propelled ocean going iron hulled steam ship and was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). Brunel was a famous engineer who built bridges, railways, tunnels, ships and docks and his innovative approach to engineering meant that people were able to travel and trade in new ways.
After obtaining our tickets, (standard adult £14) it was suggested that we start our self guided tour of SS Great Britain in the Dockyard. Since 1839, when it was decided to construct a transatlantic liner, the Great Western Dockyard has been here. The bustling atmosphere of a ship being prepared for departure is still evident today and from the quay we were able to view the SS Great Britain adorned in flags and ready to depart.
From the Dockyard we were able to access the Dry Dock where we strolled along a pathway around her iron hull. The Dry Dock has been sealed by a huge water line glass plate surrounding the ship and to keep the air dry a giant dehumidification plant helps to retain the atmosphere at a relative humidity of 20% to prevent corrosion. On one of the information boards I read a sign explaining that the air in the Dry Dock was actually as arid as that of the Arizona Desert.
Continuing our tour, we moved along to the Dockyard Museum where visitors are taken back in time through the SS Great Britain’s history. Our self guided stroll took us through four time zones with each gallery showcasing the ship’s long life of adventure.
Starting in 1843 with the launch of the luxury liner, the exhibition captures the experiences of the passengers and crew through to the 1850’s when she made 32 voyages carrying emigrants across the world. In 1880 she was converted from steam to sail and made three voyages to San Francisco. It was in 1970, after a dramatic salvage operation in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands that the ship was rescued for the nation and became a major tourist attraction along the Bristol waterfront. After learning about her history, we were then ready to step on board SS Great Britain in her fully restored glory.
We began our tour on the upper, Weather Deck. Here the space was divided into different areas for passengers travelling first, second or third class. Only first class passengers were allowed to cross a white painted line behind the mainmast.
On the floor below we explored the Promenade Deck. This was an area for first class passengers to socialise, walk and dance without having to get wet or windswept on the open air Weather Deck. On either side of this deck we were able to look in some of the first class cabins and observe life on board a luxury liner.
As with cruise holidays today, eating and drinking were a major part of life on board. In the Dining Saloon first class passengers dined in style sitting with fellow travellers at long tables eating off the finest porcelain tableware and drinking expensive wines from crystal glasses.
Third class passengers, also referred to as steerage, endured journeys on the lower decks in noisy, cramped accommodation during their voyages to Australia but I’m certain they still had lots of fun and made the most of their time. We also had an opportunity to view the galley, stores, bakery, forward hold and engine. In the forward hold, live animals were transported some of which were slaughtered for fresh meat to be used in the kitchens during the passage.
Touring the museum ship was an absolute treat as it is set out with interactive displays and rather than just being able to glance into cabins, kitchens etc., visitors are actively encouraged to step inside and relive the voyage. I was also pleasantly surprised to find how accessible each part of the ship was. Over the years I’ve visited numerous museum ships where it’s been necessary to clamber up and down steep narrow stairways and although I haven’t found it problematic, it would be for some visitors. Don’t let that dissuade you from touring the SS Great Britain and enjoying life on board the ship. Tickets are valid for one year, providing an opportunity to view the new exhibit ‘Being Brunel’ about the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel which is due to open at the end of March 2018.
We spent about two and a half hours exploring SS Great Britain so I would suggest setting aside half a day for a visit to this majestic vessel. It was back on the water for us as we caught another one of the Bristol Ferry boats back to the city centre. As it was lunchtime we popped into the V Shed pub on the waterfront for a panini and coffee before catching a No.75 bus to Aerospace Bristol, the new home of Concorde.
Checking route information on the First buses website, the journey time was listed as 31 minutes and it claimed contactless payment was available. Both of these facts appeared to be incorrect as our Saturday afternoon journey actually took 50 minutes and the driver would only permit cash payments despite having a card reader installed! A day ticket costs £4.50 and fortunately I had a £20 note to be able to pay for the two tickets otherwise we would probably have not been allowed to board.
The 75 service doesn’t actually drop passengers at the door of the museum so its necessary to alight at Gypsy Patch Lane just after you see the large Royal Mail sorting office on your left. To get to the museum, continue walking along the road for approximately ten minutes (there is a pavement) and you will see the museum ahead.
Aerospace Bristol only opened in October 2017 and is located on the historic Filton airfield from where every British Concorde made its maiden flight. Adult admission is £15 and is valid for one year for return visits. The museum cost £19 million to build and its main attraction and centrepiece is undoubtedly a visit to the purpose built Concorde hangar to view Concorde Alpha Foxtrot, the last of the iconic supersonic passenger jets to be built and the last to fly 14 years ago in 2003.
Bristol can safely hold claim to being the rightful home of Concorde, being the location of the U.K. assembly line and where the airframe and engines were largely developed. Viewing Concorde in its shiny, new home was a marvellous experience. Not only are visitors able to walk around the outside of the aircraft but they are also invited to step on board through its front doors.
The aircraft design needed to be long and thin as it was all about speed, but it was still surprising to note how narrow the soft leather seats were and how little legroom was provided. We peered into the cockpit wondering what all the buttons and switches controlled, saw the toilets which were not even as smart or spacious as those we are familiar with today when travelling long haul economy. Considering the gourmet meals served during the supersonic three and a half hour flight between London and New York, it was a tight fit in the cramped galley for the cabin crew to prepare the food.
After leaving Concorde by its rear door, there was still plenty to see. Off to one side is a gallery dedicated to the airliner where we saw menus, champagne bottles from its maiden flight, changes in seat design, smart uniforms and other fascinating memorabilia. The Concorde hangar has been designed to be used to also host functions, just imagine enjoying dinner sitting beneath the wings of Concorde – it’s certainly a venue with a difference!
Although Concorde is Aerospace Bristol’s showstopper there’s lots more to keep visitors interested. Back in the main building, the museum explores the wider history of the aerospace history in Bristol from the earliest days of powered flight to the latest technological advances.
In 1910, the entrepreneur Sir George White announced that Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company were going to branch out into aircraft, and at the outset of World War One the British Colonial Aerospace Company (BCAC) was launched and building fighter planes. Since then, warplanes, missiles, helicopters, satellites and rockets have all been built in Filton and the surrounding Bristol area.
Exhibits range from a Sea Harrier jet fighter noted for its vertical take-off and landing, and its use in the Falklands conflict, to the Bristol Type 192 Belvedere twin rotor helicopter which had originally been designed for inter-city travel but was later used as a troop carrier and bears resemblance to the modern Chinook used today. As well as exhibits, there are numerous interactive displays designed for both adults and children. Using one of these we tried to create enough power to fly a plane and on another we learnt about engine thrust, providing visitors with both an educational and fun experience.
We had found the museum so interesting that we were among the final visitors to leave just before it was closing. Along with SS Great Britain its a definite must see on a visit to Bristol and I would recommend setting aside at least two hours for a visit to Aerospace Bristol.
On leaving, instead of returning back into the city centre on the same bus service we arrived on, we continued walking along the road to the Cribbs Causeway Mall which is a large, out of town shopping centre located to the north of Bristol. It took us about 20 minutes to walk to the mall, most of the way along pavements with just a short section where we had to take extra care. After a day of museums we rested our feet with tea and cakes in the John Lewis cafe then did a spot of window shopping and admired the festive decorations before returning to the city centre on a No.2 bus. Numerous buses operate between Cribbs Causeway and the centre of Bristol so we didn’t have to wait very long to board. Journey time was similar to that of the service we took earlier in the day.
It was then back to our hotel after a fun filled day viewing ships and aircraft.