As much as I adore wandering around museums and historical sites, I have always wondered if I am forcing History upon my kids. I often ponder the question of nature over nurture – what are the likes and dislikes that they have adopted themselves, and which are those that I have influenced (unwittingly or otherwise). But the reality is that if you’ve ever tried to make a 4 and 7 year-old do something they really don’t want to, you’ll know that there are much easier ways to a happy life. So, we would appear to have become a family of history loving, museum exploring, heritage fanatics.
When my daughter learned about Brunel as part of her school curriculum in Year Two, I knew that there was one city that would blow her mind, and one place in particular: the SS Great Britain in Bristol. So when an opportunity to review the museum came along, we were thrilled to visit.
Disclosure: The team at SS Great Britain invited us as guests in return for sharing our experiences here on the blog.
In the bed and breakfast where we were staying we found the famous photo of Brunel and my daughter started sketching.
What is the SS Great Britain?
Launched on the 19 July 1843, the Steam Ship Great Britain has become known as ‘the ship that changed the world’. Designed by the celebrated Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, she was the largest ship of her kind at the time and the first to be powered by steam with an iron hull and propeller. At first, she was used to carry passengers from Liverpool to Australia (a 6 week journey!). After that she was a cargo ship and even played a part in the First World War. In the 1970s she was transported all the way back from the Falkland Islands in a dilapidated state. Now the beautifully restored ship sits ‘afloat’ a glass roof at the waterline in the dry dock where she was built. Below, the ‘waterline’, temperature and humidity are controlled to ensure the ship is preserved for future generations to enjoy.
What can you do at the SS Great Britain with kids?
Even before you enter the dockyard museum or climb onto the ship, you’ll notice that everything you can see is authentic to how it would have appeared back in the 1840s when the ship was preparing to set sail.
Your ‘stepping back in time’ experience begins immediately and is continued onboard the ship and also in the new ‘Being Brunel’ museum where you can experience a mock-up of Brunel’s London office at 18 Duke Street.
Entering into the dockyard museum you can learn about the history of the SS Great Britain and there are lots of interactive exhibits for the children. On the August day we visited, most of the country was on a severe weather warning with gale force winds and torrential rain so we skipped through the dockyard museum pretty quickly so we could visit the deck of the ship before the heavens opened.
You’re encouraged to explore the rest of the ship and see the differences between steerage and first class and can even see a working engine.
Where is it?
The SS Great Britain sits right in the heart of the Bristol docks. For my Maidenhead readers, it’s a 1 hour 45 minute drive and you’ll be pleased to know there is a reasonably priced car park right outside the ship. Bristol has plenty to experience, so if you don’t fancy travelling there and back in one day, stay over and then visit one of Brunel’s other iconic designs: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Is it worth going if my kids aren’t interested in ships and don’t like museums?
This isn’t your traditional museum with a ‘look but don’t touch’ approach with objects and artefacts hidden behind glass cabinets. You’re encouraged to explore the ship and even if the kids don’t want to stand still to listen, or to read, they will certainly have fun peeping around doors, looking into cabins, dressing up, clambering up and down steep steps or even climbing the rigging.
Throughout the summer there are also extra hourly activities from the ‘Invisible Circus’. The weather on our visit meant that they couldn’t do their full array of tricks and stunts, but they could be found roaming around the ship chatting to passengers ‘in character’ and amusing the children with their unique cheeky humour. We’ve learned that if you let the kids enjoy museums at their own pace they can’t help but absorb some history along the way – even if you think they haven’t learned anything they will recall what they have seen when the subject comes up in future.
In 2018, a brand new area called ‘Being Brunel’ was added to the museum and is included in your entrance ticket. This part of the museum explains the story of Brunel’s life and covers all of his great engineering works in a personal manner. There were lots of references to Maidenhead bridge which had particular resonance for my children. I loved that the museum went beyond designs and looked at the character traits of Brunel – you can learn about Brunel ‘the Dreamer’, ‘the Gambler’ as well as ‘the Engineer’. I felt this was a great conversation starter with the kids – we may think of him simply as a great engineer, he also spent time day-dreaming great ideas too!
Even when objects are protected by glass cases, the children are encouraged to open drawers to find them. They thought it was amazing to see Brunel’s journals first hand.
The museum champions great ideas, fresh thinking and challenging convention – even if the kids don’t absorb too many historical facts along the way it’s certainly worth a visit to get them to understand the value of that.
What else do I need to know before I visit?
If you’re planning a visit to the SS Great Britain, you can buy tickets on the day of your visit at the Visitor Centre, but you can get discounted tickets by booking in advance online (you’ll get a saving of 5% of the full price). We spent a large part of the day there, exploring the ship in the morning, taking a break in the Dockyard Café at lunch and then going under the water line and visiting ‘Being Brunel’ in the afternoon. With entry tickets giving you unlimited visits for 12 months you can go back and explore areas you might have missed on your first visit.
If you book online, a family of four costs £44.65 and children 4 years and under get in free. There is a Bristol City Council car park right next to the museum where you can get 5 hours parking for £5, of which you can get £3 back when you show your parking receipt at the Visitor Centre. (Prices correct in August 2019 at the time of our visit)
You can find a full guide of what’s on and how to make the most of your visit on their website.