Sunday, 12 January 2014

Visiting the SS Great Britain.

Bristol held one more attraction for me, and that was yet another preserved ship: Brunel's SS Great Britain. There is no doubt in my mind that Brunel was an engineer that could do almost anything. He was ahead of his time and his vision seemed to encompass anything that needed doing. Ships was just one task he applied himself to with a passion, and the Great Britain is one of his finest creations.  I am not qualified to expound on the history of this grand old lady from a different age, I just tell it like I see it.  I suggest a visit to the Wikipedia page for the history thereof.


Berthed at the the drydock in the Great Western Drydock in Bristol, she is back in the place where she was created, and she is a stunning example of shipbuilding the way it was back then. I took the walk to her after my sojourn at Arnos Vale, although I did not really realise how far away she was from the cemetery. It did mean a long walk along the banks of the Avon, and a detour through the docks, which was a good thing because I discovered a whole new place to shipwatch.


The Great Britain was still quite a walk from where I entered the docks, but eventually I spotted her, resting in her dry dock, far from the place where she nearly ended her days. The fact that she still survives is a testament to her design and construction, and of course the fact that she was seemingly forgotten so was reasonably untouched by the destructive hand of the scrap merchants.  Her return to the UK was a triumph in itself, and today she is an extremely popular member of the preserved fleet that is resident in this country. 

Entrance to the vessel is via the top deck, which are wide and relatively unencumbered for a ship that boasted sails and an engine! 


I did find the surplus of skylights quite odd, but their reason for being there would only come about when I went below. There are three decks to explore: the Weather (top) Deck, Promenade Deck, and finally Saloon Deck.  The Promenade Deck did not feature a promenade deck as they are associated with cruise ships and TransAtlantic liners, instead it was more of an internal space where people strolled up and down and tried to escape the incredibly small cabins that were found on this deck. 

It is worth remembering that ships like this did not have air conditioning, and probably no running water in the cabins. Ventilation would be almost minimal, although it is possible that a porthole could be opened depending on what deck you were on and what the weather was like outside. Ablutions would be "down the hall", and any entertainment was usually provided by the passengers themselves. The concept of stabilisers did not exist, the passengers were at the mercy of the sea just like the crew, although they may have had more superior accommodation to the fo'c'stle where the deck crew usually were bunked.

Voyages were long, cramped and uncomfortable. But a ship like the Great Britain was probably light years ahead of her competitors, and she was no tub either, but a well found vessel, albeit one that seems to have had a chequered career.



The skylights in the image above are directly underneath the skylights on the deck above so that light could penetrate the gloom below. It is really an effective method of providing light, although I wonder how watertight they were? This is the Promenade Deck and it has the large windowed stern at the far end.


Rising up into this deck area is the engine room, and this is a fascinating space in itself. The machinery occupying the space is massive. It occupys 3 decks and weighs in at 340 tons. There are 4 cylinders in 2 sets, each at a 33 degree angle in a V shape.


These drive a wooden toothed chain wheel just over 18 feet in diameter which turns another wheel on the shaft via a set of chains. The Great Britain used the same principle as a bicycle! The engine really has to be seen to be believed, quietly turning but never going anywhere.

From what I have read the engine in the ship now is actually a full scale working model built with lighter and more modern materials.
Apparently her original engines were replaced by better ones (as the technology improved) and naturally there would be the benefit of more efficiency with less expenditure of money. However, the reliance on sails still existed, and while she was built as a steam ship with sail power available, she later changed to a sailing ship with an auxiliary engine. She also had the unique ability to retract her propeller when not in use and when running on sail.

I was also able to catch a glimpse at "steerage" dormitory style accommodation, and it is frightening to think of being cooped up in this area on a long voyage.


Another area of interest was what I expect you would call the first class dining saloon, and it is quite a large space, although the decor doesn't really do much for me. I do not know what was behind those ornate doors though,. although I do know one was the gents!


Right in the bow of the ship was a large open area that was probably used at one point for cargo and probably crews quarters. Its a dark area and I don't know how original it is, but it does give a good indication of the internal lines of the ship.


The ship is not afloat, and rests on keelblocks in the dry dock. Parts of her hull plating are rusted through, and there is a sophisticated humidifying system in place in the dry dock. to keep her hull stabilised. The fact is that iron rusts, and this ship is over 160 years old, and spent many years neglected and unused and semi derelict, it is inevitable that she is not in a pristine condition, in fact she is really a very tired old ship, but also a very handsome tired old ship.


Parts off the hull plating have rusted through and these have not been replaced, but you can get an idea of the fragility of the hull if you really take the time to have a look.

The part that interested me was in the dry dock itself, the ship is surrounded by glass panels and water flows across the panels giving the impression that she is afloat. For some reason this seems to work much better than what they did with the Cutty Sark which is more like a giant goldfish bowl.


Bear in mind that each of those rivets was put in by hand..... and many of the hull plating has a curvature to it. And did I mention it is over 160 years old? Seeing a ship from this angle is always fascinating because it is here that you really get a sense of scale (and how small you are compared to it). The propeller is a replica of Brunels 6 bladed design which is remarkably similar in performance to modern 6 bladed screws.


This propeller shape also features on a memorial to the engineer in Portsmouth.






Two dehumidifying machines (one inside the ship and one in the drydock), help keep the humidity at bay, without them the Great Britain would be living on borrowed time. A comprehensive history of the vessel is also available at the website dedicated to the engineer who was such a forward thinker and whose work still exists in so many forms today. Sadly, yet another of his ships "The Great Eastern"  would ultimately cause the death of her designer on 11 September 1859. He is buried in Kensall Green Cemetery in London.

There is still so much to say about the ship and what I saw, it is always difficult trying to do justice to a vessel such as this in a blog, the ship is always better seen and experienced up close and personal. I know she was very different to what I expected, and I would have loved to have explored much more, but time was catching me and I still had to get to the station for my train. I will return to her one day, preferably in summer when the days are longer, and hopefully this time will know what to look for.

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