Regarded as one of Bristol’s leading attractions, and the recipient of various awards in recent years, I was eagerly anticipating my visit to SS Great Britain, especially as I have always loved ships and I’m such a fan of industrial heritage.
I have to say I was not disappointed; in fact the visit exceeded my expectations. There are a lot of aspects to the SS Great Britain’s story – including engineering, social history, travel and navigation, migration, trade, restoration – and it is a big challenge to deal with these in a way that is accessible and interesting for all, yet still detailed enough for real enthusiasts in each area. The attraction does this excellently, with clearly laid out and labelled exhibits, documents and audio-visual shows that allow people to explore the information and artefacts at whatever level of detail they choose.
The route around the attraction helps to build up anticipation, as you first see the dockyard, then the underside of the hull (below a tank containing a few inches of water, giving something of an underwater feel), then the exhibition and finally the main ship itself. One of the best things about the whole experience for me was the level of access you get – there are very few roped-off areas, and you do not feel like you are constantly being watched with suspicion by staff. This is particularly nice under the hull, where there are plenty of notices warning of the fragility of the structure, but visitors are trusted to behave sensibly when they are close enough to touch. Obviously, the highlight is getting onto the ship itself, where you can explore the deck and various areas below, including the cabins, the first class dining room and the engines. There are audio guides for the ship, and you can choose from different characters – the chief engineer for the technical fans, different classes of passenger for the social history fans, and even the ship’s cat for the children!
Throughout the attraction, the attention paid to accessibility is apparent. Ramps and lifts ensure excellent wheelchair access to all areas, with special narrow wheelchairs available for some parts of the ship. For the deaf or hearing impaired, there are handheld BSL displays, while the visually impaired can use special audio guides and tactile models of the ship. It is no surprise that they have won awards for Accessible Tourism in recent times.
All in all, the SS Great Britain is definitely something I would recommend to anyone visiting Bristol. It manages to highlight Brunel’s great engineering achievement in a way that is suitable for all. It is great value for money, and ideal for the whole family, while the excellent accessibility makes it something that can be enjoyed easily by anyone with a disability.