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A family day out at the SS Great Britain

Our entry to the SS Great Britain was complimentary to allow me to create this blog post.

At the heart of Bristol’s vibrant harbour lies a boat with a tale to tell. The SS Great Britain was built right there in the Great Western Dockyard. This was where she would return 127 years later. Since then, the ship has been lovingly restored. Visitors can look around both inside and outside and get a feel for what life would have been like for those on board. This summer, the SS Great Britain Summer spectacular sees the incredible Invisible Circus entertaining the crowds. We visited this fascinating ship last week to see whether it’s a good family day out.

Children stood next to SS Great Britain

SS Great Britain Summer Spectacular and the Invisible Circus

We were delighted to visit the SS Great Britain during their Summer Spectacular. Invisible Circus performers boarded the ship every hour on the hour from 11am to 3pm. Incredible acrobats performed aerial stunts. Climbing, swinging from ropes, singing, dancing and doing tricks. Shows took place on either the dockyard or the weather deck. Each one only lasted for about 10 minutes, but kept the audience captivated throughout.

acrobat climbing ropes on SS Great Britain
acrobat on SS Great Britain dockside

I would describe the performers as actors as well as acrobats. Each one was in character, dressing and talking as though they were the ship’s crew. Chatting to the audience and singing, they made their way up ropes, climbed on top of each other and spun around. It was a lovely way to get into the spirit of life onboard the SS Great Britain.

invisible circus acrobat on SS Great Britain
acrobatic display from invisible circus onboard SS Great Britain
actors in SS Great Britain Summer Spectacular

Another great way to really find out what life was like on the ship is to experience Go Aloft. Children aged 10 and over and adults can climb the rigging, more than 25 metres above the ground. Only the bravest climbers will edge out across the main yard, revealing a breathtaking view of the city. We didn’t take part this time because the children aren’t old enough. We’ll definitely be back in a few years though, I’d love to give it a go!

History of the SS Great Britain

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the SS Great Britain was launched in 1843 by Prince Albert. She was the most vast ship ever built, and the first to be build of iron. A 1000 horsepower steam engine and the first ever screw propeller made this ship a trailblazer that would change history.

SS Great Britain propellor and rudder

Over the years, several adaptations were made to the ship. A more efficient engine, a second funnel and replacement propeller and rudder. By the time she sailed to Australia in 1852, the ship was predominantly propelled by sails. The powerful engine and propeller would be used only as a backup. When an extra upper deck was built, she could carry up to 700 passengers.

side view of SS Great Britain

Thirty years on, the SS Great Britain was converted to a cargo ship. Her working life eventually came to an end in 1933. Even then, there was an attempt to rescue her. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and she was left to rust in the Falkland Islands. On April 13th 1970, she was refloated. Ewan Corlett, a naval engineer, had recognised her importance and embarked on a mission to bring the ship back to Bristol. She was pulled by tug boats across the Atlantic on a floating pontoon. A few miles outside of Bristol, repairs were done that allowed her to travel the last few miles on her own hull. Crowds lined the streets to welcome her home 127 years to the day after her launch.

The Dockyard, Dry Dock and Dockyard Museum

The SS Great Britain remains in a dry dock in Bristol Harbour. As soon as you enter the dockyard, it’s like stepping back in time. Actors in historic clothing greet you a horse and cart stand watch over the dock. Traditional toys are available for children to play with.

children with waxwork horse on SS Great Britain

From the dockyard, you can venture under the ship to look around the dry dock and see the underside of the boat. Her enormous anchor, rudder and propellor are also on display. A huge dehumidifying machine pumps air around the dry dock, preventing further rust and deterioration.

Children touching SS Great Britain in dry dock
Child trying to lift the huge SS Great Britain anchor in dry dock

Adjacent to the dry dock is the Dockyard Museum. Explore four different eras of the ship’s history and discover exhibits from its travels. A film transports visitors back to the ship’s exciting homecoming in 1970. From there you travel back in time, learning about the ship’s part in two World Wars. Find out about her Windjammer years, how she carried passengers to Australia during the gold rush and her surprising connection to English cricket. The museum itself isn’t hugely interactive, but that didn’t stop it from being interesting for children. My two loved dressing up and having their photo taken as first class passengers.

Children dressed in traditional clothes on SS Great Britain

Visiting the SS Great Britain

From the museum, visitors can head straight onto the ship. Decorated with flags as she would have been on launch day, the SS Great Britain has been restored to portray her former glory. Step onto the weather deck and see where a cow, pig and chickens would have been kept. The girls loved this and quickly understood why animals were onboard. Lines divide the different class areas to prevent other passengers from straying into first class. The children loved pretending to steer the ship with its huge wheel.

Child with cow waxwork onboard SS Great Britain
Children turning the SS Great Britain steering wheel

Downstairs from there is the promenade deck, with first class cabins at either end and plenty of space to socialise. Sit down at one of the tables in the dining saloon and see waxworks in traditional costume.

Deck inside SS Great Britain
Table in dining room of SS Great Britain
chairs and instruments for string quartet onboard SS Great Britain

Towards the front of the ship in the lower decks, you’ll see steerage or third class cabins. This was the cheapest accommodation and where most people slept. Visitors to the ship can nose around the galley and bakery and peer into the forward hold. You’ll even see a full size reconstruction of the engine and watch it turning. Even the smell of the engine room is replicated, as well as the sound of people shovelling coal.

girl on top bunk of cabin bed on SS Great Britain
cabin beds onboard SS Great Britain
waxwork polishing shoes onboard SS Great Britain
SS Great Britain galley
fake apples and jug in SS Great Britain galley
Replica engine on the SS Great Britain
Inside the front of the SS Great Britain

For more information about visiting the ship and the Summer Spectacular including the Invisible Circus, head to the SS Great Britain website.

Family day out on the SS Great Britain in Bristol - AD (press trip) | The historic SS Great Britain is in a dry dock in Bristol, England. Visitors including children and families will be entertained by the invisible circus during the summer and all year round, there's plenty to see and do both onboard and in the adjacent museum and dry dock. #daysout #familyfun #Bristol #ukfamilytravel

Our entry to the SS Great Britain was complimentary to allow me to create this blog post.


  1. August 5, 2019 / 8:29 am

    It sounds like a really interesting place to visit. Even the story of how it was brought back to Britain is incredible. We actually go to Bristol a lot, but have never actually visited SS Great Britain.

    • August 6, 2019 / 9:06 pm

      Oh you definitely should, it’s a really fascinating day out. I agree, I was quite captivated watching the video about it being brought back to Bristol.

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