Towns / Cities Visited: 101
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 17,342
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,872,504
Our day was to be spent in Bristol, and with quite a few things to see, we were out the door relatively early. After finding somewhere to park we took a leisurely walk through this beautiful historic town, with its stunning gothic architecture, on our way to our first and biggest attraction for the day; the SS Great Britain.
For those of you who have no idea of the importance of this ship, allow me to enlighten you. The SS Great Britain began construction in 1839 and was the brainchild of the notable British mechanical engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was the first large scale ocean liner to combine an iron hull with a screw propeller. Most other similar boats at the time were made with wooden hulls, and paddle wheels for propulsion. Brunel, having seen the benefits of the two new technologies on other ships argued with the Great Western Steamship Company, for whom he worked, to change their designs for the SS Great Britain, putting forth the facts that the change would make the ship lighter, faster, more fuel efficient, more maneuverable, stabler in rough seas, and able to carry more cargo. The ship was also fitted with sails so that she could travel by wind power if necessary.
At 98 metres in length she was the largest ship afloat at the time of her maiden voyage in 1845. She was used for transatlantic transportation for the first year or so, but after running aground, and with the company that built her bankrupt having had to pay to refloat her, she was sold for salvage and repaired. After this point, in 1852, she was used to transport the influx of immigrants to Australia due to the gold rush. She was changed to an all sail ship in 1881, and three years later she was retired to the Falkland islands where she was used as a warehouse, quarantine ship, and coal hulk. She was finally scuttled in 1937 after almost 100 years of service. However in 1970 a prominent English businessman paid for her to be raised and brought back to Bristol dry dock, where she now stands as a tourist attraction.
Now with the brief history lesson out of the way, I shall continue. Eventually we made it to the docks, and weaved our way over to the SS Great Britain. After purchasing our tickets, we began out tour of the ship, which actually begins below the water line. Now, given that she was sitting at the bottom of the ocean for some 33 years, it should come as no surprise that her hull is severely damaged and rusted away in parts. The conservation work here is incredible, and although they have a thin layer of display water on a perspex plate where the water level would have sat, underneath this is a completely self contained micro climate. After passing through the air lock area, you enter onto the floor of the dry dock surrounding the massive hull. The conservation team are working hard to ensure that the rusting of the hull is slowed as much as possible, so that the ship may be kept for many more years, and to do so they have made an environment with an almost non existent level of humidity, to prevent water in the air reacting with the iron hull. Seeing the hull up close, including the famous screw propeller that Brunel fought hard to have added, is a truly spectacular sight. Its not often you get to see the underside of a ship, let along be within arms reach of it whilst remaining completely dry.
From here we headed above sea level, and into the visitor centre to learn all about the long and fascination life of this truly great vessel. From in depth looks into her many voyages, and the many roles she played including transatlantic transport, and quarantine; to the ships original wooden rudder, letters from those who travelled aboard her, and many stories of the countless passengers who graced her decks, the entire exhibition was enlightening to say the least.
By this point it was time to climb aboard, onto the deck of this great sea hulk. She may be all iron hull and fancy propeller underneath, but up on the well oiled wooden deck, with the pennants and huge sails looming overhead, it feels ever the old time vessel. It was rather amusing to see the pens on deck for livestock, but given how long it takes to sail a ship to Australia, it makes sense that you’re better off keeping your meat alive to keep it fresh.
With the decks inspected we headed below to see what inner beauty there was on offer. The tour of the interior begins in the first class cabins. With their airy glass topped central passage, seating area, and rather spacious rooms it was travelling in style for that time, although it may not look it to us these days. This deck also houses the surgeons rooms, for all on board medical emergencies, complete with wax figures; as well as the Captain’s quarters, and an exclusive lounge area for the high paying guests.
From here we moved on through the food storage areas, including a rather graphic meat store with a figure of a man butchering a dolphin, until we came to the second class accommodation further down the ship. This included much tighter rooms with four bunk beds and not enough room to swing a cat. Still it was better than the third class accommodation just down a little further which is, unsurprisingly, decked out with communal style bunk beds in tight rows and with absolutely no privacy. Still all passengers had a bunk bed so I guess that’s something, even if they had to eat at allotted times as there was only enough seats at the mess tables for incremental groups.
Next up was my favourite area, the kitchens; and given the fact this ship could transport 360 passengers on its transatlantic journeys, and up to 730 in its later years as transport to Australia, it makes sense that the kitchen area is quite large, although most of the space is filled with ovens and massive pots. With an entire separate room just to bake enough bread for everyone, and with meals having to span from slop and dry crackers for the masses, and fine cuisine for the first class passengers, I was in awe of how much food must have been pumped out of a comparatively small space. I can’t say I envied the cooks stuck in this hot and harsh environment, especially on choppy seas; as if playing with knives and fire wasn’t dangerous enough without the entire room moving.
Heading down lower still, it was time to check out the engines and the cargo area. From storage of coal to salt cod, and even horses, this was the area where some 1200 tons of cargo could be stored. Just along from here you are able to see the massive engines which propelled this grand vessel so far around the world. They really do make you feel small to stand beside them, and its inspiring to see such state of the art technology for the time.
Before heading out of the ship we made one last stop, in the first class dining room. With its long varnished wooden tables, and plush red velvet benches, it was pure luxury compared to the third class dining situation. Some of the tables are even laid out for a meal, complete with fake food; and a couple of chairs with instruments propped up on them look as though the on board entertainers have just popped out for a break and will be back any minute.
By now we were starting to get a bit peckish, and thus, leaving the ship, we headed to the cafe for a quick lunch of pie and mash. At this point we discovered that there is also a large exhibition about the man himself, Mr. Brunel, so we headed on in. The exhibit includes exhibition space, as well as mock ups of his old design offices, and the room in which the men of Great Western Shipping Company voted on his proposed changes to the design, as well as an audio visual presentation of his near death experience, shown in first person perspective; which was a bristling experience even though it happened more than 150 years ago.
I won’t bore you with all of the details of the museum, but lets just say this man was definitely a forward thinker, coming up not only with the idea for SS Great Britain’s vast improvements, but he was also involved, alongside his father Marc Brunel, in the construction of the Thames tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, a project which almost cost him his life when part of the tunnel collapsed and flooded. He designed countless bridges, the most famous of which we would be visiting later in the day, and worked as an engineer for the Greater Western Railway. He even dabbled, although unsuccessfully, in the idea of atmospheric railway, which would use a vacuum system to move carriages along the tracks. On top of this, he also designed the SS Great Eastern, which was some 210 metres long, and was again the largest of its time. It was used for transportation to India and Australia and could hold up to 4000 passengers. Lastly, he also invented flat packed, prefabricated hospital wards which were shipped to Crimea during the Crimean war to help provide sanitary work spaces for the medical staff and aid in the treatment of patients. By the time we walked out of the fascinating exhibition I was in awe of the contributions of a man I had never heard of but a few hours ago.
With the SS Great Britain thoroughly visited, we headed back to the car, but not before stopping at Cabot tower. This tower was built in the 1890’s to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of John Cabot, an Italian explorer, travelling from Bristol and landing on the north coast of America, on land that is now part of Canada. It was the earliest known European exploration of the area since the Norse travelled there in the 11th century. Walking through the beautiful surrounding gardens, we made our way up the gothic tower for a rather impressive view down over the city below. A perfect way to end our visit to this historic old town.
Jumping back in the car we made our way over to our last sight for the day, and the engineering feat that Brunel was best known for; the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We had arrived in time to join the free tour, and after taking a quick walk across to the visitor centre to find out where it leaves from, we hurried back across to meet up with our friendly and cheerful high vis jacket wearing guide. It is from him that we learnt that originally there was a competition for a engineers to put in designs for a bridge to span the Avon gorge below. Brunel submitted four designs, all of which were rejected by the committee headed by Thomas Telford who asserted that 176 metres was the largest possible span for a suspension bride, and who instead put forth his own design. There was an uproar from the public, and this forced a second competition, of which Brunel won. The bridge, by the way, spans 214 metres, despite what Telford believed to be outside the realm of possibility. Work began on it in 1831, but riots in Bristol forced the project to be halted in 1943, as investors had left, meaning there was no funding. It wasn’t continued until 1862, and wasn’t completed until 1864; five years after Brunel’s death. The bridge does not fit his original designs either, as they ended up using the suspension chains from the Hungerford bridge, which funnily enough was another of Brunel’s bridges, meaning that the plans had to be altered, and a lack of funds meant that some of the aesthetics were changed resulting in differences in the two towers at either side.
The tour was wonderfully educational as we learnt all about the ins and outs of how a suspension bridge works, how it is designed to allow for movement in the chains and the road that crosses it, and how it stays, well, suspended. This bridge now has fencing to help stop suicide by jumping the 100 metres to the gorge below, which claimed the lives of some 127 people between 1974 and 1993. As tragic as this is, there is also the heartening story of 22 year old Sarah Ann Henley who jumped from the bridge in 1885, but due to her billowing skirt acting as a parachute she survived the fall and landed in a mud bank, from which she was rescued. She went on to live well into her eighties.
There also are many interesting parts of this feat of engineering genius, and they are still learning new things about it. For example, in 2002 a builder replacing paving beside one of the towers, discovered that the abutment it stands on is actually made of hollow vaults, and not solid stone. The vaults were so well sealed that when they first lowered someone in there was no smell in the air at all, no mustiness, no rot, no mould, nothing; it was simply a dark chamber filled with thin stalactites from the lime mortar holding the stones together. I’ll add an internet photo so you can see what I mean; and if you have the time and money you can even visit them on a tour. By the time we finished and wandered around the small display at the visitor centre, I was amazed by how perfectly these types of bridges have to be designed in order to just stay standing.
The day was getting on and we still had a fair drive to make to reach our next Airbnb, thus back into the car we tumbled, and paying the 1 pound toll we crossed the bridge we had just learnt so much about, before making our way into Wales and across to Cardiff. A home cooked meal, and we were ready for bed before too long. As I thought about our day, I took a moment to be grateful for the countless men and women who’s genius has progressed our species, and yet who’s names barely any of us actually know. From those who perfected the treatments that prolong and save our lives, to those who engineer satellites which can travel beyond the far reaches of our solar system and still send messages home to us. From those who allowed us to connect with each other from the other side of the world in a split second, to those who discovered the intricacies of flight despite our lack of wings. From those who discovered how to make a second storey, to those who discovered how to make a one hundred and second storey of a building. From those who discovered how to make a wheel so we could move things easier, to those who discovered how to make electricity move them for us. From those who helped answer the big questions, to those who helped us see the tiniest atoms of our world.
The engineers and scientists who not only asked how, but went forth and discovered the answer. Those who not only want to create things that a practical and convenient, but also those who endeavour to create things that help improve and heal the world’s problems whether they be medical or environmental. Those who work tirelessly in laboratories and design studios, but whom will never see their names in lights for their incredible work. Those little people who had their big ideas claimed by their superiors, and those women of the past who had their contributions claimed by men who basked in the accolades for it. To those who were ahead of their time; who thought outside the box; who asked what if; who staked their reputation, or risked their life, to prove that there was a way to achieve these things; who made the impossible possible; I say thank you. Because of people like you we are the longest living, most connected, and furthest advanced as our species have ever been; because of you we are taller, better, faster, and stronger; and because of you we will continue to invent, to create, to explore, and to ask not why, but why not.