“We’re going to a pirate ship!” Not strictly true but the idea definitely captured D’s imagination on his third birthday, as we set off for a day out at the nearby SS Great Britain. He might have been looking forward to cutlasses and treasure chests; my husband and I were looking forward to seeing the new Being Brunel permanent display.
Our trip started with a stop at the M Shed, after a friend’s tip off that an open air steam train is running up and down the dock during certain weekends. We took the first return trip of the day and D thought it was magical, and didn’t even cry at the loud noises, even though the whistle was just near us. You can disembark outside the SS Great Britain directly but our journey was non-stop. We also decided to come back to the M Shed another time because the displays and cafe there were brilliant.
Despite it being a drizzly day, there was plenty of colour as we walked along the dockside, with the bright rainbow shades of the houses in the distance and then the multi-coloured flags blowing in the wind on board the SS Great Britain, which raised the excitement levels. The ship really is magnificent, even from a distance.
This was my husband’s first time on board so we took some time to look around the edge of the dock and the museum. The attention to detail is brilliant – from the old fashioned posters outside to the tour guide who prepares you to step back in time as you enter the area. Then we headed to Being Brunel, the permanent exhibition new this year.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his majestic designs were a regular feature of my up-bringing, as he designed the Tamar Bridge which took us from Cornwall into deepest, darkest Devon; the first London landmark we reached, Paddington Station, and the most famous structure in my university city of Bristol – Clifton Suspension Bridge.
I’m pleased to say that Scrip knows a lot about him as well, having studied Brunel at school, so she was equally interested to hear more about his life. Once again, the attention to detail is good: you can pause on entry to have a photo taken wearing one of a range of replica trademark top hats – which my father later told us was chosen by Brunel to add to his height.
The first stop is a copy of his dining room, beautifully embellished and with some digital portraits that come to life and tell his story. Through the second door the children liked the moving train carriage, which bumped along when they climbed aboard, and the gigantic 3D Brunel face on the wall, which rises two stories high. As always when looking around museums with children you only tend to get a glimpse of displays before being made to move on, but there was a lot in there to look at.
His life story is told through time lines, documents and images and the journey continues upstairs with more displays. We didn’t make it into the Brunel video experience as it promised flashing lights and loud noises, which one of our children wasn’t keen on, but that also sounded interesting. I should imagine this would be a big draw for older children, as there’s probably less that’s hands-on in here than in the main museum.
Then we carried on to the SS Great Britain herself and enjoyed another brilliant tour of the ship, complete with sounds, smells and scuttling rats in the kitchens. I didn’t manage to make it to Go Aloft, the climbing experience, as it was raining harder by then. So I’d love to come back and do it one day. But it was certainly a great day out and one little boy had to be carried back to the car, and no doubt dreamed of pirate adventures as he slept the whole way home.
I’ve also written about 12 things to spot on the SS Great Britain.
Thanks to the SS Great Britain for letting us experience the SS Great Britain for the day. A family ticket costs £45.