Bristol has been an important port since early times. The River Avon and Bristol Harbour run through the city, and a trip on the Bristol Waterbus is an excellent way to explore the town and its history. Travelling along the harbour, with 16 stops along the way, it is also a good way to get around.
A Journey Through Past and Present
The River Avon has always been a major transport route, linking the city with the Bristol Channel and the sea in one direction, and flowing inland toward Bath in the other. The Bristol Harbour, a tidal bypass, was originally created in the 13th century and runs between Temple Meads Station and Hotwells.
As the ferry moves along the harbour you travel through the history of Bristol. You pass historic ships and old warehouses, many now transformed into apartments or restaurants. There are museums, an aquarium and a modern marina. And the boat goes right into the city centre, where the harbourside is now a bustling shopping and dining area. Then there is one of Bristol’s most famous landmarks, the SS Great Britain.
SS Great Britain
SS Great Britain must be the highlight of a trip on the Waterbus. Built in Bristol, and launched in 1843, the ship was one of the greatest achievements of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This was the biggest ship that had ever been built, and included some key technical innovations, including an iron hull, screw propeller and a steam engine.
Not only is the ship a must for anyone with an interest in nautical history, but it is a foremost visitor attraction. The ship and museum area include lots of family friendly exhibits and activities, and there is a choice of places for a meal or a snack.
History of the SS Great Britain
Such a large project incurred massive expense, and the ship was very soon sold to new owners. They adapted it to run on either steam or sail, and it began to carry passengers to Australia. Thirty years later it was adapted again, to carry cargo to America. Storm damage in the 1880s led to the ship being retired to the Falkland Islands, where it was used as for storage. It was eventually sunk in 1937.
By 1970 the SS Great Britain was in an advanced state of decay. However, its historical importance was recognised, and attempts were made to salvage the ship and bring it back to Britain. It eventually arrived in Bristol and a programme of renovation and restoration began. SS Great Britain opened to the public as a maritime museum in 2005.
What to See at the SS Great Britain
Any visit must begin with the ship itself, where you can explore the passenger cabins (ranging from first class to steerage) and the grand dining room. You get an idea of what it would have been like to travel to Australia in the 19th century. Models of a pig and a cow on the top deck are a reminder that ships had to carry live food in those days.
When you have finished looking round the ship walk down to the dry dock and look at the impressive hull from beneath. Alternatively you can “Go Aloft” and climb the rigging for a view from above.
The site also includes the Dockyard Museum, which charts the ship’s long history. And you can learn more about Brunel himself at the recently opened Being Brunel, which showcases the engineer’s work, including railways, bridges and tunnels.
Visiting the SS Great Britain
The ship and museum areas are open 362 days a year. Tickets can be bought at the site, or in advance. There is an additional charge to Go Aloft. (If you happen to be called Isambard you can get in for free, but I suspect that doesn’t cause too much loss of revenue!)
Because of the age of the site, some areas may not be fully accessible. However there are alternative routes for wheelchairs and those with mobility issues. See the website for details.
Around the Avon Gorge
The ferry route ends at Hotwells. From here an uphill walk of around a mile takes you to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Avon Gorge and the Clifton Observatory.
Clifton Suspension Bridge
The Clifton Suspension Bridge is an incredible construction, spanning the deep Avon Gorge, a feat that was once considered impossible. The original design was drawn up by Isambard Kingdom Brunel at a time when the idea of suspension bridges was very new. However the scheme ran into technical difficulties and was not completed in Brunel’s lifetime. A modified version of his design was opened in 1864.
Today the bridge remains in use as a road, and visitors can walk across to admire the structure and to enjoy magnificent views of the Avon Gorge. On the far side of the bridge is a Visitor Centre with information about the bridge and its construction.
At the top of the hill, close to the end of the Suspension Bridge, is the Clifton Observatory. Originally a fort, the building was converted into a windmill in the 18th century. It fell into disuse and became an observatory in 1837. Today it houses a small exhibition about the history of the site and the observatory, and about the development of photography. But the main attractions for the visitor are the Camera Obscura and the Giant’s Cave.
The Camera Obscura is one of only a handful remaining in the UK (I recently visited one of the others, at the Greenwich Royal Observatory). They all work in the same way, using a pinhole of light combined with lenses and mirrors to project an image of the outside world onto a screen. But the one at Clifton is remarkable in having a handle that you can turn to move the screen and vary the view.
Unlike camera obscuras elsewhere, the one at Clifton was not built for for astronomical purposes but as an aid to artists when drawing the local landscape. The exhibition area shows how these cameras were an essential part of the early history of photography and were linked to the pioneering work of William Fox Talbot, who carried out his photographic studies at Lacock, just 30 miles away.
The Giant’s Cave
Beneath the Observatory is the Giant’s Cave, an ancient cavern in the limestone cliff beneath the Observatory. Legend claims that it was once inhabited by giants. Whether or not this is true, it was almost certainly used by prehistoric cave dwellers.
At one time the Giant’s Cave was only accessible by a steep climb up (or down) the cliff. However, a long tunnel was dug down to it when the observatory was created. Today you can walk down a stone stairway to the cave and enjoy the views over the Avon Gorge. (But be warned: the 130 steps are steep and sometimes slippery.)
Planning Your Trip on the Bristol Waterbus
The Waterbus is operated by Bristol Ferry Boats, who also run special themed trips, and trips along the Avon Gorge. The Waterbus is ideal for a day’s sightseeing. However, with many museums and the possibility of exploring the city centre, there is more than you can see in a day. You will want to plan your itinerary carefully, and an early start is advisable. There are plenty of places to eat, including the Pump House (next to the final stop at Hotwells) and the harbourside restaurants by the City Centre stop.
The ferry runs every day except for Christmas (however, note that some of the museums are closed on Mondays). Tickets are available for single journeys, or buy a Day Rider for unlimited trips on the same day. You can buy your ticket in advance, or on the boat (cash only). One of the ferry boats has some provision for wheelchairs – see the website for details.
Thanks to Bristol Ferry Boats, SS Great Britain and the Clifton Observatory for their hospitality when I visited Bristol.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.