The Church

Every time I cross the Links – the green expanse between Bruntsfield and the Meadows in Edinburgh – Barclay Viewforth Church drags my eyes to look at it.
The excess of the design, the dizzying spire. 

The floating harbour in Bristol

SS Great Britain


This is the stern of the SS Great Britain, shot on my iPhone and then tweaked with the Prism app using the ‘Wave’ filter – which seemed apposite given the subject.

The ship is now ‘moored’ in a little dry dock of its own in the floating harbour in Bristol. The iron plates on its hull are so corroded that if left in the water would rust away.

The advantage of the dry dock is that we could walk around almost underneath the hull and see the great metal plates that covered it.

The featured image across the top of this post is a panoramic shot of Bristol harbour in the early evening.

I want to show it because the harbour is described as a floating harbour, which I thought was maybe another name for a floating dock, except the dock was obviously solid and not floating.

I asked a couple of the people on one of the small ships moored there and they explained that a floating harbour is called ‘floating’ because it is sealed off from the sea by a giant lock.

Without the lock, the harbour would drain twice a day with the tide. So the lock keeps the water in and all the ships in the harbour are kept constantly afloat.

They told me that Brunel’s SS Great Britain, which is moored a few hundred yards downstream, couldn’t get out of the dock when it was ready for its first journey to the sea. They had to remove some of the coping stones from the harbour sides to make room for it.

Although it is not much of a walk to get to the ship, Tamara and I reached it by taking a little ferry practically from the centre of Bristol.

We went on a tour of the SS Great Britain, both on deck and in the lower decks. It was interesting, lovely, enchanting to see everything from the cramped cabins for steerage passengers to the dining room for the first class passengers, and made all the more interesting when we learned the history of the ship.

The SS Great Britain was innovative in that it was made of iron and propelled by a steam engine driving a screw propeller rather than paddles. And it was big for its day.

And when it started life it carried only passengers to New York, San Francisco, and on to Australia.

And then it was converted to sails, stuffed with steerage bunks, and chartered to carry passengers to the gold fields of the Yukon.

And eventually it found itself in the Falkland Islands and used as a floating warehouse. Then, having reached the end of its life, was scuttled in shallow water.

Except it hadn’t reached the end of its life – and in the late 1960s it was raised on pontoons and towed eight-thousand miles back to Bristol where is was born.

For me, the most evocative part of this whole story is the sheer length of the ship’s history. From a ground-breaking idea by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Bristol to a shallow grave not many miles from Antarctica, and then back home to restoration and visitors standing and imagining the ship en route to San Francisco rounding the tip of South America in a howling gale.