“Can we travel back in time, Mummy?” asks my daughter Laura (9) as we set off for the next tourist attraction on our agenda.
We’re part way through a two-week visit from the 16 year old daughter of my old schoolfriend, an American who I met at school in Germany (yes, it’s complicated) . It’s her first trip to England and we’re trying to give her an accurate snapshot of British life and culture.
So far this has included:
– a very large quantity of rain
– seeing a live recording of “With Great Pleasure”, a BBC Radio 4 programme with the wonderful but anarchic performance poet John Hegley (what other Radio 4 programme would conclude with inviting the audience up on stage to dance to Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England”? Spot on for my agenda, Mr Hegley, so thanks for that!)
– the usual suspects for this neck of the woods: Stonehenge, Castle Combe, Tintern Abbey, the Roman Baths, etc etc
Today’s destination is the SS Great Britain, lovingly and expensively restored to replicate mint condition. Brunel’s groundbreaking ship is now in dry dock in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, the very dock from which it was launched in 1843. It was rescued from the Falklands in 1970, where it was languishing after a long and varied career and refusing to sink, and returned to base. Movingly, its homeward journey included passing for the first time ever beneath one of Brunel’s many other masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge – something it had never done before, as the bridge was not complete when the SS Great Britain first (and last) sailed out of Bristol.
As we enter the museum shed – the overture to boarding the ship itself – I spot a sign that echoes Laura’s request. “Travel Back In Time!” it invites us. Cleverly, the museum is arranged in reverse chronological order, so that we first see evidence of the ship’s return to Bristol, then pass back through its previous incarnations during the Second World War, on the Australian Gold Rush run, and on trips around Cape Horn to the Pacific coast of America.
By the time we’ve passed down to the far end of the museum, we’re thinking like Victorians. We willingly don the dressing-up clothes provided to complete our transformation before we board. We pose before a backdrop that suggests we’ve just alighted in Australia. I almost believe that we’re about to visit my Auntie Mary who lives there. Finally, we board the ship, to listen to an audio guide that uses as its script diaries and letters from real-life passengers. We truly have travelled back in time and now see the ship and the prospect of ocean-going voyages through accurate contemporary records.
Can we travel back in time, Laura? Yes, I think we can and we just did. I take my (stovepipe) hat off not only to the engineering genius that was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also to the very clever historians and archivists who made time travel possible for us.
Now, where did I put my crinoline?
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like another one that pays tribute to a Victorian Scottish engineer: Signally Challenged in Scotland