Facelift for an old sea dog

Seafaring mystique, gorgeous street-scapes and engineering marvels beckon, writes Rob McFarland.

I creep along a narrow, dimly-lit corridor lined with four-bunk berths. I can hear the ship's timbers creaking and there is the musty smell of unwashed travellers. Most of the berths are empty but I notice that one has a curtain covering its entrance. Tentatively I draw it back, revealing a sight that makes me jump back in fright. Inside is a woman giving birth. The room is tiny, the conditions are grim and there is little in the way of medical assistance. Welcome to life aboard the SS Great Britain in 1852.

An estimated 2 per cent of Australians are descended from immigrants who were ferried from England aboard the SS Great Britain, a ship designed by daring engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The ship made 32 voyages between 1852 and 1875, transporting 15,000 people looking for a better life. The trip took about 60 days and, for the poor souls travelling in steerage, it was no cruise.

I've been assured that giving birth can hurt at the best of times; doing so on a ship in a force eight gale while crossing oceans must have been horrendous.

These stories are brought to life in vivid detail aboard the SS Great Britain in Bristol. The ship was salvaged from the Falkland Islands in 1970 and has been transformed into one of the best museums I've visited. Not only can you explore the inside (which is populated with a cast of eerily lifelike waxwork figures), you can also go beneath the water line and walk around the hull. The ship is in a sealed dry dock, with a glass ceiling covered in water, so you experience the bizarre feeling of walking under the sea.

With a separate dockyard museum crammed with interactive exhibits, it's the sort of place you could easily spend the day discovering. The SS Great Britain itself would be reason enough to make the 200-kilometre journey from London to Bristol but it turns out that this often-overlooked city has surprises up its sleeve.

The harbour that once made Bristol the second-most important port in England is being transformed into a vibrant district of galleries, museums and restaurants. Manufacturing has moved out and people have moved in. I'm staying in the new Mercure Holland House Hotel and Spa and it's a perfect example of the rejuvenation that is taking place. Previously a drab office building, it has been transformed into the city's swishest new place to stay. It's ideally positioned to take advantage of eateries and entertainment options in Redcliffe and it's opposite one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country - the imposing, 13th-century St Mary Redcliffe church.

Every Saturday morning Bristol Tours offers an entertaining two-hour walking tour of the city and it's here, while ambling around with guide Liz Gamlin, that the place starts to come alive. We begin in Queen Square - the largest of several impressive Georgian residential squares in the city - which 250 years ago would have been home to Bristol's wealthiest residents. With its cobbled streets and Victorian-style street lights, it's easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of people coming and going by horse-drawn carriage.

In nearby King Street is the beautiful Bristol Old Vic theatre which, until it closed for renovations last year, was the oldest continually operating theatre in England.

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Follow King Street down towards the river and you meet the 17th-century, timber-fronted Llandoger Trow pub, reputed to be the inspiration for the Spyglass Inn in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

St Nicholas Market is a thriving Covent Garden-style market in the centre of town crammed with everything from books to jewellery to vintage clothes, Caribbean, Moroccan and Turkish-style foods and traditional English lunchtime staples.

Bristol's rich maritime heritage is reflected in the city's fountains and nautical monuments. At one time ships used to sail into the centre of town; the original river still flows underneath the central promenade.

From here we catch a taxi to Clifton Village to see another of Isambard Brunel's engineering triumphs - the Clifton Suspension Bridge. When it was completed in 1864 it had the longest span of any bridge in the world. It towers more than 60 metres above the River Avon (by comparison, the clearance under Sydney Harbour Bridge is 49 metres). Clifton itself is a charming spot with a village atmosphere and great restaurants, pubs, cafes and boutiques. It enjoys glorious views from its elevated position above the city and has fine examples of Georgian architecture, such as the curved Royal York Crescent with its elegant, six-storey, sandstone mansions.

Back in the city, Millennium Square is in stark contrast to the rest of Bristol with its large metal sphere sculpture, casino and modern science museum. It's also home to a statue of a famous son - Cary Grant - and Liz tells us that it's common to see "ladies of a certain age" posing with him for a picture.

Bristol has suffered by comparison with its popular neighbour, Bath, but England's sixth-largest city is becoming a destination of its own.

The writer was a guest of Accor, Visit Britain and Virgin Atlantic.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Sydney to London via Hong Kong. Fares from $2200, phone 1300 727 340, see virginatlantic.com.au. London to Bristol takes 1 1/2 hours by train.

Staying there

The Mercure Holland House and Spa, Redcliffe Hill, phone +44 117 968 9900, see mercure.com. Room rates from £60 ($130) a night.

Getting around

A network of ferries offers a service between harbour attractions. See bristolferry.com.

Tours

The SS Great Britain is open daily and costs £11/£6, see ssgreatbritain.org. Bristol Tours' walks operate from April to September, for £3.50 a person, phone +44 117 968 4638, see bristoltours.co.uk.

More information

See visitbristol.co.uk and visitbritain.com.au.

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