Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Ultimate Restoration

The idea of restoring cars has always appealed to me. Finding an abandoned, unloved car (preferably in a dry, dusty barn, without much rust please), towing it home, taking it apart, replacing the worn out parts and putting it back on the road with a shiny new paint job and new interior. The satisfaction of rebuilding something from an earlier era, feeling it come alive again and moving under your hands.

Imagine, then, the amount of work in taking a ship that's lain on its side on a windswept South Atlantic coastline for over thirty years, patching the rust holes and cracks in its hull, towing it across the Atlantic on a barge, and finally floating it up the river it first sailed down more than a hundred and twenty years before. And then setting about restoring it to its former glory.

In short, that's the story of Brunel's SS Great Britain.

Launched in 1843, the Great Britain is famous for several things. The largest ship in the world when launched, the first iron-hulled, propellor-drive steamship, she was a marvel of the Victoria era, and sent at least one owner bankrupt as engineers tweaked her design. She sailed 32 times around the world in forty years, carried thousands of settlers to Australia before ending her sailing days in the Falklands. As amazing as that history is - and consider that the economic life of modern ships is about 20 years - it's her second life that impressed me far more.

After 40 years as a floating warehouse in Port Stanley, the Great Britain was eventually beached in 1937. Holes were knocked in her hull to ensure she didn't float away, and there she lay until 1970. Then, a British salvage team repaired her hull, floated her onto a pontoon barge and towed her back to her home port of Bristol. There, she was returned to the water and floated up the Avon to the dry dock she was built in, 126 years before.

At first, the salvage team planned to restore the ship to her original, 1843 specification. However, over time the plans changed, and today's emphasis is on preserving what was left in 1970, with partial restoration of some crew and passenger areas. As you walk around her hull in the dry dock, you can see the holes knocked in the hull in 1937, fibreglass patches applied in 1970, and repairs carried out over her long life. The air of the dock is dehumidified to prevent further rust, and a glass roof seals the hull off from the sky.

Inside, you get a sense of what it must have been like to sail in her. Many of the state rooms, kitchen, cabins, storage spaces and public areas have been recreated. You can smell the tar on deck and food cooking below, and watch a replica of her first engine turning lazily.

She'll never sail again, but I think Brunel would be pleased at how his creation is being looked after, 167 years on.


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