In the gift shop I toyed with buying a book of all the preserved old ships around the world, and was pleased to find how many of them I had visited myself - having something of a fondness for tangible maritime history.
I have seen
The Cutty Sark,
The Mary Rose (well half of it)
The Medway Queen
The Kingswear Castle
as well as a working facsimile of HMS Endeavour.
Wonderful and intriguing as all those great ships were, I have to say that none of them quite come up to the total quality of exhibit that is SS Great Britain.
This was the Titanic of its day, pushing the boundaries of technology with an iron hull that lasted so well parts of it could be used to patch up a battered second world war cruiser nearly a hundred years after they were first forged.
With the quality of restoration and the variety of exhibits in the accompanying museum it was like journeying back in time and Ash, my reluctant companion on a trip to see "another bloody boat" was quite won over by the experience even if she struggled somewhat to tell one end of the ship from the other and stood staring majestically over the stern in the mistaken belief that the steering wheel must be at the front.
The history of the ship's voyages, brought to life through an audio commentary and brilliantly evocative settings, made me itch to write a story. Forget all those authors obsessed with Victorian airships. Take a stroll down the companionways of SS Great Britain and like me you may find your head filled with inspiration for a steampunk fantasy ocean voyage.
If ever there was a ship ready to carry a disparate collection of desperate passengers and crew into adventure, then this was it. Murder, mayhem and monsters could stalk its elegant decks, who knows maybe some mad scientist's man-eating machine could be lurking in the hold. It is a setting so powerfully complete that the whole idea of a steampunk novel has not just leapt onto my "to-be-written" list, but is leapfrogging several other stories along the way towards the top.
The interiors were gorgeously restored and my only regret is that I have so few photos to share, partly from pressure of time (we had an airplane to catch) and partly from a desire to savour the moment rather than record it, to soak up the atmosphere. The steerage cabins up forward, the great galley kitchen, the bath and the "heads" complete with torn sheets of paper for the necessities. It is a marvellous experience and I guess that leaves just more for you to discover if you choose to visit yourselves. I don't suppose every visitor has to be inspired to contemplate a steampunk novel by the experience, but I would be surprised if I was the only one.