During lockdown the only visitors to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great iron ocean liner SS Great Britain have been a skeleton crew retained to make sure the venerable vessel stays rust-free, and Izzy the dockyard cat.
From this weekend the first members of the public will be welcomed back to the ship in time to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of its return to its home port of Bristol after an extraordinary rescue mission.
“It’s wonderful that people will be back in time for the anniversary,” said Dave Sidwell, who was a 25-year-old deck hand on one of the tugs that guided SS Great Britain back up the River Avon in July 1970 with thousands of people lining the banks to watch the ship’s homecoming.
Staff reminisced as they mopped decks and hoisted flags in readiness for the reopening. Sidwell, who recently retired from the tugboat game and now volunteers at SS Great Britain, said he had not realised at the time that the job of hauling the ship back into Bristol was so special. “Then we saw the people on the banks and on the Clifton suspension bridge and realised it was something different.”
SS Great Britain, launched in 1843, is regarded as the first great ocean liner, but after a successful career it was damaged in a storm and used as a storage hulk before being scuttled off the Falkland Islands in 1937.
The vessel was about to break up when the salvage operation was arranged. If it had been left where it was for just a few more months, it may have been lost for ever.
SS Great Britain was transported across the Atlantic on a pontoon, but the narrowness of the Avon meant the ship had to be able to float for it to be pulled into the city. It was patched up just enough to make it.
Once out of the water its condition worsened, but over the past five decades conservationists and engineers have learned how to fight the rust by keeping the bottom half of the hull under glass in conditions as dry as the Arizona desert.
Staff are delighted to welcome visitors back. Matthew Tanner, the chief executive of the SS Great Britain Trust, said the attraction had lost £1m during lockdown. It has been awarded emergency funding from Arts Council England and hopes to receive money from the government’s £1.57bn arts and heritage rescue package. “We hope that will see us through the dark winter,” Tanner said.
“But we’re dependent on the goodwill of visitors to support our conservation and education work. Our message is: we’re open, we’re safe. It’s a great experience. If people value the kind of cultural things we stand for, they need to come out and support us.”
Extravagant anniversary celebrations have been put on hold until next year, but on Sunday – 50 years to the day since the tide allowed the ship to float into her final resting place – a film will be published on its website, made by the Bristol-based Limbic Cinema, along with a poem, She Made it Back, by the Wiltshire writer Saili Katabe, to mark the occasion.
Patsy Connor, the creative director, said saving SS Great Britain had been in many ways a madcap scheme but was a joyful, optimistic story for these difficult times. “The rescue mission involved a lot of emotions and characteristics that we as a nation need now: bravery, fortitude, resilience, facing adversity and ultimately succeeding against the odds.”
Other anniversaries affected by lockdown
VE Day 75 The celebrations to mark the end of 75th anniversary of victory in Europe were scaled down hugely because of coronavirus. A planned gathering of veterans in the Mall in central London was called off; street parties across the country were for the most part abandoned, or held with social distancing. The day was marked with flypasts and a broadcast of Churchill’s victory address. Lone pipers and buglers played the last post and wreaths were laid at war memorials in small ceremonies.
Glastonbury 50 Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney were among the stars due to appear at Glastonbury half a century after the first festival, but in March the festival was called off. Fans had to satisfy themselves with watching streams of previous performances, in some cases creating their own festival in back gardens.
Salisbury Cathedral 800 The 800th anniversary of the laying of Salisbury Cathedral’s foundation stone fell on 28 April. A digital service took place, including a dramatisation of how and why the cathedral was moved to its current spot from Old Sarum, two miles north of the central of modern-day Salisbury. A digital version of a modern art exhibition was also created.
Earth Day 50 Launched in the US on 22 April 1970, the first Earth Day was a peaceful call for environmental reform following an oil spill off the Californian coast. This year physical demonstrations were scrapped because of Covid-19 and the day was marked online instead. Greta Thunberg was filmed at the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm in conversation with Johan Rockström, the Earth systems scientist and director of the Potsdam Institute. Earth Day network organisers sent messages to millions of computer gamers around the world.
Bond 25 No Time For Die, the 25th outing for James Bond, was scheduled for global release in April. But in March the makers and distributors said that “after careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace”, it would be postponed. It is now due to be released in UK and US cinemas in November.