England, UK, Wanderlust

A curious weekend in Bristol – Being Brunel exhibition with kids

It’s no secret that travel is an education – but you don’t even need to leave the country for a trip that answers questions you’d never thought of asking before. Or so I discovered on a weekend in Bristol.

A helter skelter by restaurants on the waterfront - visiting the Being Brunel exhibition with kids on a weekend in Bristol inspired by curiosity

It’s a city I once lived in, several aeons ago, working in my first proper job after university. While it was already a great place to make my home, Bristol’s regeneration and general cool makeover only really happened after I left and I’ve always wanted to go back to see how much it has changed.

Last weekend, I finally managed, heading back for the opening of new museum Being Brunel at SS Great Britain – so with the constant refrain of when I was younger, when I lived here, running through our two days, I added who, what, where, why and how to make our theme one of curiosity.

That’s the question at the heart of the new exhibition about Isambard Kingdom Brunel – who was the man behind the visionary engineer? And if you think visiting the Being Brunel exhibition with kids is going to be a dry serious business, focused on scientific principles and endless figures, you’d be wrong.

With six galleries and 150 exhibits, the collection illustrates not just what Brunel achieved (let’s start with the Clifton suspension bridge, Thames tunnel, Great Western Railway, the move away from paddles to propellers and towards unified time across the country) but who he was.

A chain-smoking workaholic whose cigar case held 48 cigars, enough for one 20-hour day. An insecure doubter, supported loyally by his father, forever aware of his short height – at 5ft, there’s a reason he’s never seen without his 8in stovepipe hat.

A dedicated designer, prepared to be swung across the Avon Gorge in a basket (rather him than me) as part of the project to build the famous bridge. An exacting boss, calling his assistant “a cursed, lazy, inattentive, apathetic vagabond”. An artist, capturing snapshots of life in pencil sketches. A diarist whose handwriting practically needs a code breaker.

As well as lots of chances to get hands on, from a replica of his office to a Top Trumps style game themed around his big projects, the heart of the attraction is a giant 8m high model of his head – which you can step into, watching a video to see the world through Brunel’s eyes. Minnie declined…

A view of SS Great Britain, flags flying in the breeze - visiting the Being Brunel exhibition with kids on a weekend in Bristol inspired by curiosity

Then next door, the SS Great Britain herself, with the history of the boat, a chance to dress up in Victorian costume (bonnets are not me…), as well as being able to go down to hull level, venture through the cabins, and head up to the main deck – or even up to the rigging if you fancy. I did, but as you have to be aged 10, Minnie’s presence meant I also declined.

The colours and intricacy of street art are something I love – and as home to Banksy, Bristol is a great place to spot plenty. You can take street art tours as well as ambling round spying one or two creations while you wander, as we did in Stokes Croft.

But the question we had answered is… how do you create some of this street art? And how hard is it anyway? With stencils, as Where The Wall’s Stencil Art Spray Sessions showed us. And there’s definitely more to the technique than just pointing your spray can and hoping for the best.

With special mini size cans for smaller hands – Minnie was not the only small artist enthusiastically spraying away alongside more practised stencillers – we had a hummingbird design to test out our new-found skill with the water-based paints, and windscreen washer hand movements.

I’d mostly hoped for a fun hour indulging her love of art. But we came away with a creation that is very definitely going on our wall.

If you’re staying in a city as individual and fun as Bristol, you don’t want to check in to a soulless chain hotel, right? Not when you could sleep in an Airstream caravan on the roof of a hotel, anyway.

At Brooks Guesthouse, there are four ‘Rockets on the Roof’ perched on top of the 23-room guesthouse (with lovely and rather more standard hotel rooms inside if you prefer). Checking in to Rocket 1 (best name ever to give at breakfast), we had one of the 20ft models with a small double bed tucked into one corner, and two sofa benches which can convert into kids beds. Plus a proper shower!

It’s all rather cunningly designed, and especially with two of us, it never really felt cramped (although I did discover that one switch operates all the lights except the reading lights over the bed). There are more plug sockets close to the bed than I’ve encountered in some traditional hotels too.

It’s worth knowing that while there are curtains on the windows, there’s also a skylight above the bed – and on what felt like the first sunny day of the year, as the clocks went forward for spring, we did get the light pouring in early on. With a five-year-old next to me, I had already been woken up twice. Otherwise, pack a sleep mask!

Downstairs, there’s a great breakfast including smashed avocado on sourdough – mine came sprinkled with pomegranate seeds – as well as an honesty bar. Opposite St Nicholas Market, you’re in the heart of the city, and easy walking distance to the waterfront, but we weren’t particularly bothered by late-night noise either.

Anyone who’s ever had a child has had to field an apparently neverending series of ‘Whys?’ Aged five, Minnie’s questions are more specific now (‘What’s an interesting fact about emperor penguins?’ ‘How long will the sun last?’ ‘What noise do hamsters make?’) but I love her endless curiosity. Well, as long as she waits until after I’ve had one cup of coffee.

Experimenting with one of the interactive exhibits at We The Curious, blowing a ball into the air - visiting the Being Brunel exhibition with kids on a weekend in Bristol inspired by curiosity

So We The Curious seemed designed for her. Bristol’s science museum and planetarium (formerly AtBristol), everything is designed to get you questioning, experimenting, being hands on. There’s something hugely fun about playing with valves, levers, switches and pumps plus electricity, water and air (not all together) and seeing the results.

Meanwhile the opportunity to map out your perfect day made me realise just how hard it is, as an adult, to divorce yourself from a 24-hour clock. There was the chance to put organs back in the human body (tricky), tests of your reaction time, information about DNA and the way we rely on appearance and stereotypes to make decisions, plus an opportunity to read the weather.

Presented with a room that messes with your perceptions, all slanted floors and optical illusions, I almost had to have an unexpected sit down, while Minnie merrily rolled a ball apparently uphill.

When we arrived at about 11.30, we discovered the next Planetarium showing suitable for under sixes (a 2D rather than 3D version) was at 2pm. I ummed and aaaahed about whether we would stay that long, or whether we’d be exploring more of Bristol by then.

How wrong can you be? At 3pm, having only properly explored one of the two floors, I all but dragged a reluctant Minnie out, in the knowledge that we hadn’t had lunch and had to get our bags back to the car for the drive home in time for school. She’s already asked to go back.

What else…
Our weekend kept us mostly around the waterfront, and even then we could have packed more in with more time. Given the chance, I’d have loved to wander through Clifton with its quirky shops, that beautiful bridge and brightly coloured houses – plus the zoo.

There’s more street art to be found around North Street, as well as Stokes Croft, plus art, architecture, food and markets – and the social history museum M Shed or a chance to cruise around the harbour with Bristol Ferry Boats, both of which were on my list.

But as this was Minnie’s weekend as well as my own, we managed to fit in two of her favourite things – the Bristol aquarium and a double scoop cone (chocolate and mango) at Swoon Gelato. Not to forget fantastic pizza (aubergine and ewe’s curd for me) at the Pi Shop on the waterfront [EDIT: now closed].

Which only leaves one question. When are you going to visit?


Visiting the Being Brunel exhibition with kids on a weekend in Bristol, UK inspired by curiosity - from finding out how to create stencil street art to discovering the real Isambard Kingdom Brunel, checking out first class life on the SS Great Britain, and exploring the city's interactive science museum #visitbristol #bristolwithkids #ukfamilytravel #beingbrunel #ssgreatbritain #familydayout #mummytravels

Disclosure: My weekend in Bristol, including my stay at Brooks Guesthouse, entry tickets, ice cream and pizza, was courtesy of Visit Bristol and the individual attractions. All opinions and memories of Bristol in the olden days are my own.