SS Great Britain

Bob Evans has been a steward on the SS Great Britain in Bristol since 1985 and chief steward for ten years. His encyclopaedic knowledge of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s pioneering steel-hulled passenger ship and passion for the city has won the 76-year-old many awards, including a gold medal in the Outstanding Customer Service category of the Enjoy England Awards in 2009.

What does the job of chief steward entail?
I work on all the corporate events, business dinners, weddings and other functions. I’m master of ceremonies so I oversee all the preparations and make sure the guests are looked after. I do pre-dinner and after-dinner speeches on the history of the ship and answer guests’ questions about it. If the chef tells me the food isn’t quite ready I can fill in with some more information about the ship. I’ve always got something else to say!

So you are a bit of a fixer too?
You never know what will happen. Once at a wedding the photographer didn’t show up but luckily I had my camera and stepped in. When the couple went around the harbour on a boat tour I nipped out and got the pictures developed so I could present them to them when they got back.

You are so familiar with the ship you sound as if you have been on it all your life.
No, I grew up on a farm and worked as a toolmaker and then an engineer before getting into sales. I moved to Bristol in 1985 and heard about a job going on the Great Britain from a guy in a pub. I started working in the gift shop and on the pay desk and then I was asked to give a guided tour. That was on Boxing Day 1985. I was so nervous I dried up half way through!

But you must have got the hang of it pretty quickly?
Oh yes, I did lots of research and learned from the other staff. But it’s such a fascinating ship I find that even now I’m learning new things all the time.

Things have changed on the ship since you first arrived.
When I first started here the ship was still just a hollow shell without a top deck, three masts inside the ship with just a bit of decking. It had been brought back here to where it was built from the Falklands in 1970 and it was in a real state. But we’ve had some good funding over the years, including successful lottery funding in 2000. After one of the biggest restoration and interpretation projects in Europe, the ship has been restored to what it would have looked like when it first began carrying passengers to America in 1843. Now we get more than 220,000 visitors a year. One of the first things to be restored was the first class dining cabin, where we began having functions. I volunteered to work at the functions and have been doing it ever since.

Why do you think the ship is so important?
It was such a leap forward in technology and it changed the way ships were made. It was the equivalent of the moon landings. It changed everything and everyone reaped the benefit. Brunel had built the railway from London to Bristol, or Bristol to London if you speak to a local. Then he wanted people to continue their journey to America – all on one ticket. He developed an integrated transport system in the 1840s, which is incredibly far-sighted.

Do you feel the ship will have a lasting legacy for the Great West Way?
I always tell couples who get married on board the ship that they have not only taken on responsibility for each other, they’ve also become part of the history of the SS Great Britain and the SS Great Britain is now part of their family’s history as well. That’s the wonderful thing about the ship, it’s not just a museum, it’s a living history and it has new life going into it all the time.

SS Great Britain
And the museum is always looking for new ways to tell people about Brunel isn’t it?
We now have a new £1 million museum as part of the tour, called Being Brunel. We are now custodians of the national Brunel archive and a lot of that is used in the exhibition. It uses a lot of modern technology to represent the technology of the 1840s and tell the story of the development of the ship. It has been very successful with 30,000 visitors in the first three weeks.

When you show people around the ship, you are careful to make sure they see much more of Bristol afterwards
When we get people coming down to Bristol it’s not just the ship we are promoting, it’s all the boat services around harbour, the boat trips along the River Avon towards Bath, the open-top buses, the shops, pubs and restaurants, they are all our partners. We want to encourage people to enjoy as much of this fantastic city as they can while they are here. We want to promote each other so the visitors don’t miss out. I always remind our guests to appreciate that the dry dock the ship stands in and the harbour around it is as much a part of the city’s history as the ship itself.

What do you love about Bristol?
It is so cosmopolitan because there are so many different communities here. You’ve got two excellent theatres, the Colston Hall for music and lots of museums. There is so much to do. We have some fantastic events, like the Balloon Fiesta in August. Sometimes the balloons fly over the ship here, it is spectacular. I think the harbour is my favourite area though. On a still evening you look out across the harbour and the water is absolutely calm. You can see all the lights reflected on it and it is beautiful. You wouldn’t think you are in the middle of a big city.

What do you enjoy doing in Bristol when you are not working?
I like going up Brandon Hill, where there is a nature reserve and up to the Cabot Tower. It’s so peaceful up there and there are lovely views of the city from the tower. I’m amazed more people don’t go up there, especially in the good weather. The Zoological Gardens are a lovely day out. The boat trip up river towards Bath is a real treat. It’s so quiet and relaxing, the rippling of the water and the kingfishers flying past. It’s magical.

And do you venture further afield?
It’s easy to get anywhere from here with the M4 and M5 so close. I am a keen wildlife photographer so I love to go up to the Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust in Gloucestershire. You can see some wonderful birds there. The Somerset Levels at Glastonbury is another favourite bird-watching spot. You can spot egrets, heron and glossy ibis. It’s wonderful. Bedminster is a lovely little shopping centre with lots of pubs and restaurants.

As you know the city so well, do you have a favourite pub?
Bristol is full of great pubs. The Coronation Tap in Clifton is an old favourite of mine. Just around the corner from the SS Great Britain is The Orchard, which does some lovely real ales and also some ciders. You can’t come to Bristol without tasting the cider. All the people who live and work around the harbour drink in there so it is full of atmosphere. The M Shed, part of the old steam railway, does good food and drink and The Arnolfini right on the harbourside is lively.

How much longer do you think you’ll do the job?
I should have retired about 11 years ago but the chief executive said ‘you’re not going anywhere you can do another ten years’. I haven’t told him the ten years are up yet! I love doing it and I really enjoy being on this marvellous ship and appreciating its history every day. The guests seem to appreciate me too so I’ll keep going a while yet. I’m proud to be part of an attraction that adds so much history and interest to the Great West Way.

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