Today a large part of Scotland will be giving a collective sigh of relief as the Forth Road Bridge re-opens to traffic. But for how much longer? When I crossed last September I never imagined it might be for the last time. All of which made me think about how the bridges dominated our lives growing up in Fife and prompted this post on Authors Electric last week. As a result I made contact with Dennis Penny of the Queensferry Passage site whose father was master of one of the old ferry boats which were decommissioned when the road bridge opened and who is also a photographer (more great pictures here). It seems only right to give the piece another airing using some of his great images, for which I’m extremely grateful.
Dunfermline, the town where I grew up, has always been defined by the stretch of water separating it from Edinburgh the ‘new’ capital. (Yes, Dunfermline came first, although not a lot of people know that!) Our history lessons started with Queen Margaret who came all the way from Norway and alighted at the Queen’s Ferry and then there were all the adventure yarns from Stevenson onwards where the water had to be crossed one way or another.
But the Firth of Forth (how that name puzzled me before I could spell it!) was not just geography and history but also our holidays, on beaches with views of Arthur’s Seat, or on picnics to a tiny beach near Cramond made memorable by a trip on the ferry boats where burly sea-men in navy jumpers tossed ropes and took our tickets as we stepped onto the oily smelling deck.
By the time I was at school they were already building the Road Bridge and Sunday walks (simple pleasures back then!) took us along the approach roads blasted through the rock face to see the towers and arches taking shape, the weaving of the steel cables that would carry the weight of the road.
Its opening was a huge celebration of which everyone has a story to tell: a friend’s brother was in a group of schoolchildren chosen to meet the Queen; the brother–in-law of a more recent acquaintance, I’ve just discovered, was first to cross the new bridge in a police car ahead of Her Majesty.
The corollary – the closing of the the Queensferry Passage was the only shock. No more ferries would run even as pleasure boats, but in the end we barely noticed. For a few months it was a novelty to walk across the new bridge and back again, but this was the age of the car. Soon we whizzed across regularly, with much sighing from the grown-ups at the cost of the toll.
Because of the new bridge everything changed, including the view from either side of the Forth. New photos were taken, postcards and calendars printed with the views realigned. Dunfermline was redefined as ‘Just over the Bridge’ and the sight of the two bridges spanning the waves has for me been an indelible image of home, whether arriving by rail, by road or even from the air.
But while the Forth Road Bridge became familiarised as The Road Bridge, then just The Bridge, there was only ever one Forth Bridge, the original red giant. When my Grandpa reached for the double six in his hand of dominoes and slid it into the middle of the sheet of newspaper (protecting the table from scratches!) that’s what he called it, The Forth Bridge, the biggest and the best, the daddy of them all, built– unlike its ill-fated predecessor the Tay Bridge – to last forever.
It seems ironic now that what made the new bridge so fascinating was the contrast in styles with its Victorian cousin, the delicacy of its suspension cables and the pale tracery of its girders compared to the massivity of its partner. Documentaries were run on the technology that allowed the bridge to sway in the wind and the road to bend under pressure. The Forth Bridge, with its huge pillars and tangle of girders was ‘over-engineered’, they said.
So we can only think the Victorians are laughing in their graves as our new light-weight pretender is closed – indefinitely – after a mere fifty years of service. A replacement is on its way but in the meantime there’s road chaos over several counties and – no coincidence – a lot more traffic to the excellent Queensferry Passage website as people like me ride the wave of nostalgia.
I don’t know what lessons are to be learned from this.
Did the engineers of the fifties get it wrong, or does everything in our world now come with a shelf life?
For me it brings a shiver of mortality to think in my lifetime this dizzying structure came to fruition then lost its usefulness.
It would be a neat piece of history if the Queensferry passage were to be reinstated even temporarily to remind us we are at the mercy of nature and to slow us down in our daily comings and goings, but on the day when we’re launching a man into space, I think it’s just a case of hats off to the Victorians.
They knew about building something that would last.