Forth Road Bridge construction film resurfaces

Hector Woodhouse finishes a walk across the bridge on little more than a tightrope
Hector Woodhouse finishes a walk across the bridge on little more than a tightrope
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MIST clung to her sides, shrouding her impressive curves and making those who came to view her in all her glory wait just a little longer.

It was the morning of September 4, 1964. The country had waited five years – much longer if you count the hundreds of years spent crossing the choppy Forth by ferry and boat – for the star of the show to turn up.

The Forth Road Bridge. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The Forth Road Bridge. Picture: Ian Rutherford

And while she most certainly was somewhere within that thick cloud of fog, the Forth Road Bridge – a wonder of modern Scottish engineering, the product of old-fashioned maths, inches-thick log books and brainpower, handmade from the sweat of men who defied logic and fear to casually stroll along her highest points – was holding back for the most dramatic of appearances.

It was only as the Queen arrived to finally declare the biggest suspension bridge in the world outside America finally open for business, that the fog slowly lifted. And suddenly, five years after work started and after decades of dreaming, the Forth Road Bridge had arrived.

Fifty years on – and hundreds of similar fog-bound days later – the bridge is a fact of Scottish life. But that foggy day, as the first cars rolled past the tollbooths for the 1.6-mile journey which many had queued all day to enjoy, heralded the beginning of a brand new chapter.

Jim Hendry had been there throughout her construction, trusty 16mm Swiss made Bolex movie camera slung over his shoulder, he climbed across the shaky wire walkways, wind howling around his ears and the cold freezing his fingers, recording history in the making.

Jim Hendry, now 88. Picture: BBC

Jim Hendry, now 88. Picture: BBC

An amateur filmmaker from Davidson’s Mains – he was more at home shooting family films than in his day job as a farm inspector – he opted to spend his time off with the engineers and the labourers 150 metres above the Forth as they gradually created a miracle of Scottish engineering.

Every so often, he’d follow them up the slippery walkways or station himself down on ground level to capture the day-to-day tasks of bridge building on his camera – from the astonishing blasé manner in which brave men slid down sky-high ladders and strolled across thin wire walkways, to sipping tea while perched on narrow strips of steel, and their camaraderie, laughing and joking hundreds of feet above the Forth.

By this time 50 years ago, his job was done. And for years his fascinating film lay tucked away at home, seen by only a few.

Now, however, it has resurfaced and is about to give television viewers a new perspective on the bridge’s incredible construction.

His footage, along with other rarely seen film, photographs and modern interviews with characters who helped build the bridge or whose lives were affected by it, has been turned into a fascinating hour-long BBC Scotland programme, The Bridge: Fifty Years Across the Forth, which will be screened on Sunday.

Now 88 and living in a nursing home in Stirling, Jim vividly recalls hours spent trekking higher and higher, camera in one hand while the other gripped on to a steel railing for balance, following cat-like labourers as they went about their business.

“I was pretty smart,” he laughs, “because I tended to choose the good days to go and film.

“But the men who built the bridge were working every day, often in terrible conditions, in the wet and cold. They did an amazing job.”

Jim, a member of Edinburgh Cine Society at the time, would follow the workers on their perilous daily “commute” from ground level up to the highest reaches of the bridge’s towers.

“I suppose I had quite a good head for heights because it didn’t really bother me being up there,” he adds. “But I was younger then, too.”

Among those he captured on film were sure-footed young men, the wind blowing through their hair – no hard hats, ropes or safety gear to be seen – casually striding, even leaping and mock dancing their way across swaying walkways at stomach-churning heights.

According to one then newly-qualified engineer whom Jim filmed going about his death-defying job, Hector Woodhouse, few gave a moment’s thought to the perils of the job at hand.

“The conditions could be fierce and there were some days when the wind was howling so badly that work had to stop, but while it was high, I never had that feeling that it was particularly dangerous.

“You trusted the structure you were on, you felt safe and besides, you were young and these things don’t bother you so much. I’m not sure I’d like to go up there now.”

Hector, who appears in the BBC Scotland programme, was 19 and had just left Heriot-Watt when he got a job working as a junior engineer on the bridge at the start of the construction project.

“When I started, there was nothing there but water,” adds Hector, 75, of Linlithgow. “When you are there at the start and see the thing grow, it doesn’t seem so high.”

He remembers workmen having great fun walking along the wire catwalks, especially the walkways constructed alongside the cables which stretched from the peak of the towers and which provided a steep slope for them to gather up speed, running and jumping their way from the top. “It never crossed my mind that a small error may have bounced me over the side. How stupid you can be when young.”

Hector and fellow bridge engineer Alan MacDonald reveal in the film how they became the first to walk across the new bridge. “Unofficially, though,” Hector says with a laugh. “The walkway was just about completed but there was about 20 feet of a gap.

“So we had to walk across the wires, 150 feet off the ground, so it was like walking a wee tightrope.

“We felt we were safe as houses. We even stopped to take photographs.”

Meanwhile, at ground level, Pamela Bell and her family were feeling less secure as the mighty bridge took shape above their tiny kiosk on the shores of the Forth.

For three generations, her family had served tea and snacks to travellers waiting to cross the water by ferry at North Queensferry. The bridge’s construction meant their days, along with those of the trusty four-times-an-hour ferry service, were numbered.

“The kiosk had been in the family since the war,” recalls Pamela, 78. “As soon as the announcement was made that they were to build a bridge, we knew the kiosk wouldn’t survive.

“It was a very busy wee place. We could see how the number of cars using the ferry had grown by an enormous amount, cars were becoming more affordable and people wanted to cross. But the ferry didn’t run to time when the water was rough and it was obvious a bridge had to be built.”

The ferry services stopped the day the bridge opened, instantly wiping out all the passing trade which used to refuel at her small kiosk.

Others were worse affected, losing family homes which had to be demolished to make way for approach roads to the bridge.

According to historian Lillian King, who researched the construction for her book Building the Bridge, published to mark the 40th anniversary ten years ago, the structure was the result of a new, modern Scotland in which the car was becoming king – and, in turn, helped create a gateway to the north.

“The bridge became the main road between the Highlands and the Lowlands. It’s hard to imagine it not being there both from a cultural and economic perspective.

“What’s incredible is when you think of how much 
computer technology has been developed since then,” she adds. “How they managed to build this magnificent, iconic structure, all these people with different skills coming together and then to see the men building it, walking on it as comfortably as they are – they’re like chimps – it is something to be proud of.

“You can’t imagine it not being there.”

* The Bridge: Fifty Years Across the Forth is on BBC One Scotland on Sunday at 7pm.

* Hector Woodhouse’s book Forth Road Bridge: Hector’s Stories, containing memories and images, is available to download from Amazon, price £2, proceeds of which go to Prostate Cancer UK. Visit www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00MZG0N5O for more details

Phenomenal achievement

The Forth Road Bridge took six years to build at a cost of £19.5 million.

It became the biggest suspension bridge in the world outside America, and is still the biggest in Europe.

While its designers wanted to emulate the grace and practicality of the Golden Gate in San Francisco, they faced a major problem during the design and construction process: the Scottish weather.

And unlike today, they worked with relatively basic engineering tools, like log books and counting machines.

Around 360 men worked on construction, from divers who helped lay the foundations, to teaboys who would carry hot drinks in an urn on their backs to the top of the towers.

The scale is phenomenal: the two supporting lines of cable drape the length of the bridge – are each made up of 11,600 wires, and two feet in diameter. Laid end to end, the wire cable could stretch to 30,000 miles.