BRIDGES are built to be crossed. They are humankind’s structural solution for getting from points A to B in a horizontal fashion when nature tries to make commuting even more hellish than it could be and drops a massive body in of water in the way. Bridges are not meant to be climbed, scaled or ascended in any way, shape or form.
And yet around 2000 people have this summer been hard-hatted and harnessed, squeezed, squashed and squished into the world’s smallest lift before being forced up a narrow metal chimney by ladder so they can get the best possible view of Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife from 156 metres above the Firth of Forth; to be able to say I. Have. Been. There.
“There”, of course, being the top of the Forth Road Bridge – the apex of what was one of the most staggering feats of structural and mechanical engineering when it opened on September 4, 1964. It took six years, £19.5 million, 30,000 tonnes of steel and 125,000 cubic metres of concrete – and the sad deaths of seven men – to build.
When you step from the internal shelter of the east column of the south tower, out on to the cross beam which sits atop the Saltire cross-bracing, you can feel the history of it all beneath your feet – as well as the rumble of the thousands of vehicles below, the weight and sound of which travels like an electric current through the metal, making the handrails gently vibrate.
Tuesday morning, at just after 10am, the wind wasn’t blowing too wildly, and while the sun was nowhere to be seen the overcast sky never did more than threaten to rain. Hard hats and gloves are left in the hatch in case they get blown off and cause an accident way below – nothing which can’t be physically attached to a person is allowed up top.
Vehicles passing underneath and sailing boats moored in the harbour seem like Matchbox versions of themselves, a group of school children on the walkway scurry like tiny neon ants in their safety gilets, the distant Pentlands seem more like gentle hillocks and even the next-door Forth Bridge could be a model, such is the height superiority of its car-carrying neighbour.
Even the new, third bridge, the Queensferry Crossing, is easy to look down upon for people in such a high place as this.
The red bings of West Lothian seem a stone’s throw away, the gas flames of Grangemouth closer than is possible – height gives a whole new perspective to well-known geography.
Holding tight to the handrails, we watch as two bridge inspectors perform jaw-dropping feats, walking down the massive suspension cables which hold the bridge together, sitting astride them, checking through listening devices on the internal cabling. There are 11,618 individual high tensile steel wires inside, which if put end to end would reach around the world one and a quarter times. The inspectors are the acrobats of the health and safety world. As we stand on the cross beam, broad and solid enough to give confidence in looking down to the murky waters below, we’re not quite at the top.
A few more rungs on the ladder and we stand aside the flashing light which warns low-flying aircraft of the bridge’s presence. This is the ultimate high point – 22 metres taller than Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“It has been so popular we could have sold tickets twice over,” says Chris Waite, the bridge’s communications manager.
“We launched 2014 tickets to mark the bridge’s 50th anniversary and they sold out very quickly. We only have a few more trips to make during the festival. I think it’s something that people want to be able to say they’ve accomplished because so few people have. It is an exhilarating experience and no-one has been disappointed, not even when the weather hasn’t been great.
“I’m not sure it’s something we will be able to continue with at the moment though despite the demand. The climb is by the lift which only takes three people at a time and the ladder can prove difficult for some, and as it’s the only way we have of getting in and out of the tower it has to be used by staff who are looking after the bridge, so trips can interfere with working patterns. It has to be planned incredibly well. The staff have really given up their summer to enable us to do this.”
The tower-top trips are part of the ten-day 50th anniversary celebrations for the bridge, which really kick off in style tomorrow with exhibitions, tours, luxury sailing cruises, rowing regattas, boat flotillas, biker rallies. a mass lunch with food from celebrity chef Nick Nairn, the unveiling of a spectacular sculpture The Guardian of the Bridges and a fireworks and torchlight procession finale on September 13.
The Forth Bridges Festival – which is also celebrating the 125th year of the Forth Bridge next year, as well as the construction of the new bridge – is part of the Homecoming Scotland celebrations and is expected to attract thousands to North and South Queensferry.
Malcolm Brown, chairman of Business Improvement District Queensferry Ambition, says the festival has “something for everyone – business, the wider community and, of course, for the thousands of visitors who will help make this a really special time.”
Chris adds: “The finale will be a spectacular fireworks event which is being designed and run by the same company which did the London Olympics and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and the whole bridge will be lined with fireworks which will be set off at 10.06pm exactly – as the length of the Bridge is 1006m.
“Torchbearers will also be on the bridge leading 2014 others to form a river of fire across the Bridge and there will also be music from Big Country and Bwani Junction and an outdoor ceilidh. It will be a great end to the festival.”
When the smoke clears the bridge will still rise majestically from the depths of the Forth, carrying 65,000 vehicles across its span every day. Its towers though will be left once again to the maintenance men and the seagulls.
n For more information and ticket prices on festival events please visit www.forthbridges festival.com
Fifty years across the firth of forth
IT was on a misty September 4, 50 years ago tomorrow, that the Forth Road Bridge was opened.
Five years in the building, the biggest suspension bridge outside of the US was to be a boon to the economies of Edinburgh, Fife and the Lothians, transforming the commute to work for thousands – and half a century later she is still taking the strain as 65,000 vehicles drive across her every day.
The need to cross the Forth, however, was first met back in the 11th century when Queen Margaret founded a ferry service for religious pilgrims travelling from Edinburgh to Dunfermline Abbey – creating the towns of North and South Queensferry in the process. As a result a passenger ferry was in use for more than 800 years. But once the Forth Bridge was built demand for a road crossing began to be increasingly heard.
By the 1950s, three ferries were making 40,000 crossings annually, carrying 1.5 million passengers and 800,000 vehicles.
The need for a road bridge was accepted by the government and in 1958 a plan was approved and construction work began.