Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Built to last: Ali Bacon feels intimations of mortality in recent events

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. 
(Thanks to Dennis Penny of for the ferry boat graphic and the ticket just like the one I clutched in my hot little hand on summer outings!) 

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.

Then there were two. The Forth Estuary as it was from 1964 *
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.

Young pretender**
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. 

 Still safe, still standing***
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 QueensferryPassage 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. 

Photo credits (from Flickr)
*Estuary view by Joe 
** Road bridge tower detail by Alex Liivet
*** Rail bridge detail by Rev Stan

Other images from Queensferry Passage with thanks

A Kettle of Fish by Ali Bacon  is a coming-of-age-novel set in Fife and Edinburgh.

It's available as e-book or paperback from the usual places!


Dennis Hamley said...

Lovely post, Ali, and the sight of the two bridges together is nicely ironic. It chimes in weĺl with the two preceding railway posts and their celebration of permanence. Dunfermline forgotten? But we all know that the king sat there getting drunk before sending Sir Patrick Spens to his death.

Bill Kirton said...

Great read, Ali, and food for lots of associated thoughts about impermanence, hubris and questionable values.

AliB said...

Thanks Dennis and Bill. This post actually went up ahead of time (my mistake!) so I'll be making some edits, but glad you found it interesting when I was thinking it might not mean much to anyone but me!

Enid Richemont said...

Just bought your Y/A book. Know it'll be good because you're an Electrical, like me, and we fuse.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Very interesting post, Ali. Lots of issues to ponder - bit sad about such a beautiful structure but politicians of all colours and creeds do seem to have a habit of ignoring the science and engineering (and I find myself wondering about the equally beautiful Erskine Bridge now!)

AliB said...

I've never seen the Erskine Bridge, Catherine, but I know the Severn Bridge opened soon after the Forth Road Bridge claimed to use superior (and funnily enough cheaper) technology but has had its share of problems - so we already have a Second Severn Crossing!

Lydia Bennet said...

Hi Ali, trains and now bridges, both beautiful and useful! The Victorians and previous generations did build to last and also to be as attractive as possible. You just have to look at how they used 'new' materials like cast iron and made it look carved, or the decorative brickwork on utility buildings, or the level of finish in simple terraced Edwardian 'Tyneside flats' with their lack of bathrooms but fabulous fireplaces, architraves, doors, and plasterwork ceiling roses and hall details. I've no doubt the obsolescence is built in to modern stuff so they can get paid all over again to rebuild. Grasping as victorian business moguls may have been in some ways, I think people actually were proud of building something to outlast themselves, vanity or not.

AliB said...

Thank you Enid - do hope you enjoy it. I'm never sure if it belongs in Adult or YA so let me know what you think :)

AliB said...

Hi Lydia - it's just too depressing to think they would build in obsolescence to a bridge!!! I think I'll go with a lack of forethought/research and a dash of hubris. A.