A salute to our bridge - it’s a masterpiece

Forth Road Bridge, 50 years young
Forth Road Bridge, 50 years young

By Phil Weir

For 50 years now the old gal’s long legs have been planted firmly in the Forth – her carriageways swoopily curving over the river, hanging on their many sturdy suspenders. She is indeed a thing of engineering beauty, undimmed with age.

I’m now of such an age myself that, not only do I have memories of her as a bouncing baby bridge, I vividly recall the day she was presented to the world.

It was Friday, September 4, 1964, I was a recently-birthdayed seven-year-old and perhaps ticking the school for the very first time, and I was allowed to watch the opening ceremony at home on our old black and white TV set.

What do I remember of it all?

Well, The Queen cut a ribbon, Lowland and Highland regiments marched towards the middle of the span from south and north to signify the joining of the regions (Fife was part of the Highlands in those days), and dozens of warships in the estuary fired resounding salutes, severely damaging the western suburbs of Khartoum and loosening roof slates in Mafeking.

But, unfortunately, back in the day, Scottish weather being the weather normally found in Scotland, this magnificent chapter of history, this country-unifying piece of high theatre, this pivotal point between eras, was lost in what is poetically called the mist of time – a fog so dense that had they voyaged into something similar, Columbus would have missed America and Neil Armstrong, the Moon.

Our state-of-the-art 1964 TV looked like it had lost its picture, but we maintained stiff upper lips and stayed glued to it – with our ears.

The Queen was submerged in the murk; the ribbon looked like the horizontal poor relation of a will o’ the wisp; the converging regiments passed each other, out on the bridge somewhere, like ships in the night; and as for the gunboats de jour (25 of them) at anchor in the Forth, out in the pea soup, not a muzzle flash was to be seen, and even the thunder of their salvoes was muffled to mere harrumphs.

I also recall that, on that far-off day, somewhat bizarrely, the TV spectacle was shared chez Weir by a young friend who’d recently arrived from Greenland and who did not yet have a TV at home in his new Leven igloo. He was so moved by what he witnessed – or didn’t – on screen that at one point he left the room, went outside, and threw up in a bucket at the back door.

Fifty years have now passed since the day of that rather muckle haar, and the big and bold and beautiful road bridge has gone on to figure large in the lives of all us Fifers, cutting out the need for ferries and trains to get us to Edinburgh and points south.

But in 2016, with the opening of the Queensferry Crossing, she will have to metaphorically hang up her substantial suspenders and will become the preserve solely of buses, cyclists and pedestrians, with the rest of the motorised world taking the new bridge. Of course, with the rail bridge on one side and the new one on the other, the old road bridge will still be the meat in the Forth’s picturesque span sandwich (or maybe that’s a bridge roll), but her heyday will have gone.

Which got me thinking.

Surely more can be made of this wonder of engineering in her dotage.

With future traffic so minimal, how about restricting the to’ings and fro’ings to two lanes, freeing up the others for static installations – restaurants, hanging gardens, fairgrounds, sculpture parks and viewpoints.

I’m not suggesting overloading the thing to the creaky extreme of old London Bridge. After all, that one ended up falling down, my fair lady.

I have another scenario in mind. Take, for instance, the way New York has reinvented its old elevated Central Railroad West Side Spur as the High Line linear park of walkways and green spaces.

Why not give the old bridge this sort of treatment, come 2016. This would let us all make the absolute most of it.

...Apart from on days when the structure finds itself again in a September 4, 1964, pea-souper, when nobody out on it will be able to see a blessed thing!