Bridge is a Forth to be reckoned with

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IT'S a journey he makes at least once a month. Squeezing himself into what must rank among the world's tiniest lifts, Leigh Coyle slams the metal shutters closed and slowly travels hundreds of feet up one of the most significant bridges in the world.

The lift stops a few minutes later on the tenth floor, but Leigh's still got some climbing to do. Donning a fluorescent jacket over white overalls, black work boots and a yellow hard hat, he attaches a harness to his body before climbing a 30ft ladder inside the bridge's south tower. When Leigh reaches the top, he pushes a rectangular flap above his head and hoists himself on to the cross-girder outside – a piece of steel that runs between the two legs of the tower.

Watch the video: the Bridge through the years

The view that greets the bridge inspector is spectacular. Dozens of cars and lorries can be seen whizzing across the bridge below. Houses are dotted around the calm waters of the Firth of Forth as if part of a jigsaw interspersed with greenery, while the sun shines on the iconic structure.

But the 39-year-old has another ladder – around 10ft long – to climb before he reaches the very top of the Forth Road Bridge. He's now 512 feet above the water and at the highest point of the structure.

"The height doesn't bother me in the slightest," he laughs. "You get used to it. But you can't allow yourself to be complacent up here – it's just too dangerous."

Leigh has worked on the bridge for more than seven years and his role involves checking its structural integrity – from bolts and paintwork to the main cables.

The bridge – which in total is more than 2.5 km long – was category-A listed in 2001, reflecting its engineering importance.

The landmark was opened by the Queen on 4 September, 1964 – although events to commemorate the 45th milestone won't get under way until next month.

Chief engineer and bridge- master Barry Colford explains: "The main anniversary will be the 50th in five years' time, but we felt we should mark the 45th anniversary in some way. We have asked people to write or tell us their stories about the bridge and how it has affected their lives, whether they worked on the bridge or just used it as a route to get from one side of the Firth of Forth to the other.

"We are combining that with an open week at the end of October, in which members of the public can speak to the staff, find out what we do and visit the anchorage chambers as part of a mini-bus tour. We will also pick the best of the stories and display them at the open week, which runs from 26-31 October, in our main office at South Queensferry."

When the Queen opened the bridge, it was Europe's longest suspension bridge and the fourth longest in the world. Tens of thousands of spectators turned up to watch the royal cavalcade cross the bridge. Soldiers of Lowland regiments from the south linked up symbolically with a Highland brigade from the north. Twenty-five Royal Navy ships fired a gun salute and, after a brief speech from the Queen, there was a fly-past.

Traffic on the bridge today is almost double that expected by the engineers who designed the structure in the 1950s, frequently exceeding 70,000 vehicles per day.

The cost of the bridge and its approach roads was 19.75 million and a total of 72 staff currently work on the structure.

Mr Colford, 53, who describes the bridge as an "engineering marvel", adds: "It is certainly in the top 20 bridges in the world and is recognised as an iconic structure throughout the world."

The last 45 years have brought highs and lows for the bridge. On a positive note, bridge operator FETA (Forth Estuary Transport Authority) scrapped the 1 toll in February 2008, but just seven months later the crossing experienced its first fatality. Naval officer and father-of-four Alex Comrie, 48, from Rosyth, died when his motorbike was involved in a collision with a white van and a car.

Mr Colford adds: "One of the challenges of working here is that we do see everything, from the engineering challenges to things like lorries blowing over. Last year, two lorries blew over and caused significant disruption to users."

Looking to the future, the results of the dehumidification process currently being carried out to tackle corrosion on the main cables will be inspected in 2012.

Mr Colford adds: "One of the really pleasing things is to see the new Forth crossing being planned adjacent to this bridge. With 19th, 20th and 21st century bridges all in the one location, the potential for tourism will be huge."

FETA has released rare video footage, including time-lapse photography, showing how the bridge flexes to accommodate the effects of traffic and weather. The two-and-a-half-minute film can be viewed at


Alex Porteous, 63, South Queensferry, retired – former HGV driver: "I started working on the bridge when I was 19 years old. I worked in the bolt store for a year, making up panels of bolts.

"I used to give the painters cheek – at 19 years old I was full of cheek and quick on my feet.

"I would say 'you'll never catch me' and then run off. One time I followed them into the wire store and gave them cheek, and then I heard the doors locking behind me. The wire store was a massive shed – about 200ft long by 150ft wide – which stored all the wire.

"I couldn't get out because there were three or four painters there. They chased me – I was jumping on the wire and everything trying to get away – and when they caught me they pulled down my trousers and painted my bits the same colour of grey as the bridge!"

Alan Bruce, 71, Inverkeithing, retired – former labourer: "I had three labouring jobs in total and my second was working on the steelwork, which is now underneath the bridge.

"A bunch of us used to go to South Queensferry by ferry, and one night me and one of my mates got off with a couple of girls we met in South Queensferry. We missed the last ferry back to North Queensferry and the last train, and we had no money for a taxi. I suggested walking over the catwalk, which the workers stood on when they were spinning the cables over.

"We climbed up the catwalk – which was about 200ft high. We walked up to the tower – 400-500ft high – along the catwalk and down the north tower.

"It was more or less an open site and we managed to evade the watchman at both sides."

John Johnstone, 59, Rosyth, deputy project manager for Babcock: "I was about ten years old when my dad, Peter Johnstone, started working on the bridge. He was employed on the building of the Forth Road Bridge and approach roads from about 1958 until its opening. I was there every step of the way with him; at school I gave talks to my classmates regarding the construction, with drawings, photos.

"One of the tales he told me was how everyone was stirred to action by a report of someone being seen swimming about in the caisson – a steel shell – that was sunk in the water at the north pier. Police were called, but access was impeded.

A face was seen bobbing to the surface and after some hours, it was discovered that the grey face belonged to a seal – and the red face to the guy who had caused the alarm."