The original road crossing over the Forth was the gateway to the Space Age and a hippie hideway for Aidan Smith
A nation will hold its breath next Monday, hoping for blue skies and a sparkling sea - the perfect painterly vista for the Queen when she officially opens the Queensferry Crossing. Then a generation of children will turn their faces purple, trying to get from one side to the other in the back-seats without requiring another gulp of air.
Do kids still do this on bridges? You’d like to think so but there’s such stiff competition now from cartoons and computer games and other forms of in-car entertainment which were mere Tomorrow’s World whimsy when my father pointed the Saab 95 Estate Fife-wards for our maiden chug across the Forth.
I must admit I never held my breath while negotiating what we must now call the old road bridge for the very first time. I was too busy being scared that the structure was going to snap in two just as our family saloon reached the middle. I could see the water through gaps in the bridge, terrifying glimpses every few seconds, and the logic of the sheltered middle-class existence told me that very soon I would be plunged into it. I would be having to hold my breath under the waves, so best save my lungs for that.
The opening of the new bridge is a brilliant moment for Scotland. Other big ideas we’ve had recently including the Parliament building and Edinburgh’s trams have been controversial, costly, late and, almost inevitably given all the fuss and bother, the reaction when they’ve finally appeared has been: “Is that it?”
I don’t think anyone will say that about the bridge. No vanity project, it’s arrived under budget and only a few months behind schedule. The herculean task of a world-record continuous concrete pour already fills a new chapter of our proud civil engineering history. And looks-wise it’s a stoater.
Watching the bridge take shape on the way to football matches and East Neuk staycations, there was, for long enough, little hint that it would eventually resemble three space-yachts, docked in the estuary before returning to the galaxy to sail among the stars - or from another angle, jamming the towers together and portraying the bridge as hump-backed, a sci-fi interpretation of the stegosaurus.
Then suddenly, magnificently, it did.
But I feel sorry for the old road bridge and don’t think I’m alone. On one side of it there’s the rail bridge which has always intimidated with history and beauty and the fact The Thirty-Nine Steps’ Richard Hannay dangled from it so dashingly in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller. Now, on the other side, there’s this big sexy beast, so dreamily, creamily pristine and not yet affected by grot and rot, and about to driven over and drooled over incessantly.
If bridges could talk, my old, creaking, clunk-every-60-yards friend might well paraphrase the words of the late Princess Diana: “There are three of us in this estuary and it’s got a bit crowded.” And yet it was a transport of delight once, my gateway to fun and adventure.
Maybe the new road bridge resembles something out of a Nordic noir telly drama, the type where dead bodies are discovered at the exact mid-point. Maybe the old one owes something of its design to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, which by the time our family started started rumbling across the Forth was as much an emblem of the peace ’n’ love revolution as flowers in your hair.
If the ferries hadn’t stopped and the bridge hadn’t opened I don’t suppose my parents would have ever bought the but ’n’ ben in Kincardineshire to where we used to retreat most weekends and all summer long, with my father able to shake off the dust from the city and grow potatoes and radishes and brew home-made beer in alarming hippie sandals.
The bridge made these expeditions possible, even if that frightening expanse of water still had to be successfully negotiated, and Dad clearly thought filling the Saab with his cigarillo fug and the soundtrack to the musical Hair! via eight-track cartridge would minimise his children’s discomfort. But we came to depend on such rituals.
Another of them was when one of us would shriek “That must be the most boringest job in the world!” as the toll was collected by a man in a box and Dad would caution: “Make sure you all stick in at school, then.”
The but ’n’ ben was a two-bridge journey in those days and soon the Tay would stretch out in front, daring us to cross. Always without fail we got told the story of the rail disaster here, the old man pointing out the spooky remains of the original pillars. In Dad’s version a track inspector had been accompanied by his son while making his checks, but the boy had been a constant irritation causing a fault to be missed. Moral? Don’t be a pest and you might get bought chips in Montrose.
As William McGonagall would have it, these journeys will be remember’d for a very long time. Before the bridge, I crossed the Forth a few times by ferry when, if there was a long queue at the quayside, time moved very slowly indeed for a small boy. That’s why I think of the bridge as being part of the Space Race, and of transforming a formerly black-and-white world into vivid colour.
What, the old road bridge which probably should have “Closed to high-sided vehicles” added to its name, given that its shortcomings have featured in traffic warnings all the way back to Mary Marquis and her high-sided bouffant? The very one. The old road bridge with its glum control HQ straight out of brutalist Albania? Actually I much prefer that building to the glitzy hotel now sited nearby. Hail the new bridge but let’s give grateful thanks to the old one. It never broke, not once.