Look at Scotland’s beautiful new Forth bridge – and see Britain’s decline
The Guardian, by Ian Jack
Last Monday the Queen opened the second road bridge across the Forth estuary, exactly 53 years after she opened the first, and this time without the haar – the sea mist that blanketed the firth on the morning of 4 September 1964, threatening the proceedings with invisibility and the kind of hush, broken only by the regular melancholy of the local foghorn, that sometimes gave weekdays a Sabbatarian character. But the sun broke through before noon that day, and my mother walked over the hill with other women in the street to see the royal party reach the bridge’s north end after completing the main ceremony at the southern approaches. A photograph shows the Queen unveiling a plaque and my mother and her neighbours smiling in the background, not so much the smile of loyal subjects as of shy but interested spectators.
There were few men present among this little crowd – they would be at work – and no flags either, so far as I remember; certainly not the saltire, which in this week’s celebrations flew everywhere. Patriotism boomed from below in the form of a gun salute fired by the 25 warships that lay anchored around the bridge – too dense a fleet of them, as it turned out, because when the haar came down again in the late afternoon, the frigate HMS Lowestoft crashed into the Home Fleet’s flagship, the cruiser HMS Lion, causing damage but no casualties.
The Queen was 38, and I was half as old – a fraction that unfortunately hasn’t proved permanent. Last weekend, on a trip to see the new bridge and revisit my earlier surroundings, I was alarmed by an introspective calculation that had I been my present age in 1964, I would have witnessed the coming and going of five British monarchs, two world wars and the Great Depression, as well as the advent of talkies, television and a postwar surge in car numbers well beyond the capacity of a ferry service that could date its ancestry to at least the 11th century. Queen – later Saint – Margaret had travelled this way, and had been commemorated in the name of the crossing and the villages of North and South Queensferry that lay at either end.
The ferry journey took only 20 minutes, but we rarely visited our neighbours across the water, despite the fact that South Queensferry had a cinema and a famous hotel, the Hawes Inn, where (as we knew from Classics Illustrated, if not the novel itself) the hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped had stayed just before the eponymous act. We knew nobody there: what do the people of Dover know of Calais? We were Fifers, bound to the county by buses, schools and jobs.
My father used to say that he became a mechanic because he wanted “to build Forth Bridges”, meaning that he was inspired by the famous red-oxide cantilevers of the railway bridge that had opened in 1890; but when he was asked his opinion of the benefits of the new road bridge, he said that it would simply import “more Edinburgh dirt” – that is, more Edinburgh people. I was never sure how much he meant it.
Geography and, to a certain extent, geology had made our village important. Thanks to a hilly little peninsula projecting south, the Forth is narrower here than for many miles upriver, and the peninsula’s harbours offered shelter from east and west winds. Deposits of whinstone lay close to the surface, handy for export by sea. The building booms of the 18th century made this hard rock especially desirable – it was said to have paved the streets of London – and large quarries began to bite into hills covered in gorse bushes and grass. Most had been abandoned by the 20th century, but there had been no attempt at landscaping. Cliffs stood out brown against the green; dusty spoil heaps ran down to the shore; manmade depressions brimmed with dark water. We liked to play in an old quarry we called Lost Canyon because it seemed nobody else had found it.
Then, to compound this industrial effect, the railways had come: first a low-level branch to serve the ferry, and then the main line, which came up the gradient to the bridge through a deep cutting – bare rock again – and a tunnel that would leak smoke through an air shaft set amid the gorse. Two world wars added barracks, gun emplacements and a long wooden jetty.
To be a child in such a corrupted landscape was, I now realise, a lucky thing. It still had room in it for a small freshwater loch and a farm with potato fields and enough hilltop grazing for its two carthorses, Clyde and Prince. And late in the night the windows would rattle when a long coal train, locomotives front and rear, would come pushing through the tunnel and explode on to the bridge.
An alternative to the ferries had been rumoured for years, but only when a school friend and I dared each other to enter an abandoned seaside villa did it become real to us. The villa stood in the way of the bridge; that could be the only reason for its desertion, because it looked well cared-for. Hard little grapes still waited to be gathered from its greenhouse vine, and in a cupboard we found a pair of white spats, ready to be fitted to the owner’s shoes.
That may have been fanciful – we had read about the Mary Celeste – but the substance of our conjecture was sound. The villa came down, the farm came down, the potato fields became an estate of owner-occupiers, and a new cutting, much wider than the railway’s, was slashed through the hills to take the new motorway.
It was expected that 5m vehicles would cross the bridge every year, with the hope, for the sake of toll revenues, that the figure might eventually exceed 8m. By 2008 the figure was 21.4m; the new bridge will cope with 24m. The rise of the car has proved unstoppable, and with it has come not just a new Forth crossing but an enormous uncoiling of new roads that splice it with its predecessor. The bridge itself is rather beautiful, but the west side of the peninsula now gives a good impression of a freeway junction in New Jersey. Thick plantings of trees may improve it.
What has been lost? Odd little things: a quiet piece of shoreline, a view, a further erosion of Fife’s separateness – which it could be argued is for the good. The argument against the car is a bigger loser, while the story of the biggest loss of all lies concealed in the material origins of the three bridges. Two eminent English civil engineers, Benjamin Baker and John Fowler, designed the railway bridge; a Scottish contractor, William Arrol, erected it using steel and rivets from south Wales, Glasgow and Lanarkshire. The 1964 bridge was also an all-British affair. The firms of Mott, Hay and Anderson, and Freeman Fox and Partners did the designing; and a consortium comprising William Arrol & Co, the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Co, and Dorman Long Ltd carried out the work.
The new bridge has a tiny British input: a few box girders from Cleveland Bridge, a safety monitoring system from the Arup Group, and 16% of the building work by Morrison Construction. The main designers are American, Danish, Dutch, Swedish and German. The main contractors are American, German and Spanish. The steel comes from China, the concrete from Germany, and the cable stays from Switzerland.
In 1964, a person of a certain age could look back on half a century of terrible events. Looking back at 1964 today, a person of the same certain age can only marvel that Britain was then still an industrial nation, and that its decline has been so recent and so steep.