Crack of dawn.
I pull on my hoodie and tiptoe towards the car, careful not to make too much noise. I’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of me: Inverness to North Queensferry. At least the horizon is beginning to lighten.
Music and radio keep me company as I devour the miles down the infamous A9. I’m a bit nervous if I’m honest. There are several reasons for this.
- As of today, I am the Forth Bridge Writer in Residence. That’s wildly exciting, but also a little daunting. There will be many people to meet, and I can only hope that I will be able to deliver something of value to the organisations which have placed their trust in me.
- Today is also the Barnardo’s Your View event at the Forth Bridge. I will interview visitors as they arrive and depart and try to get a sense of what this bridge means to them.
- ‘And while you’re there, Barbara, you may have a chance to go up the bridge if we can fit you in.’ My stomach churns. I am famous for my pathetic inability to countenance any kind of height at all, even the attic ladder is a step too far. And yet I nod at this. What’s wrong with me? Have I forgotten who I am?
Once I get near my destination, I begin to worry about other, insignificant things too – will I find a parking space? No need to fret: a Balfour Beatty employee beneath the bridge waves me enthusiastically towards their small car park. I am almost blinded by the off-the-scale-visibility of his attire, only second to the brightness of his smile.
‘I’m one of the volunteers,’ I whimper through the window, slightly defensively. I don’t think he could have cared less, already directing his cheerful waves at the next passing car. A lean man in a cap and raincoat waits beside my car, clutching a shoulder bag and an i-pad – ah, I recognise him from some of the Zoom meetings I attended: Miles, the Forth Bridge World Heritage Management Group Chairman. I feel better already. By the time I get to the portacabins, Katie Rawlings, the Barnardo’s special events manager, whizzes by. Wiry and fiercely cheerful, she weaves her way through the crowd and introduces me to what feels like the population of a small country. I do what I do best: reach for my notebook and begin:
‘Hi!’ If the total strangers before me are unsettled by my slightly deranged smile and welcoming gesture, they don’t show it. I continue: ‘Have you just come off the bridge? Was it amazing?’ The answers are always affirmative. I move to the heart of my task: ‘What does the bridge mean to you? Have you got any special connection? Any stories? Anecdotes?’
And so it begins. Shirley from Livingston remembers driving under the bridge on her second date, listening to music and discovering all the things she and her then-boyfriend had in common. ‘It’s just inspirational, this bridge. I marvel at the engineering, but it’s my thinking space too. I sit under the span when I have a problem or there is something on my mind. I’ve waited years to do this, to go up!’
Dunfermline’s Davie O’Donnell works for Network Rail and is often seen at Waverley Station in a top hat. Today, he has returned to the Forth Bridge to lend a hand. However, Davie has his own stories to tell too: He had his distinctive mass of white hair and his beard shaved off for charity atop the Forth Bridge as a fundraiser for MacMillan cancer support, by Rangers legend Mark Hately – not a day you could easily forget! The pages in my notebook are filling up fast: memories of Sunday school trips from Bo’ness to Kinghorn. According my interviewee, the highlight was winding down the windows of the train and throwing out pennies for luck over the water. Another lady recalled her four-year-old sister throwing out the entire contents of her fluffy purse – all her holiday money for Scarborough was gone – to her mother’s horror!
Kirstie had won a ballot to go across the Forth Road bridge in a minibus just the day before. ‘Quite unusual, I think, to do both bridges in a weekend. We got a tour and even walked in the cabling! And today I’m going up the Forth Rail Bridge!’ Soon after, I meet self-confessed adrenaline junkie May Macleod who abseiled from the bridge as a treat for her 60th birthday, years ago.
Barbara, a volunteer for the North Queensferry Heritage Trust recalls going up the Forth Rail Bridge in the ‘old hoist’ and regales me with a very entertaining dramatic performance of the experience: ‘It was going up in instalments, with a jolt, like this!’ she laughs, jiggling. The North Queensferry Heritage Trust is also represented by Garry and Robert Irvine, with their portacabin display of images and documents attracting a steady flow of visitors. I also meet Malcolm, employed by Balfour Beatty down south, who never misses an opportunity to return to the Forth Rail Bridge. He shows me stunning photographs of the bridge’s delicate patterns, perfectly reflected in the still waters of the Forth.
And still they arrive: the engineering enthusiast who travelled all the way from Liverpool, just to ascend the Forth Bridge. A son and his 90-year-old father, taking the hoist together as a birthday treat for the older man. A lady in reflective mood, paying tribute to her late father as she scales the bridge he loved, in memory of him. A young engineer who chose his professional path inspired by the Forth Bridge.
Some of the most impressive people I meet are the employees and volunteers: supervisors, site workers, scaffolders (can you imagine building a scaffold on that bridge!), safety inspectors and the Briggers, a local heritage group who ably demonstrate the Bridge’s impressive history, including a hands-on riveting demonstration.
Finally, the time has come. ‘Looks like you are going to get a chance to go up, Barbara, alongside the other volunteers.’ I am ushered to the safety briefing, kitted out with a fetching yellow vest and a stylish hard hat. No turning back. I am so grateful for my cheery sidekick Gillian who coordinates the region’s fostering for Barnardo’s. If she isn’t scared, then I need to get a grip of myself. How hard can it be?
The hoist feels substantial enough, and in any case, I am too far gone now. Fear may have a hold on my mind, but I am not ready to embarrass myself in front of my new friends! I am going to stand on top of this bridge and if it’s the last thing I do…
Granted, my legs wobble a little as I emerge out of the hoist, but the overwhelming sense is one of space and freedom. The scale of the structure is immense, and the thought that Victorians built this without the aid of computer calculations and modern technology leaves me all but speechless. I am astounded that Berwick Law and Edinburgh Castle are clearly visible from here. There is a photographer, precariously balanced on a raised platform, ready to immortalise the moment, and I strike a pose.
It is almost dark by the time I retrace my steps to the car. As I chase the darkening clouds northwards, I ponder my luck. What a privilege, to be among those people, in that place, on this day.
As far as writer’s gigs go, this has got to be up there.
Pardon the pun!