The drama of the Forth Railway Bridge

Fife is rife with ruins, green fields and contradiction. Its dramatic entrance hall, the Forth Bridge, somehow encapsulates much of its inner nature, except perhaps for the matter of golf.

Forth Railway Bridge

Forth Railway Bridge

The entrance to Fife is a panorama of ports, water, hills and light from a late-Victorian railway bridge 1.6 miles in length, an iconic engineering masterpiece of red-rust girders, towers, cantilever arms, granite piers and 6.5 million rivets.

Look down and the train glides a hundred and fifty feet above the Forth river, swooping over the Queensferry villages with their tiny lanes, harbours and landing walls sinking beneath the dark still waters. Inchgarvie Island passes below, one of the Forth’s islands of defence fortification since the Middle Ages, last used in World War II and its concrete pillboxes now abandoned and open to the birds.

Look out and you see a cruise ship re-fuelling at one of Hound Point’s sea island berths, the road bridge and the Rosyth docks, pipelines and re-development.

Look up and pastoral fields roll down to entwine with industrial function and decay on either bank. On this day beams of sunshine strobe in the eye as the red rust girders flash past the window, on other days rain clouds roll through the estuary or sea fog blurs ship and seascape in a way that would have Turner in open-armed ecstasy.

Every crossing of the Forth is different with its unique interplay of shadow and light, weather and mood. This is a crossing that, like London’s Westminster Bridge in the shadow of Parliament, demands respect and attention. It can’t be ignored. The commuters reading their papers unaware of the Forth drama of industry, landscape and weather, or nymphs playing in the sun on Old Father Thames in front of the nation’s cockpit, need to be woken up and wacked to death with their own folded-up newspaper.

By the time the Forth Bride was finished in 1890 it had cost the lives of nearly 100 workers and hundreds more suffered serious accidents. They died working in the foundations 90 ft below sea level, were crushed to death by falling objects or they simply fell and disappeared into the waters far below. Boats positioned under the working areas saved at least eight men from drowning.

View from North Queensferry looking at the Forth Bridge

View from North Queensferry looking at the Forth Bridge

Heading north the moment the train hits land you are in Fife, those mysterious brown hills seen across the river from Edinburgh’s viewpoints.

For a while the train frames a rolling view of towns and industrial ruins. Rotting boats in abandoned docks tremble to the swell of greasy waters. Warehouses collapse into large mounds of rubble, metal and rubbish. Towns and grey houses, scrapyards and derelict mills, ruined castles and gloomy cemeteries, beaches with the remains of old concrete fortifications and the occasional seal basking on the rocks.

And flashing behind all of this, darting in and out of view are wide moody skies, mud and waters of the Forth. Far away on the other side is the port of Leith, the old trawler harbour of Granton, Edinburgh and the distinct tiny outline of Arthur’s Seat.

A thread of silver light tautly glitters between sea and sky. Sun shafts burst through clouds and scatter sparkling pools of light over the sea, silhouetting ships as dark etchings on the horizon.

View from a train: Early morning over Firth of Forth

View from a train: Early morning over Firth of Forth

Once the train swings away from the coastline pastoral Fife displaces its industrial cousin. Now the view from the window is rolling farmland, horses grazing in the fields and lush woods. Even in the pastoral, deep in the woods, there are old works and mines. There are the remains of old mining processes if you can read the signs of mounds and depressions too regular to be formed by nature.

This is a journey that crackles with emotional resonance, a pilgrimage to family heartlands. Where my father, an old Westminster gentleman was returned home to his Scottish roots to be buried in a small church hidden deep in the Fife countryside. There is a ruined priory where he and other cousins spent part of their childhood and the limestone mills, now virtually abandoned but once a thriving source of income.

But first walking down a lonely country road with the inevitable mix of woods, hidden quarries and wild raspberries to pick a group of buildings catch my eye, buildings that I have seen many times before but never properly explored.

I hop over the fence and walk across the field of crop stubble to have a look.

Part 2 coming soon: poking round a ruined priory and a church.

Further information

Haar (coastal sea fog) over the Forth

Photos of a derelict mill: Exploring Caldwell’s Paper Mill Inverkeithing

Great urban exploration and photography of Forth Bridge from Sleepy City

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11 thoughts on “The drama of the Forth Railway Bridge

    • Thanks for that! That article is now on my digital reading list. I think that photo came from the Sleepy City website and I had forgotten they had a Forth Bridge exploration.

      See: http://sleepycity.net/posts/148/Smitten-come-Smote-Edinburgh

      I don’t know if it is the same person but astonishing global urban exploration antics and photography from that lot anyway. Makes my poking about the ruins of a priory seem like a Sunday afternoon post-lunch snooze. And to be honest – I know my limits and prefer it that way!

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  1. You captured this train ride so beautifully! I love looking down into the water while crossing Forth Bridge, especially the way those concrete pilings just disappear gradually under the waves. Next time I’ll be sure to look out for some of the details you noticed!

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  2. Beautifully written. I look forward to experiencing it … although it is more likely to be the trip over Westminster Bridge first! Thank you as always.

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  3. just recently i did this very journey by rail- travelling to Inverkeithing and was struck by the drama and beauty of it.In fact i called my Fifer friend in Glasgow and observed that when you cross that bridge you know why they call it the Kingdom.Its nice to approach on foot or bike from the other side- i cycled to Dalgety Bay- weird plastic town with a great chippy, then cycled back and along the coastal path all the way to the bridge.Glorious stuff.I could write a song about Fife, oh yeh, I already did. Are you heading up to Cellardyke ? Now there is a magical place.

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    • Tiffaldo – I am hoping to head back to Fife in late Nov and hope to get to Cellardyke. It’s been on the Fife to do list since I first heard that splendid song of yours. Have you got a link to that song? I will stick it up as a link as there are two articles coming about Fife.

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  4. Beautiful writing…evokes the imagery perfectly. I have travelled over the Forth bridge so many times and had too marvel at the thing every time. I liked the ships as “dark etchings”…rare to find a blog with such good writing.

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    • Thanks for dropping by teigl and many thanks for your kind comments. Glad the article resonated with you and I don’t think I would ever get bored of crossing the Forth bridge. It’s different every time.

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