A chill wind howled over the Firth of Forth's icy waters, blasting rain into my face with a bitter sting. In the haze far below small waves rose from the turbulent water. Scotland turned her fury against us and there was naught we could do but tuck our faces deeper into saturated hoods and cower at the scene around us. Above us the Forth Rail Bridge glowed a brilliant crimson against the angry sky, flinching not an inch within the maelstrom of the gale. Standing high over the waters, encircled by a swirling shield of the elements, it was clear we weren't going to get up there.
With heavy hearts and sodden feet we trudged along the tracks, peering back intermittently until all that remained visible was the apocalyptic glow in the sky. We'd drive 1000 miles roundtrip to crack the Forth, all for naught. For the following 3 months my desktop image would be the Forth Rail Bridge, a constant reminder of unfinished business. I would conquer the red monster of the north.
In 1890 the Prince of Wales banged home the last of the 8 million rivets, declaring the bridge open to traffic. At 2.5km long, made of 3 towering cantilever structures it dominates the landscape. The modern road bridge adjacent is slender and twinky compared to this mammoth mass of red metal. Almost 100 workers died during the 7 year construction using a material not previously used for bridge construction - steel. The three cantilever structures are each supported by 4 steel towers anchored into foundations which extend 27 meters below. Our learned Scotsman advisor Siologen Jeeves Westminster III quickly dismissed the possibility of boating to a pylon, "you'll be sucked out into the North sea ya wanker". Luckily, we had a plan B.
Months later QX and I returned to the Forth, bringing with us clear skies. The bridge itself begins with a stone and steel viaduct which extends three hundred meters to a massive stone arch which anchors the first of three red steel cantilevers. Flanking the tracks are two walkways with signs kindly informing those out for a late night stroll there is Minimal Clearance on bridge. By our reckoning minimal space meant that if one was to lie flat on the edge without a backpack the train's clearance would be enough.
In addition to perfect weather QX and I brought every single rail timetable we could find. The Forth carries an average of 200 trains per day. The local trains were separated by up to half an hour making them a non-issue. The wildcard entries to this rollingstock steeplechase are the intercity passenger trains and freighters to which we lacked any form of timetables. Our recce had shown they rattle through frequently and fast enough to pose problems. Waiting until after passenger service stops seems like a logical plan, except the moment traffic ceases the bridge is swarmed by orange clad workers, even in the worst of weather. The only certain way to dodge the workers meant getting up mid service and down before the last train. Our plan summarised simply as: charge it. Praeparo vestri testis.
qx and I launched from our hiding space like rapists from a shrub, sprinting out onto the viaduct. Our cumbersome backpacks bounced around furiously, a tripod head bashing into my kidneys. The wind picked up as the vegetation dropped further below us and we charged towards the red monster looming larger above us with every stride. A train headlight beamed over the rise of his gaping maw and shambled out to meet us. Bring out the welcoming party! Hearts pounding and breathless we ran faster towards glory and doom, two outcomes more tightly intertwined everyday. Diving into the safety of the stone arch, we watched the train rattle past. Had the driver seen us, was he already on the radio? What could be gained by standing around touching our nuts debating a course of action, waiting to be busted by an angry Scottish policeman? Fuck it, we climbed.
As the stars began to bloom against a perfect mauve sky we weaved upwards through the giant red latticework. There was no security or alarms, clearly nobody expected climbers, or believed the physical location and nature of the bridge would dissuade them. Reaching the peak and blessed with perfect weather we snapped a couple of quick photos then simply kicked back to just enjoy the view.
30 minutes before the last train to back to Edinburgh and the arrival of workers we began our descent. In haste we climbed one level too far and discovered a worker office slung below the tracks. Inside a single figure went about his business oblivious to our antics. Track level however was calm and quiet so we began jogging over the viaduct. Halfway across a train clattered up behind us so we kicked back a gear and streaked across the viaduct. The train rolled past as we burst off the viaduct onto the railway ballast so we ran right alongside all the way back to the platform where the last train to Edinburgh was also pulling in.
Liberally coated in smears of red paint, reeking of sweat and hyperventilating we rode back over the bridge grinning like retarded children with our hands cupped tight around our faces and noses pushed sideways across the glass. The Forth had fallen, the loose ends were tied, I could leave the UK content. Elated though we were a smaller but equally serious challenge presented itself, where exactly were we going to sleep?