Bridge Over Troubled Water

Last night my husband and I donned our winter coats and stepped outside the back door to observe the night sky. We gazed across the Cromarty Firth with the stars twinkling overhead like Chinese lanterns; the silence broken only by the intermittent barking of a fox in a nearby field, and our own voices. Jokingly, Mark asked how I would feel if one of the stars disappeared from the Plough (Ursa Major, also known as the Big Dipper); one of the most prominent constellations in the northern hemisphere. I smiled at the absurdity of such a thought but realised that I would certainly feel a sense of loss.

The stars feel consistent. They are always there, day in, day out, even when obscured by cloud or the light of day. I remember stargazing from the garden of the house I grew up in and I can recall looking through my tears at the Plough from the back seat of my parents’ car, travelling home from Edinburgh to Perth following my granny’s funeral some 17 years ago in September 2000, thinking what a comfort it must be to believe in life after death. Stargazing certainly makes you think.

During the decade I spent living in Edinburgh, the stars were blotted out by streetlights but, nowadays, the Plough and other constellations are waiting to greet me when I step outside my Highland home under the cover of darkness on these autumnal evenings. Standing in my driveway late last night, I reflected on the fact that September was drawing to a close. Suddenly we’re three quarters of the way through another year. I’ve been writing my blog on and off since 2014. There have been times when I’ve posted on a weekly basis and other times, like this year, when months have gone by without the urge to write. If I plotted my stress levels and blogging frequency on a graph, the relationship would be clear for all to see.

Finding some ‘headspace’ behind the camera in September 2017. Mist inversion over the Cromarty Firth, Black Isle.

2017 has been a tough year. I’m relieved that it’s October and I’m putting some distance between myself and the nightmare that unfolded earlier this year. My dad has fought an inspirational battle with cancer and is now in remission, adjusting to a new way of life. Although my sudden redundancy from my day job is still painful, as time goes by, I dare to think of it as a blessing rather than a curse, as I take on more wedding photography bookings and commercial work and plan the way forward for my business. I’ve also come to terms with the misfortune of my wedding having taken place at the most tumultuous time in my life, and I’m starting to feel human again.

I’ve felt the stress levels drop this last month and, like the olden days, I was struck by inspiration late at night and just had to start tapping away on my laptop! In the past, my ideas for my blog usually came to me as I was winding down for the night in Edinburgh’s Queen Street Travelodge or on the train between Inverness and the capital city; a return journey I undertook every few weeks with work. My life has undergone a seismic shift this year and I guess the way in which I write my blog is just another thing that I will have to adapt to.

Like familiar constellations in the night sky, the Forth Bridges have also formed a backdrop to my life. I grew up in Perth and spent many childhood weekends and holidays in Edinburgh visiting my grandparents. Every trip involved a return journey over the Forth Road Bridge which was, at the time of its opening in 1964, the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world. It replaced the centuries-old ferry service over the Firth of Forth and revolutionised road travel in Scotland’s Central Belt.

Me and my dad at the Forth Road Bridge in August 1986.

In time, I found myself living on the south side of the Forth, in Edinburgh, firstly as a student then as a young professional. In the same way that my mum and dad had made a regular pilgrimage to Edinburgh to see their parents, I returned to Perth as often as I could, always travelling via the Forth Road Bridge.

I kept my day job as a project manager following my move to the Black Isle in 2013. Part of the deal was to frequently visit the Edinburgh office, where I’d worked for four and a half years, to retain my connection to the rest of the team. These trips were often enjoyable and nostalgic. I liked being reunited with my colleagues, eating out at my favourite restaurant courtesy of my employer and travelling by train, latterly in first class.

Me and my dad at the Forth Bridge, North Queensferry, in August 1986.

Over the years, I crossed the magnificent Forth Bridge dozens of times and the seaside railway journey between Kirkcaldy and Inverkeithing inspired me to walk the Fife Coastal Path in 2014. On the railway, I traveled in the footsteps of my grandfather who spent his career as an engine driver driving trains from his base in Edinburgh south to Newcastle and north, up the east coast of Scotland, to Dundee and beyond, via this spectacular monument to Victorian engineering. During his long career, my grandad was once given the opportunity to take the lift to the top of the rail bridge; an unforgettable experience for him.

The Forth Bridge in March 2012.

Given my special relationship with these bridges, it is little wonder that they each occupied a spot on my Bucket List.

I couldn’t believe it when BBC Countryfile contacted me five weeks after my redundancy, wanting to feature me and my photographs on their prime time television show with an estimated audience of seven million. The Countryfile Director had read my Fife Coastal Path blog and, together, we hatched a plan to shoot from the top of the rail bridge. The weather gods were against me but it was a truly incredible experience, and more than a little surreal to be ticking off this Bucket List item with a film crew in tow!

The view from the north cantilever of the Forth Bridge in June 2017.

Reaching the top of the rail bridge brought back memories from three years previously. In 2014, as part of the Forth Road Bridge 50th anniversary celebrations, I negotiated a claustrophobic rickety old lift and a 14-foot high vertical ladder to reach the top of the north tower, typically on the most dismal day of a beautiful summer. The weather was dire but the rain and mist didn’t dampen my spirits!

The view from the north tower of the Forth Road Bridge in July 2014.

Since leaving Edinburgh, a third bridge, the Queensferry Crossing, has been built adjacent to the existing bridges. The Forth Road Bridge was never designed to carry the volume of traffic that uses the M90 motorway nowadays. Over the last decade, it has shown signs of wear and tear, from corrosion in the massive suspension cables to a sizable crack below the road deck, which closed the bridge to all traffic for over a fortnight in December 2015.

The sleek and slender Queensferry Crossing opened to traffic on 30th August.  At 1.7 miles in length, it is the longest three-tower cable-stayed bridge in the world. Its neighbour, the Forth Road Bridge, has fallen silent, although it will re-open to public transport and it remains the only option for pedestrians and cyclists wanting to cross the estuary. I used the new bridge for the first time in early September, bound for Edinburgh for a charity board meeting followed by a reunion with my former colleagues. It was with mixed feelings that I crossed the Firth of Forth without passing over the Forth Road Bridge or Rail Bridge. On the one hand, it was exhilarating to drive over this beautiful structure which I’ve observed rising out of the water inch by inch over the past six years. On the other, as I allowed myself the occasional glance over my left shoulder to the familiar sights of the grey suspension bridge and red cantilever bridge beyond, I felt a certain sense of loss.

I’m a creature of habit and I have no doubt that this character trait hasn’t helped with the challenges I’ve faced this year. However, the dust is gradually settling and, in time, I may come to accept all the changes that have taken place as the new ‘norm’. Facing the mortality of my loved ones has been deeply upsetting, and saying goodbye to a disposable income, comfortable lifestyle and predictable routine has been a wrench. As I watch my dad adjust to the legacy left by his tumour and strive to re-gain his stamina and independence, I see that I too have the capacity to adapt to whatever life throws at me.

The comforting backdrops to life shouldn’t be taken for granted, whether it’s the good health of loved ones, the stability of a career and a regular income, or the landscape around us. Thankfully though, despite the unpredictability of life, I can always find peace as I gaze up at the stars in the night sky and find comfort in knowing that I will always find a way to bridge the gap between old and new ways of life.

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8 thoughts

  1. This post is lovely in every way possible. Courageous, inspirational, authentic–all link together as perfectly as the stars do in Orion’s belt. When my father died in 1995, I wondered, how would I go on with any enthusiasm at all? I remember stepping out my front door in early August (he died in late July) and looking up to the dark sky. My eyes were directed to the rigid three stars in the belt. There he was! The left star on the belt.

    Four years ago my mentor and weekly lunch partner, Joe, died suddenly on his front porch waiting for an ambulance. He was 80. Again, I wondered…who will call me on my landline to see how I am doing? With whom will I discuss great world literature and philosophy? I found Joe one lonely night as the star in the center of the belt.

    Three years ago, on October 8, a day before my birthday, the one person in my life who represented all things brave and hopeful–my mother, died of a stroke at the age of 84. She now is the right star.

    As the years pass and I consider my own mortality, I am comforted by the order of the heavens, the sway of the redwood trees in a furious wind, the deep brown eyes of my dog, and the words of a talented little person just like you!

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  2. Glad you are finding peace and comfort after some difficult times. Guess what! We were on the Forth Bridge viewing platform last weekend as part of a Barnardo’s fundraiser. It’ll be on my blog tomorrow.

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  3. Life is a journey and sometimes the path gets rough, but it sounds like you have turned a corner. Your photos are beautiful and well done for catching the eye of the Countryfile director!

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  4. Oh, it’s good to see you again. I’m in awe of the steadiness and beauty of those two bridge videos, and touched by your reflective writing. As a child I always felt overwhelmed by the night sky, but now I relish being reduced to a minute particle of stardust. Such good news about your father, and your new life after the savageness of out-of-the-blue redundancy.

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  5. Beautifully written Karen. It brought a tear to my eye. Love Mum xx

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  6. Omg that *was* you! I just caught a bit of that spot and thought it was familiar! Congrats on the huge accomplishment. I’m glad your dad is doing okay and everything is working out too.

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