Jonny McCambridge: Unravelling the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge mystery (part 2)

Now, where were we?

Paddy McCambridge as he was in the 1965 video Preparing Carrick-A-Rede © ITV. Courtesy of Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive
Paddy McCambridge as he was in the 1965 video Preparing Carrick-A-Rede © ITV. Courtesy of Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive

Last week I recounted the story of when my da worked for the fishermen at Carrick-a-Rede. How he was part of the team that took part in the perilous operation of erecting the rope bridge at the site in the 1960s.

I also told of his memory of being filmed by a TV camera crew while undertaking the task and of how all of our attempts to retrieve the ancient footage had been unsuccessful.

The column that I wrote last week could have been composed at any time during my life. This week’s effort is particular to now.

My dad, Paddy McCambridge, is now retired. But he remains active and spends much of his time growing his own fruit and vegetables at his allotment.

I have always assumed the attraction of the allotment to be twofold. Of course, there is the satisfaction of tending to your own produce; but I suspect this is matched by the comfort of finding people who share your interest.

And when people of a certain age get together, they invariably tell stories of the way things were. Gathered in a wee shed, one of the other allotment tenders spoke of how he loved the north coast and particularly Carrick-a-Rede. My da responded by telling him the story of how he had once worked there.

And that could have been the end of this tale. Except that a few weeks ago this individual said he had found an old video on Facebook about Carrick-a-Rede – and he thought my father was in it.

This prompted a new online search.

My involvement began when I received a link and a WhatsApp message from my dad’s wife which read ‘Do you think this is your da?’

I immediately stopped what I was doing and opened the link. There are very few moments in my life which I can describe as genuinely arresting, but this was to be one.

The little screen on my phone filled with a flickering black and white moving image. The first shot was of an ancient wooden sign for the rope bridge. It warned people that the bridge was highly dangerous, and that the public were forbidden to use it.

Next, it showed two strong men hauling the bridge across the drop from the island to the mainland, with a close-up shot revealing the strain on a worker’s neck as he strained at the rope. Then there was a flickering shot of the ocean below, the surface dappled by a breeze and the sun reflecting off the surface.

The video next showed planks being laid across the slats of the bridge and a man walking on them before they had been secured.

And then appeared a young man, a teenager it seemed, wearing a dark pullover and flat cap as he tied the planks to the bridge with his legs dangling over the edges.

I rewound and paused the image. It seemed that I was finally watching footage of my own da, recorded 57 years ago.

There were some more shots of the area before the video finished with a scene of three men, including the one I believed to be my father, walking across the rickety bridge as casually as if they were out for a Sunday dander in the park.

I took a moment to compose myself. Then I messaged back.

‘Yes, I think that’s da.’

I watched the video over and over, feeling quite light. In the meantime, my dad checked in his little book that records all the work he has undertaken in his career. The dates matched perfectly.

The video was then shared with several of his siblings, who were more familiar with his appearance in the 1960s. They all came back with the same positive answer. Even for my cautious nature the conclusion seemed to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt, this was the video my father had always spoken about and he was the young man featured in it.

I quickly undertook some research of my own. The Facebook video had been posted last year by NI Screen as part of their digital film archive project and had been originally broadcast by UTV in 1965, not by the BBC as my dad had believed.

I found a story on the Belfast Live website which had been published last September. The image they had used to illustrate the nostalgic article was of my dad sitting on the bridge tying down the planks.

Then I contacted NI Screen, who provided me with a downloaded clip of the video which could be watched on a bigger screen.

I have watched the film, less than a minute long, several times since. Even after my initial excitement had dimmed, I still found myself being drawn back to it again and again. I was left with an uncertain feeling that took some time to crystallise in my mind.

The thought was this. The year in which the footage was captured was 1965. It seemed like a long time ago, but when I reflected on it, it’s not that long ago.

But when I watch the images, I’m left with the impression that I’m watching something from an older era. The way the men were dressed, the methods and equipment they used, all seemed to belong to another time. If I had not known the date, I may have supposed that it was much older, a scene from closer to the beginning of that century.

It occurred to me that in 1965 not much had changed about what the men were doing in many years. After seeing my dad skilfully tying down the bridge, I asked him where he had learnt how to do it. He told me that he was given the instruction by an older colleague and had to learn fast. That colleague would presumably have been given the same instruction when he was a young man, and so on and on.

What the men in that video could not have known is that a lot of things that had changed very little over generations were about to begin to change very quickly. A new form of modernity, an age of rapid technological advancement, was rapidly closing in.

Not that many years later, the salmon industry at Carrick-a-Rede went into decline as the once thriving fish stocks became scarce. The last salmon was caught on the island in 2002.

Now, under the ownership of the National Trust, tourists from all over the world flock to see Carrick-a-Rede. Once there stood a sign warning people to stay away; now the public are encouraged to come.

The rope bridge remains, although it is only a distant relative of the one my father once helped to erect. The little fisherman’s cottage and the winch are still on the island, keeping alive some memories of an almost forgotten industry.

And now there is also the flickering black and white footage, preserved forever. It shows the way things once were – exactly the way my da had always described it.

• For more information about Northern Ireland Screen’s digital film archive visit https://digitalfilmarchive.net. For information about their Slow TV project visit https://www.dfaslowtv.com/