Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Forth & Clyde Canal

In AD 142 the Romans started work on a wall that would run for 39 miles across Scotland, from the Clyde River in the west to the Forth in the east. It would take 12 years to complete, which is still faster than getting the trams finished in Edinburgh!

The Antonine Wall, named after the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, was the northernmost frontier boundary of the Roman occupation of Britain. Today it is quite difficult to find, with only small sections surviving, overgrown and collapsed.

Almost 1800 years later, following roughly the same route, having taken 22 years to complete, the Forth & Clyde Canal, connecting the western seaboard of Scotland to the eastern seaboard, was opened.

Last weekend Pauline and I took a train, first to Glasgow, then onto the canal’s starting point at Bowling. It was a glorious day and ahead lay 31 miles of canal towpath that would take us to the Falkirk Wheel. This is where the Union Canal, which goes a further 60 miles into Edinburgh, meets the Forth & Clyde Canal. From there we would catch a train home, missing out the final 4-mile stretch of the Forth & Clyde.

The first eight miles or so take you through Dalmuir, Kelvin and onto Maryhill. At Dalmuir there is Britain’s only drop lock. This clever construction enables boats to pass underneath a busy main road, before popping out of the other end and being raised back to the original height to continue their journey.

Just a mile further on, in Clydebank, we came across the world’s only “sail-thru” fish and chip shop. A large old boat, now land-locked, where passing barges and yachts can get their fish supper from the comfort of their wheelhouse!

At Maryhill locks, a series of five, you must cross over and pick your way through housing in order to continue by bicycle alongside the northern edge of the canal. There are no signposts, or even a marked route on the map, to guide you, but luckily I had my trusty guide Pauline with me. It’s a great pity that they haven’t linked up this part, as you could quite easily not notice and continue on a several mile detour into Glasgow city centre.

The canal continues on, lazily winding its way through the central belt countryside, past isolated farms and idyllic little cottages set among rolling hills. At times the towpath becomes busier with people out walking, or swans on the water taking their cygnets out for their first foray into the big, bad world.

Kirkintilloch, just past halfway, is the last town easily accessible from the canal and we stopped for lunch and a quick brew-up. 6 miles on is Auchenstarry, where for the first time the canal widens to about four times its width. Now a marina for seafaring types to weigh anchor, it was once the loading point for coal from Kilsyth. Nine easy but hot miles later, our journey’s end, the Falkirk Wheel, hoves into view.

Back in 1963, after 173 years of service, the canal was closed. Unused it became semi-derelict. It had ceased to be the main method to transport goods and rather than construct a crossing for the newly built motorway, it was decided to close the canal. Over the years it became even more chopped up, with several sections becoming filled in and even built over. As part of the Millennium celebrations in 2000, National Lottery funds were used to regenerate both canals and connect them back together, the largest canal restoration ever in Britain.

However, as well as constructing new sections of actual canal, eleven locks had been lost in the interim period. These once connected the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, at the point where the Falkirk Wheel now sits. Engineers had to figure out a way to reconnect them, separated by 90 feet in height, within a far more limited space than in its heyday, due to the construction of housing and roads over the decades.

Modeled on the shape of Celtic axes, the Falkirk Wheel’s design is breathtaking when you see it for the first time. Powerful enough to raise and lower the equivalent weight of 100 hundred elephants, yet using the power of only eight light bulbs, it is a feat of engineering to be admired and the only structure of its kind in the world. On the day we were there only boats were using the lift. I suppose 100 passing elephants is not a regular event. Opened in 2002, it successfully lifts boats up and down in less than five minutes. Negotiating the old lock system took most of the day!

Close by, high above the main centre, I discovered the remains of the Antonine Wall, lost and forgotten in an overgrown forest, still with it’s deep ditch defences on the northern side. Not only did the engineers design and build a clever solution to the problem they faced but they also managed to preserve the remains of the 2000-year-old wall by tunneling underneath it.

Emperor Pius would be most pleased.

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