Monday, 16 September 2013

State of the Union

Back in early June 2010, Pauline and I took our mountain bikes by train to Bowling, on the west side of Glasgow, and the start of the Forth & Clyde Canal.  On that occasion we stopped 30 miles short of Edinburgh at the beautifully designed canal boat lift, the Falkirk Wheel, where the Forth & Clyde Canal ends, and caught the train home.

On the weekend just past we decided to return to cycle the final leg on the Union Canal, from the Falkirk Wheel to Edinburgh. The only difference this time was instead of mountain bikes we took Brompton folding bikes.

The canal was built in 1832 but inevitably fell into disuse and ceased to be a working canal in the 1930s. In 2000 though, it was brought back into use thanks to a project called The Millennium Link. This would see the Forth & Clyde Canal being connected up again with the Union Canal through a series of locks, the most ingenious being the Falkirk Wheel. In addition a new section that had been lost over the years on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Wester Hailes was reinstated, and now you can travel by boat from the centre of Edinburgh to the west coast.

The Union Canal does not follow a straight line to Edinburgh from Falkirk. The designers at the time wanted to avoid the use of expensive and time wasting locks, to speed the transfer of minerals from the Lanarkshire region to Edinburgh, so the canal twists and turns as it follows the 240foot contour all the way. In 1832 that must have been quite a challenge.

On a sunny and blue sky day we set out from Falkirk train station to the Falkirk Wheel. This was about a four mile addition to our route, as once there we would have to turn around and retrace our route. It was all about completing the length of both canals, otherwise we would have had a four mile gap in our quest. So our 31mile journey on the Bromptons officially started at the top of the Falkirk Wheel boat lift.

The towpath is, for the most part, fairly smooth and varies in width from a couple of feet to, at times, six feet, the only interruption being the occasional staggered gates at regular points, put in to deter motorised users. There were very few people on the path, which I found surprising given that, though a little chilly, it was a beautiful day.

Not long after the start we encountered a very long, dark and damp tunnel. It must have been easily half a kilometre long, if not more. I could hardly see a thing inside but I was just a few feet behind a jogger in the tunnel, so I kept up with him to stay orientated. It would have been wiser and safer to walk through, as did Pauline, and on a couple of occasions the tyres did lose their grip.  The walls of the tunnel were coated in limescale, giving the illusion of being inside some manmade Disney ride or a set from Star Trek.

Along it's length there are four navigable aqueducts, one being 80feet above the ground. Uneven and narrow, these are definite moments when you get off and push. Inevitably you meet others coming the other way and it can be an interesting moment as you try to squeeze past each other without falling in to the five foot deep murky water.

Autumn was definitely knocking at the door with many trees starting to show their fiery colours in their leaves and the berries of the Rowan trees were flaming red. Blackberries were out in abundance at various stages of ripening and we enjoyed the occasional stop for a mini feast of the dark sweet fruits. The whole setting was very pretty; a bloom of vegetation creating a patchwork of green across the surface of the canal; little stone bridges crossing over; swans resting on the edge with their adolescent signets as narrow canal boats chugged past; shafts of sunlight dancing through the branches of mature trees creating a hidden world feel to long stretches of the route.

About halfway along we decided to pay a visit to the birthplace of one of Pauline's distant relatives. Pulling off the canal at Linlithgow we stopped for coffee and cake, and whilst sitting outside in the autumn sunshine we were entertained by a local brass band, resplendent in their bright red tunics.

Coffee over it was time to make that visit and we wandered up a narrow cobbled road to the Palace of Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. That's right, you read that correctly - I was  cycling with royalty, as Pauline is a distant relative of Mary Queen of Scots. Just as well their powers are diminished these days or she might have had me beheaded for my bad behaviour in the past!

But idyllic little journeys like this wouldn't be complete without me managing to create a problem at some point. As Pauline often says, there's always something with me.  With 12 miles to go, and far from any connecting train station, my Brompton developed a puncture in the front wheel. Unfortunately , although we had a repair kit with us we had forgotten the spanner for the front wheel nuts! We continued on, stopping every half mile so I could pump up the tyre, then pedalling like Chris Froom in the Tour de France (I was wearing the Team Sky jersey afterall) to get as far as I could on one pump. Then a miracle happened. The Madonna del Ghisallo, patron saint of cycling, must have shone down upon me. The puncture suddenly repaired itself! Amazed but delighted, we continued on uninterrupted to finish our journey at Lochrin Basin in Tollcross.

If you'd like to read about the original adventure on the Forth & Clyde Canal, please follow this link.


Anonymous said...

Lovely photo of the swans. I wonder if anybody has done the Tour de France by Brompton. Probably not but there is a Brompton world championship!I'm going to mention this before anybody else does - the Forth & Clyde canal continues after the Falkirk Wheel to join the Forth via the Carron sea lock. Pauline

Graham Kitchener said...

No I didn't know that :-)

Does this mean we have to return again and do the last section of the Forth & Clyde?

If the Brompton world championship includes folding and unfolding it I would most definitely come last!

Pauline said...

Yes we will have to go in search of the missing link. And yes, it does include unfolding.Pauline