Natalie Croft reviewed her first hire boat holiday in Waterways World (July 2016). She took her trip with Drifters, visiting giant horses, a landmark boat-lift and Scotland’s only canal museum…
Peering over the barriers of the M9 in a taxi from Edinburgh Airport, the Kelpies were our first view of Scotland’s waterways – and I don’t think it could have been more awe-inspiring.
A one-hour flight, followed by a 30-minute cab, ride brought us from the East Midlands to Helix Park, where the sculptures stand. Nearly 100ft tall and glinting in the sunlight, the giant horses provided a dramatic backdrop to our lunch at the Helix visitor centre.
But our hire-boat was waiting for us four miles along the Forth & Clyde at the Falkirk Wheel. The words “strongly recommend you take the bus” spoken to us by the helpful visitor centre receptionist were somehow forgotten by the time we left the building.
Perhaps it was the glorious weather, or maybe the mythological power of the water kelpies that lured us along the towpath. Nonetheless, we, luggage in tow, continued on foot to the Falkirk Wheel.
The wide Forth & Clyde passes quietly past industrial units and slowly rises through Falkirk before the Wheel emerges around a final bend on the outskirts of the town. Exhausted, we plonked ourselves down in the café. On reflection, a walk between the Kelpies and Falkirk Wheel would be best tackled downhill, in the opposite direction to the way we headed. And without a suitcase.
Joining the Union
‘Florence’, a 62ft narrowboat and new arrival to the Black Prince hire-boat fleet, was to be our home for the weekend. We were briefed in great detail by the firm’s engineer, Kenny, who spent an hour explaining everything from the water pump to the weed hatch. He also gave us a few hints on planning our onward journey, advising on the best places to moor and, equally importantly, where to find good pubs.
Paperwork signed, we started the engine. My partner Chris took charge of the tiller and I headed to the bow in preparation for the first challenge: Golden Jubilee Lock. All locks on the Scottish canals are operated by lock-keepers – so no paddle-winding or gate-heaving to worry about. Instead, a crew member at each end of the boat is required to wrap a line around one of the poles located at intervals along the chamber to steady the craft as the water rises or falls.
In truth, our first lock experience and our entry onto the Falkirk Wheel (with Kenny there to guide us) was a blur. Once on it, however, and with a few minutes to breathe, we looked out over the beautiful Scottish Lowlands as the wheel slowly turned, taking us 115ft up to join the Union Canal.
Left to our own devices now, we exited the wheel straight into Roughcastle Tunnel. At less than 500ft long, it was over in a blink and we soon emerged to tackle the final two locks of our outward journey.
We slipped through Top Lock 1 with no problems but on entering Top Lock 2, I, standing rope in hand at the bow, was confronted by a heavy flow of water leaking through the gates ahead. The boat rammed unintentionally into the cill and I ended up getting my first shower of the holiday.
Seemingly amused by our inexperience, the lock-keepers were in no hurry to advise Chris that I was getting drenched and that he should reverse the boat. Sopping from the neck down, I reminded myself that these were the only locks on the Union Canal.
Bow duties over for the time being, I squelched out of my sodden shoes and started through the boat to join Chris at the tiller. Shattered glass glinting from the galley floor forced me to replace my soaking footwear – a broken wine glass and our dented pride were, thankfully, the only casualties of our canal holiday and those were over and done within the first few hours.
There was just one more structure to negotiate before we could begin to relax: Falkirk Tunnel. At over 2,000ft long it appeared a sinister prospect and we’d been warned that overhead leaks were likely – there was no point me changing into dry clothes yet!
Headlamp lit and horn beeped, we approached the entrance and soon realised that the structure, with its substantial lighting and towpath, was far from foreboding – in fact, it proved a really fun experience.
After emerging on the other side we took a moment to properly look around us. Up in the hills, you’re a world away from the modernity of the Wheel, with its clean lines and dramatic architecture. The narrow Union Canal snakes between farmland, with thick weeds desperately trying to reclaim the water from the boats.
After several miles the trees morphed into new builds and warehouses and we spotted a lone pontoon after Redding Bridge – our first stop. We drifted up to the pontoon and moored with some skill (i.e. neither of us fell in), trying out our best hitches.
With nothing but a single energy bar on board, convenience was paramount: a 24-hour supermarket in one direction and a recommended pub in the other meant this was an excellent place to overnight. Positioned opposite our mooring was a juvenile prison, but the huge concrete wall that separated us from the inmates looked substantial enough.
After a well-earned meal we waddled back to ‘Florence’ and were pleased to see the ropes had held tight. We locked ourselves in and, exhausted by the day’s events, let the calls from our neighbouring convicts lull us into a dreamless sleep.
On to Linlithgow
Peeking out of the curtain on waking confirmed we were still safely moored. The extra thick duvet was difficult to surrender, but the lure of the canal ahead was too much to risk the snooze alarm.
Our morning journey to Linlithgow was punctuated only by bridges, the Avon Aqueduct and a canalside bistro. The sun teased us for an hour but soon buried itself behind thick cloud, leaving us to shiver together at the tiller between regular doses of tea. A few quaint cottages indicated that we were nearing our destination, Manse Road Basin, where we chose an empty mooring and tied up.
A short walk took us onto the main road through Linlithgow, where we found a great selection of cafés, pubs and shops. We had a short, but necessary, diversion into an artisan chocolate shop before settling on a café for lunch.
With a mere 24 hours left to return to the Wheel for our booked slot, there wasn’t much opportunity to hang around and explore the town. An extended stay would have permitted a visit to Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, overlooking Linlithgow Loch.
We did, however, have time to take in Scotland’s only canal museum – at less than 15ft2 it didn’t take long. Located in Manse Road Basin, the museum is run by the Linlithgow Union Canal Society volunteers and houses a small selection of canal artefacts and pictures, which provide a brief, but fascinating insight into the country’s working waterways past.
Winding hole woes
Continuing our eastward journey in the early afternoon, we were soon studying the map for a suitable winding hole. At 62ft ‘Florence’ would be too long for most, but keen to get back to Linlithgow before sundown we naively picked one marked 55ft, remarking as we approached that it looked big enough.
The theory of turning a boat seems simple. However, our first attempt, in the blustery climes of the Lowlands and with no clear strategy, resulted in an argument nearing epic proportions. Realising that we weren’t getting anywhere with each other, or with turning the boat around, we continued – at opposite ends of the boat.
The next winding hole big enough for our boat was ten bridges away – plenty of time to make friends again over hot tea and biscuits. And with mossy, fern-strewn woodland surrounding us on both sides, it was one of the loveliest parts of our trip.
Just after Bells Mill Bridge we turned the boat with relative ease and began our return. It was on this jaunt back to Linlithgow that we passed the first moving boat of our entire journey. A scattering of moored craft had been spotted but we’d thus far had the route to ourselves.
Relaxing having conquered the winding hole, we continued onwards to Linlithgow and moored near Manse Road Basin. That evening we enjoyed an on board meal prepared in the boat’s small but well-equipped galley.
Back to Falkirk
We arose early on Sunday morning, stuffed some breakfast down our necks and prepared to top up our water tank. We had moored not far from a water point but on unravelling the hose found it was about 1ft too short.
While preparing to nudge ‘Florence’ along the bank, another hire-boat jumped to the front of the queue – with four competent crew aboard they were quick to move on. Feeling like amateurs, we muddled through re-mooring and filling up with water before heading off.
With the sun now making an appearance, by early afternoon we’d passed through the chilly Falkirk Tunnel and, with plenty of time until we needed to be at the lift, moored for an afternoon drink near Greenback Aqueduct. Sitting out on the well deck with blue skies overhead and mug of tea in hand, I couldn’t help but think that life doesn’t get much better.
After phoning ahead to confirm our passage through the Wheel, we steeled ourselves and unmoored. In complete contrast to our outward journey, negotiating the Top Locks on the way back was straightforward and dry. The lock keepers were chatty and genuinely helpful – although on day three at the helm, Chris was starting to master manoeuvres like a seasoned pro. As such, we sailed through the locks, Roughcastle Tunnel and into the Wheel without incident.
Reaching the bottom of the Wheel it was clear that the combination of glorious sunshine, narrowboats and the unique boat-lift is a real draw for local residents. We’d already had plenty of friendly waves and cheery hellos along our journey, for, although boats are few and far between on the Union Canal, walkers, cyclists and dog-owners make excellent use of the towpath.
This, however, was something else. We exited the wheel, sunglasses firmly in place to avoid eye contact with our audience, and made our way into the final lock of the weekend, feeling like our every move was being scrutinised.
Back on the Forth & Clyde Canal, a short hop to Lock 16 provided room to turn. Spotting a space at the end of the hire-base pontoon, we moored up and paused for 10 minutes to regain our composure. We spent our final evening dining at a restaurant just a few minutes away, on the other side of the canal.
On returning to the boat we bumped into the water point queue-jumpers from earlier that day. Chatting until the sun went down, it appeared they were, in fact, complete novices, who at several points during the weekend had got themselves stuck while attempting to turn and had a rather spectacular prang in front of a substantial audience.
Exchanging stories of our waterborne weekends made us realise that, however inept we thought we were, there are other hire-boaters who feel exactly the same way.
On handing the keys over to the Black Prince team on Monday morning, the boating part of our holiday was officially over. Back on land we instantly became gongoozlers, eagerly photographing the Wheel in action, but now more careful not to intimidate the boaters cruising through.
A lazy lunch and a walk up to Roughcastle Tunnel for a final chance to soak in the sun-drenched Lowlands concluded our long weekend in Scotland.
As first-time hirers, we were delighted with our slightly unusual choice of the Union Canal. The Falkirk Wheel and Falkirk Tunnel were truly exhilarating, while, beyond the town, the quiet, lock-free route proved the perfect waterway training ground, allowing us to relax and gain confidence at the tiller – something we might not have had the luxury of doing on the Shroppie or Llangollen canals.
Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to visit the towns en route and explore the entire canal as far as its Edinburgh terminus. But this is something we intend to rectify – we are already planning a return journey to Scotland with the intention of arriving at its capital by boat, and also taking the Forth & Clyde to Glasgow. Caledonia and its canals are definitely for us.