IN Britain Feb/March, 2006


Back and Forth
The spectacular Millennium Link has injected new life into Scotland's lowland canals. Join David Foster for a return trip from Falkirk to the heart of Edinburgh.

Britain shows it can still produce great engineering works: the new Falkirk Wheel, opened by the Queen in 2002, joins two Scottish canals back together and restores the waterways link between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

 

Beyond Port Maxwell, the Union Canal rejoins its original 19th-century line. A couple of canoes are paddling around near the Seagull Trust's efficient modern boathouse as we slip quietly along the leafy waterway and plunge into the depths of Falkirk Tunnel. It's cold in here, with water streaming down the bare rock walls. The steady chug of the engine echoes around us as we admire the striking ochre, cream and rich grey tones of the rock strata glistening in the lamp light. After ten minutes underground, we emerge into a wooded cutting beneath the Laughin' and Greetin' bridge.
With a crew of friends, I'd settled into the Black Prince narrowboat Fiona the previous afternoon, to start a waterways holiday on the newly restored Union Canal in Scotland's lowlands.

 The Union Canal first opened in 1822, built to link Edinburgh with the Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk and to give a much- needed through-route between Scotland's two major cities. This remarkable feat of engineering, with three major aqueducts and a 2,070-fr tunnel, sadly came too late and the railways started to take away passenger and freight business. The canal went into decline and was formally closed in 1965. By the 1990s, however, visions of restoring the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals became a reality and the Millennium Link project got underway. Scotland's two major cities would be linked by water once again.    
Hamish Leal, manager of the Black Prince boatyard on the outskirts of Falkirk, had welcomed us aboard the 58-foot centrally heated boat and shown us around Fiona's comfortable cabins. Now, after an early Sunday breakfast of bacon butties and hot tea, we were following a sinuous route along the 240-foot contour that earned the Union Canal its nickname of 'the mathematical river'. Just a couple of hours earlier, Fiona had nuzzled her way through the gates of the world's only rotating boat lift - and, with 300 tonnes of water and steel suspended above our heads, I'd been hoping that the modem engineers had got their own sums right.

The Falkirk Wheel is one of the main reasons to have a canal holiday in this area and is now a tourist attraction in its own right, with visitor centre and boat rides so everyone can experience this extraordinary ride. There's barely a sound as the Wheel's massive steel arms begin to turn and, imperceptibly, everything around us starts to mutate. The sloping glass windows of the visitor centre slip sideways at first, then drop away as we're lifted clear of the basin and a wide panorama opens up all around. Even Fiona herself seems to tilt sideways as we soar in a huge arc, with glimpses of the descending boats away to our left.     With the wheel behind us, we pushed on through open countryside, munching our lunchtime sandwiches on the deck and gazing northwards to the distant Ochil Hills. But the chill of early spring was slowly taking hold and, by teatime, we were grateful for the warmth of the cheerful stove in Linlithgow Canal Centre's waterside cafe.     The centre's volunteers are passionate about the canal and, over tea, Nuala Lonie told us about the charming Victorian-style launch moored outside. The late Derrick Hughes built Victoria at Braunston in 1972 and the Canal Society brought her to Linlithgow just six years later to run weekend pleasure trips during the summer. "Derrick came up here to see her once," Nuala recalls. "But here's a funny thing: the day that he died, Victorias propeller fell off!"     Early next morning we motored on in lovely bright spring sunshine, past the gaunt outline of Niddry Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots sheltered before the fateful battle of Langside in 1568. Then, beyond the soaring Almond Aqueduct, we kept a lunchtime appointment at Ratho.  

Ronnie Rusack took over the Bridge Inn in 1971 and he's been at Ratho ever since. "In those days the canal was just a dump," he told us over a good roast lunch. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Ronnie soon began to wonder if using the canal might be the best way to get it cleaned up.     Thursday dawned and I took over the helm just west of the Almond Aqueduct, under rainy skies. After a lunchtime stop at Port Buchan, we set off again in beautiful warm sunshine. For the next few miles, the canal winds through a landscape of rose-coloured shale 'bings'. These ageing spoil heaps are the legacy of an enterprising Victorian chemist, James Young, who developed a way of extracting paraffin from the local shales. "Looks mighty like Ayers Rock to me," said my wife in her best Aussie accent as Fiona chugged past the bings, rain-washed and gleaming in the afternoon sunshine.     We caught up with Mary, Queen of Scots once again at Linlithgow's 15th-century Palace. Dramatically sited overlooking the loch, this was Mary's birthplace in 1542. Now, the spectacular ruins huddle around a richly carved central fountain and we explored the spiral staircases that lead up into a labyrinth of passages set deep within the palace walls.     Later, our Royal progress continued beside the open fire in the dining room of the Four Marys; the pub was named after the ill-fated Queen's ladies-in-waiting who, bizarrely. all shared the name Mary Stone walls rise to the beamed ceiling and rich tapestries give the building a traditional Scottish atmosphere. We sampled local fayre like Cullen Skink - a thick, creamy soup made from tasty smoked haddock and mashed potatoes.     The following morning, we crossed the ' Avon aqueduct, slipped through the Falkirk tunnel and tied up within a stone's throw of the Falkirk Wheel. There was one last treat in store. In the depths of Rough Castle Tunnel, our outward journey had taken us beneath the Roman Empire's most northerly frontier: the earthen banks and ramparts of the Antonine Wall. This time we wanted to explore the Emperor's forbidding banks and ditches: a gravel path led us out across the heath to the site of Rough Castle Roman fort. Back at the boat, we motored on through the tunnel in the wake of a fellow Black Prince boat then out onto the Wheel, with fine views to the snow-capped hills north ofAUoa. Half an hour later, Fionas/as back on her mooring. The wheel had come full circle.

SIX TOP WATERWAY WONDERS
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct towers 126 feet above the River Dee nearWrexham. Built by Thomas Telford in 1805, the 1,007-ft long structure remains the longest and highest navigable cast iron
aqueduct in the world.
Bingley Five-Rise locks near Bradford, built in 1774, the lift the Leeds and Liverpool Canal up a breathtaking 60-feet 'staircase'. Each of the five lock chambers opens directlyinto the next - an unusual layout that demands plenty of concentration from boat crews.
Standedge Tunnel is the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in Britain. Some three miles long, the 19th-century tunnel carried the Huddersfield Narrow Canal under the Pennines between Huddersfield and Ashton-under-Lyne. It reopened in 2001 followinga£32m restoration project.
The Caen Hill lock flight, just west of Devizes on the Kennet& Avon Canal, is probably the most impressive sight of its kind on Britain's waterways. Engineered by John Rennie in 1810, the fully restored canal reopened in 2003.
The Barton Swing Aqueduct designed by Sir Edward Leader Williams in the late 19th century, carries the Bridgewater Canal across the Manchester Ship Canal. The 234-ft long steel aqueduct is sealed by gates at each end and swings open while carrying its 800-ton load of water.

The Anderton Boat Lift (below), near Northwich in Cheshire, reopened in 2002 aftera£7m restoration. Built in 1875 to raise cargo boats 50 feet from the River Weaver to the Trent & Mersey Canal, Edwin Clark's design pioneered a revolutionary system of hydraulic operation.