Daily Telegraph - August 04


Barging back into fashion

 

Juliet Clough and party explored the Forth & Clyde and Union canals with Black Prince Holidays

Where are you going, missus?" A Good question. At the moment we seem to be drifting aimlessly towards a canal bank somewhere near Castlecary, the tiller and rudder of the narrowboat Rhona having mysteriously parted company.
    Central Scotland is relatively new to towpath life. Thanks to the £84.5 million spent since 1999 on the Millennium Link Project and the Falkirk Wheel, the long- disused Forth & Clyde and Union canals reopened in 2002 to link Edinburgh to Glasgow by water for the first time in more than 70 years.
    With 18 pleasure boats more than tripling last year's capacity for tourist hire, this is the first season that the new waterway has seen anything approaching serious holiday traffic; every lock gate and mooring point has its quota of curious onlookers. Tell a passing child near Falkirk that you are heading for either of Scotland's major cities and his mouth still drops open.
    We throw a rope to an obliging couple of women who veer off from their charity run to moor us to the bank. Now what? Enter, like the Good Fairy, British Waterways operative Garry dark, en route to open the next set of locks. He tells us we "must have tipped a sill", then wades chest-deep into the gaspingly cold water to wrestle the recalcitrant spigot into its bearing and set us on our way.
    "We" are my husband John and I, plus two old friends - one of them, Charlie, an oarsman as well as an engineer with 40 years' experience with Rolls Royce. Thanks to him I can toss  ' terms like "spigot" and "bearing" around with reasonable confidence.
    Opened in 1790 and Scotland's  ' oldest canal, the 37-mile Forth & Clyde stretches ffrom the Firth & Forth near Falkirk through Glasgow to Bowling on the Clyde coast. The canal follows the line of the Antonine Wall deep into the country's post-industrial heartland. All aboard the Rhona appreciate the sinewy arterial nature of this route, since prehistoric times Scotland's most intensively settled super-highway.
    As well as Roman earthworks and an Iron Age fort above Croy, humps and bumps define defunct collieries, quarries and lime kilns. There are lines of pylons against the hills, the sound of distant trains; today, miles of fibre-optic cables burrow invisibly under the towpaths.
    Hardly an idyll then - and there's a fair amount of litter - but pretty as well as gritty, with attractive stretches of open country. Whirring up and touching splashily down, a trio of swans escorts us for about a mile towards Auchinstarry; violets and primroses hide under the alders that line the banks, ducklings scurry, swans nest in the reeds.
    Beyond, the Ochils and the Highland line form hazy ramparts across the horizon. We celebrate our first night afloat in style, pushing the boat out with seafood dressed to kill and a bottle of Montrachet.
    at award-winning Glenskirlie House.
    With only four nights to spare we've decided to take our time sampling a central stretch of both canals. Which soon returns us to the splendiferous Falkirk Wheel. Charlie's eyes brighten as Scotland's hottest feat of 21st-century engineering heaves into view, its revolving gondolas raising and lowering boats 115ft in two giant caissons.
    Initially hoping for 250,009 visits a year, its operators now estimate 400,000 plus as tourists from all over the world queue for the 50-minute boat trip that takes them up through the Wheel, along a new aqueduct and into a tunnel under the Roman Wall.
    Shepherded safely through, we set off on the 32-mile Union Canal towards Edinburgh. Scotland's youngest and only surviving contour canal, the so-called Mathematical River, may lack locks but is to prove uppity none the less. Matronly Rhona breaks down, choked by weeds in the dripping, 700ft-long Falkirk Tunnel.  

Next day, a resounding crack, as the bowman fends off an awkward turn, brings me flying through the cabin, expecting to find my nearest and dearest skewered by the broken pole. Somehow we get the mooring line snarled round the propeller. Somehow, we manage to drop a bicycle overboard. Sometimes silence is the only dignified response.
    Expunging these regrettable incidents from the log book - along with the sight of the razor-wired wall of Polmont Young Offenders' Institution - leaves much to remember with pleasure. Crossing Thomas Telford's Avon Aqueduct, we loop 85ft high above the serene Avon Valley.
    Having rescued the half-drowned bike, we cycle between green fields for a view of the Forth Bridges. And we spend a perfect morning exploring Linlithgow and the Renaissance palace, where Mary Queen of Scots was born.
     Beautifully restored stonework, Roman lettering on bridges and carefully copied Georgian boat hooks in the locks are the fine-tuning on a project that has involved freeing the canal system of 32 major obstructions, including a motorway, and repairing some 500 structures along its 68-mile length. New developments include a marina at Auchinstarry, due to open by the end of the year, and the first stage of a commercial complex at Edin- burgh Quay, opening later this month.
     Planned as a long green leisure park, lifeline for some of the most depressed wards in Central Scotland, the canal banks are already doing their bit.
    The towpaths, brisk with dog walker; cyclists and joggers, receive an estimated 11 million visits per year. New housing in tough city outskirts makes a feature of the waterfront while schemes for getting city children afloat are going a good way towards discouraging the occasional boat-bricking incident: "No worse than Birmingham," says British Waterways.
    Ronnie Rusack, proprietor of the Bridge Inn. in Ratho, is walking evidence of the canals' regenerative effect. Having taken over a lawless, quarry-village pub on a derelict stretch of canal south-west of Edinburgh, he launched his first boat in 1974. Thirty years later, with countless awards under his inn's belt (including Booker, Egon Ronay and numerous child- friendly accolades), Rusack has transformed his own stretch of water; gone are the dumpers of old tyres, replaced by thriving wildlife, wedding guests, children on Santa cruises and collectors of old fire engines.
    Meanwhile, The Seagull Trust, which Rusack co-founded in 1979, means that more than 1,200 disabled people cruise the Scottish system each year. His latest venture is a fully crewed voyage across Scotland, with nights spent in a series of hotels, for cruisers who don't fancy self- propulsion.
    Scotland's Lowland canals owe their survival to decades of dogged lobbying. At the canal museum in Linlithgow basin, Linlithgow Union Canal Society stalwart Colin Galloway tells me: "When people ask how far you can go in each direction, I say, 'How about New York, or Copenhagen?' The canals have already come a great way.