Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Canal Adventure

The Union Canal is a very picturesque place, preferred by walkers, joggers, and cyclists who would like some peace and quiet away from the traffic. Trotting along the path one can spot ducks and swans, and colourful boat houses, people fishing or rowing canoes. Captivated by the Canal’s splendour, my dear friend, flatmate, and avid jogger S. decided to get to the end of it. So she ran and ran, past the corner then the next one but the waterway stretched ahead seemingly without an end. Of course, it has an end, but much further than she managed to get to. The Union Canal flows from Edinburgh to Falkirk for 50 km (31mi) and one sunny Saturday B. and I decided to truly get to its end – the Falkirk Wheel.

Google Maps advised us that the distance should take 3 hours to cover by bike so we planned to visit the Origami Dragon Boat Race event that was organised at the Wheel. On the day we prepared food and drinks, a blanket, a bike repair kit, and a disposable film camera and set off for Falkirk. As the preparation had taken longer than anticipated (about 5 hours off schedule) we hoped we get at least the end of the show but in general we were in for the adventure so it didn’t matter. The spirits were high, the sun blazing and we were soon on the road.

The first leg of the journey was all about getting out of the city. Cyclists and pedestrians have to share tight space on the path which significantly slows the process. Once you pass the highway though, there are fewer people and you can step on those pedals… until the smooth asphalt surface suddenly becomes gravel and road metal, which was an utter pain in the butt (literally). As our bikes do not have shock absorbers our hands and wrists cushioned the vibrations and while it was tolerable, our gentle parts were out of luck.

Still in the early stages of the quake, we reached the first village on the canal – Ratho. It welcomed us with a little bench with a plate advising that we have travelled for 7 mi and had another 25 to go. A big iron plate displayed a scene from the Canal’s past – a horse drawn barge carrying stone for the capital. We contemplated the idea of sitting by the water and grabbing a bite but there was still a long way to our final destination so we decided against it.

The journey by the Canal was spectacular. We rode past vast green fields where cows and horses grazed peacefully. We’d often hear and see the cross country train speed in the distance hiding behind hills brimmed with tiny houses. When we covered a third of the distance we finally gave in and looked for a place to rest. Contrary to our expectations, we couldn’t just get off the road and hop to the nearest lawn as they were fenced and trenched. Luckily, we found a dirt road, which led to a farm and whose bridge we could use for our picnic. From this spot we had a perfect view to all landing planes at Edinburgh airport, which sometimes came only 2 minutes apart.

There were many peculiar things along the road. We passed herds of Scottish long-fringed ginger cows and the Linlithgow Palace. A huge red-sanded hill where nothing grew, a round tower in the middle of an abandoned field with a tree on top of it, boys looking for a catch in the unbelievably dirty still waters of the Canal.

Ginger cows and Linlithgow Palace
After a while the journey grew more and more tiring. The coarse road took its toll and I needed to rest more often. The open scenic fields by our side gave way to overhanging trees, which hid the sun and turned the path into a muddy furrow. As it was beginning to set, the water turned into a golden mirror reflecting the arched bridges above it and the greenery along. Although pretty, this sight brought some worry. We had already missed the dragon origami and there were a couple of kilometres left before we could reach Falkirk. We did not want to miss the last train to Edinburgh and going back the same way we came was out of the question.

While this thought was disheartening, something a lot worse was ahead of us. Pedalling along, a huge sign on the other side of the Canal came to my attention advising of a 630 meter (0.4 mi) long tunnel ahead. Completely unaware of the existing of such monstrous obstacle, we reached the entrance to the pitch black looming tunnel. There was no way around or above it, the only thing to do was go forward. We dismounted our bikes and stepped ahead. There were a couple of lamps inside, which lit their immediate surroundings but beyond that it was blindingly dark. And the lamps did not do any good really as they revealed the cavernous ceiling of the tunnel, which reflected in the still black water creating the illusion of an endless foul mouth ready to swallow you. The floor was slippery and nearly at the same level as the water. There was a slim railing on or left but I didn’t imagine it would be of any use had one of us slipped. B did not seem at all concerned with the tunnel while I couldn’t wait to get to the end of it. Things got worse when we reached a part where the ceiling had a hole in it and water was pouring down from it. These were some really long 630 meters!

After the horrifying experience we sat on a bench by the Falkirk road sign and had a beer. It was getting darker and the Falkirk Wheel was another 2 kilometres ahead. But we suck it up and went forward. And it was totally worth it.

Before we reach the wheel we passed another tiny, well lit, and well-built tunnel, which took us to a breath-taking sight – the end of the Union Canal bathed in the light from the setting sun. It was past working hours so we couldn’t see the wheel in motion but its structure was impressive. Instead, we took the blanket out and watched the sunset while the Highland midges were dining on us. After the spectacle was over, it was time for us to catch the last train.

It was a rather nasty surprise when we found out that the pleasant little tunnel had just been locked and we could not go back along the Canal. Instead we had to find our way through the city. Of course, at the most convenient of moments my chain detached, which wasted more of our precious time. While cycling by the Canal we did not struggle with road inclines but we had no luck in the city. I felt completely drained by the time we reached the station but we didn’t have any time to spare. Just as the machine spewed our tickets, the train arrived on the platform and with one final sprint we were on board on the way home.

As exhausting as the adventure was, I can’t wait to see what awaits us between Falkirk and Glasgow on the Clyde Canal. 


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