Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Central Lowlands (SNT1) - 15th to 17th May 2016

Union Canal 

After descending from the Cauldstane Slap and leaving the hills behind, I walked for around a mile on a fast but fairly quiet road before leaving it for a country lane heading for the Union Canal. Reaching Almondell Country Park, I drew glances from strolling families - this was not hiking country - and after more road walking, finally reached the Union Canal, where a sign advised me that Linlithgow was ten miles away. The canal was opened in 1822 to carry minerals, particularly coal, to Edinburgh, and is unusual in that it follows the 240ft contour and therefore has no locks. It was re-opened in 2001 for leisure purposes and reconnected to the Forth and Clyde canal in 2002 by the Falkirk Wheel, which I would be passing later in the walk. At first, the ease of the canal towpath seemed like a luxury but I soon came to find that walking on a flat hard surface and the repetitive nature of both the walking and the scenery became very wearing and I was glad when I eventually arrived in Linlithgow after twenty five miles of walking. I had a moments confusion when I arrived at the room I had booked as I couldn't work out how to access the building, which had an electronic pass-key entry system and every time I rang the booking number, I got a helpline for a well known supermarket chain. 

Approaching the Falkirk Tunnel

 Eventually I resolved the problem and was met at the door by a very helpful and friendly receptionist who gave me a tour of my very luxurious apartment. I had booked it as a last resort as the campsite in Linlithgow sounded less than appealing being situated at the side of a major motorway. I had scoured the internet for a guesthouse but could find no vacancies and in desperation had finally booked the apartment I now found myself being shown around. It was far more expensive than I would normally pay but while I was being given the tour of the apartment, began to feel that at least I was getting value for money. Soon, I was enjoying a hot shower in the luxurious walk-in shower in a bathroom that boasted underfloor heating as I washed away the weariness of a long, tiring day. Later, feeling too tired to search out anywhere to eat, I bought a takeaway and some wine and sat watching the 52 inch flat-screen TV and contacted my wife using the super-fast broadband connection.

Linlithgow Loch & Palace

The following morning, I left Linlithgow after a short walk around the loch in the grounds of Linlithgow Palace before heading off to the Union Canal once more. After a ten mile stretch of towpath the previous day, I was not looking forward to more of the same and today's route was all towpath, 20 miles of it! The monotony and pain of walking along the flat path, much of it hard on hard surfaces, became very tiring, and before too long my feet were aching. Even the highlights such as the Avon Aqueduct, Falkirk Tunnel and the amazing Falkirk Wheel didn't relieve the boredom for long. The Avon Aquaduct, that carried me high above the River Avon is the longest and tallest in Scotland and second in length only to the Pontcysyllte Aquaduct in Wales. Further along, I entered the six hundred metre long Falkirk Tunnel, which is the longest in Scotland and a short distance later, descended to the Falkirk Wheel. Here, I stopped for a break and found a picnic table, hoping that the wheel would at some point perform it's function to enable me to see a boat carried up or down between the canals. 

Forth & Clyde Canal

The wheel is a spectacular feat of engineering in which two diametrically opposed water-filled caissons, each with a capacity of 250,000 litres are fitted on the ends of the arms. The caissons or gondolas always carry a combined weight of 500 tonnes of water and care is taken to maintain the water levels on each side, thus balancing the weight on each arm. According to Archimedes principle, floating objects displace their own weight in water, so when the boat enters, the amount of water leaving the caisson weighs exactly the same as the boat. When the arm rotates, it lifts or lowers the boat between the two canals. I sat for around half and hour but although the arm did rotate at one point, it wasn't carrying a boat and by this time, I had become quite cold sitting in the wind on what was a fairly overcast day so I continued with my walk feeling slightly disappointed. The last couple of miles had me desperately waiting for the end, where I knew I had a walk along a busy road for around a mile to my hotel in Kilsyth. After a long, tedious and tiring day, I eventually arrived at the hotel and after finally getting through to a slightly dim waitress who struggled to understand that I was booked into the hotel for the night, spent a long time standing under the hot water in the shower. Certainly not my favourite days walking!

The Falkirk Wheel

Entering the Falkirk Tunnel
The following day, I left Kilsyth on what was to be my last day on the canals and how I looked forward to the end! The day began with cloud but was dry and not unpleasant. I soon fell into the routine of plodding along the hard tarmac pathway, trying to remain upbeat about the virtually unchanging scenery. I was stopped by a man coming from the other direction who pointed out a heron on the far bank a couple of hundred yards ahead. He seemed very excited by the bird and stopped everyone passing by and pointed it out to them. I didn't really have the heart to tell him I had seen a number of them during my walk. I carried on, plodding toward Kirkintilloch, which would signal the impending end to my canal odyssey when a runner coming towards me stopped me and started a conversation. I was momentarily confused as, although I understood his words, they were jumbled and not making any sense. I could see the man was getting frustrated and I tried to help him, and although I got the gist of some of what he was saying, we both resigned ourselves to the fact that we were not communicating very well. I realised then that the man was probably suffering from the early stages of dementia and I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. He thanked me profusely for speaking with him before giving me the 'thumbs up' and running off. A short distance further on, my GPS unit signaled it was time to finally leave the towpath and I soon found myself on a busy road. A short time later, this was left for quiet country lanes which I followed all of the way into Milngavie. I was pleased and surprised to find my wife at the railway station as I wasn't expecting her for at least another hour. We made our way to our hotel where we were soon checked in and  eating  lunch in the restaurant.

Kelpie at the Falkirk Wheel

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