Today was a long day's walk, especially after yesterday's marathon; then again, I've got an even longer day tomorrow, so I'd better just ignore the painful blister on the bottom of my right heel and concentrate on the good bits.
Today there were three highlights that shone out from the endless miles of silently weaving canal, all of them impressive feats of engineering that held me enthralled. Apart from these three sparks of genius today's walk was by and large a repeat performance of yesterday, with the first half continuing along the Union Canal and the second half along the Forth and Clyde Canal.
This latter canal is an equally uninhabited zone that differs from the Union only in that it has 40 locks along its 35-mile length, but it's still an inoffensively boring canal to stroll along, with no pubs, no boats and no pulse. Indeed, the most exciting thing about walking along both canals is the need to keep a lookout for dog shit, which is generously placed at regular intervals to keep both walkers and cyclists on their toes; faeces aside, the Union and the Forth and Clyde aren't yet worth more than a slightly raised eyebrow.
But the three highlights shine out brightly, and with good reason. The first one is impossible to appreciate fully from the towpath, but with a little imagination it's hard not to be impressed with the aqueduct that crosses the River Avon. It's the second largest aqueduct in the UK, the winner being a Thomas Telford construction in Wales, and its 12 arches stretch for 273m over Muiravonside Country Park, providing a pleasant if unspectacular view from the top.
From the imposing heights of the aqueduct, the canal meanders about for a few miles before plunging into the second highlight, a huge tunnel that bores straight through a hill at the end of the Callendar House estate. Apparently the owner of Callendar House refused to allow the canal to be visible from his estate, so the builders had to drill for one-third of a mile through solid rock, creating a long, straight tunnel that's an eerie experience on foot. The towpath might be hemmed in by a sturdy metal banister, but even with this protection it's a slippery and unnerving journey that feels more like potholing than walking.
Lights shine on the tunnel ceiling at regular intervals and the glow at each end is enough to prevent claustrophobia, but I wasn't expecting to see so much water pouring down from above. Rust-coloured stalactites hang down from the roof halfway along the tunnel, and it's little wonder that they do, because water seeps through the brickwork, dripping down the necks of unwary walkers and forming slippery pools of mud on the walkway. Towards the northern end of the tunnel is a hole two inches across that pours water into the canal like a hose pipe on full power; it's accompanied by the dull throb of an engine, so it's quite possible that this hole drains whatever it is that feeds the seepage, but it's a big relief to reach the other side without getting washed into the pitch black canal beside you.
The Appliance of Science
The third and best highlight is saved until last, assuming you're walking the Millennium Link from east to west. Just beyond the tunnel lies Falkirk, whose introduction to the Link is a housing estate called Hallglen that makes what follows only more surreal. Hallglen is a collection of pebbledash houses that sits alone, cut off from Falkirk by Callendar Wood, and the view of it from the canal is incredible, not because of what you see, but because of what you don't see. Row after row of bland housing sits sandwiched between the wood and a field containing black and white cows, and it looks like a watercolour that's missing most of its colours. The wood is green, just as it should be, and the cows in the field are black and white, just as they should be, but the houses are a washed-out, dull grey that makes them look as if they're made of newsprint papier maché. It's awful; it's everything that is wrong with modern architecture, crammed into one poor, sodden housing estate.
But walk along the canal for three miles, passing the large conurbation of Falkirk on your right, and you come to the most amazing antidote to Hallglen. The Union Canal sticks to the 73m contour right to the very end, but it then meets the Forth and Clyde Canal, which at this point flows along at 39m above sea level. In the grand old days of these canals, 11 locks joined the two together, dropping canal boats down through 34m in a slow, plodding manner. These locks disappeared as Falkirk grew and the canals mouldered under piles of rubbish (the Forth and Clyde opened in 1790, but fell into disrepair after being closed in 1963). However the millennium regeneration of this area meant a new system had to be built to link the two canals again, and instead of rebuilding the 11 original locks, modern engineering came up with an inspired solution. That solution is the Falkirk Wheel.
It's hard to describe, but basically the Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift that carries one boat up at the same time as it carries another boat down. Imagine a big wheel at a fair and remove all the seats except two, at opposite ends of the wheel. Now imagine that these seats are full of water and that the wheel is initially set so that one watery seat is right at the top and the other is right at the bottom. Now, as the wheel turns through 180°, one boat rises up from the bottom to the top and the other drops from the top to the bottom. That, basically, is how the Wheel works.
But the Falkirk Wheel is a damn sight more impressive than this description makes it sound. For a start, the seats have to be wide enough to fit a boat in lengthways, so take our big wheel above and stretch it so the seats turn into long, thin gondolas full of water. Next, strip off all the extraneous rubbish, because the Wheel isn't so much a wheel as a groovy, S-shaped thing of beauty, and this means removing most of the spokes and rim of our original big wheel. Finally, the Union Canal doesn't drop off a cliff into the handily waiting Wheel; instead it gets fed along a space-age aqueduct into the top of the Wheel, itself a sexy-looking piece of ultra-modern design that manages to make the canal look like a futuristic monorail.
If you still can't work out what I'm on about, forget about the way it looks and consider the design. You'd think that it would take an awful lot of power to raise and drop two boats and two huge tanks of water; after all, the combined weight of the boats and water is 600 tonnes, or about the same as 100 African elephants, according to the informative leaflet I picked up from the visitor centre. But get this: one half rotation of the Wheel uses up just 7kW of power, which might sound like a lot until you realise that's the same as eight toasters. And how does it do it? Apparently it's all down to Archimedes.
The physics goes like this. Each gondola contains a boat and a load of water, but whatever the weight of the boat in each gondola, the designers have made sure that the total weight of boat and water in each gondola is identical; this then makes the Wheel easy to turn because it's always perfectly balanced, and perfectly balanced wheels are much easier to turn that unbalanced ones.
So the amount of water in each gondola varies depending on the weight of the boat it's carrying, but this isn't achieved through clever computer systems, it's achieved through the simple fact that floating objects displace the same amount of water as their weight. This is what made Archimedes jump out of the bath and run down the street shouting 'Eureka!', and it means that if you take a bucket that's full to the brim and put a floating object in there, then the amount of water that spills out is equal to the weight of that object. This also means that the bucket will always weigh the same, whatever the weight of the floating object that's added, and this is how the Wheel designers ensure that each of the Wheel's gondolas always weighs exactly the same amount.
This is really clever thinking, but whatever the theory behind the Wheel, it's great to watch. It's slow, smooth, seamless and totally effective, and even if you ignore the function, the form is stunning. If only the Wheel designers had been asked to design Falkirk's outer suburbs, life would look a whole lot rosier for everyone.
The canal miles plodded by and eventually I turned north for Kilsyth, my weary destination for the day and home to yet another surprise. But before I tell you what I think about Kilsyth, it's only fair that I try to pick out the positive side of this little town, because everywhere has its good points and being balanced in one's criticism is a laudable journalistic value. Ready? Here goes.
My bed and breakfast in Kilsyth was superb. Tucked out on the northern edge of town, Allanfauld Farm had a wonderfully warm welcome, a luxurious bath, a soft double bed, great decor and an atmosphere that was as good as any B&B I've visited on my trip. I loved it and I'd recommend it to anyone. Similarly, Kilsyth has a lovely old part of town that's clustered round a well-crafted park, with a couple of little streams babbling past the houses with their manicured gardens and pretty architecture. And on the northern edge of town, just before you get to Allanfauld, the houses are large, discreetly hidden behind hedges and trees, and are very pleasant places indeed. Kilsyth has much going for it.
But I can only assume that back in the 1960s one of the big cheeses on the council estate planning committee had just gone through a nasty divorce and his wife had taken the kids, sold the house and moved in with her parents in Kilsyth. Nothing else can explain why this idyllic little village centre is surrounded by the ugliest, most insensitive developmental insult that you're ever likely to see. Beyond the borders of the old part of Kilsyth are streets and streets of pebbledash houses that are well past their sell-by date, their grey ugliness seemingly washing off in the rain and forming rivulets of mould down the sides of the buildings. The high street is full of boarded-up shops, the only survivors being a mediocre supermarket, a Post Office, the odd hair salon, a couple of bakers, and a tattoo and piercing emporium; I wandered into town at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, expecting the high street to be buzzing with happy locals, but those shops that hadn't yet gone out of business were firmly shut and locked up behind impressive steel cages, and the only signs of life shuffled past with the sallow, disaffected complexions of those who do little but worship at the altar of PlayStation.
People couldn't believe what they saw when I wandered into town. They didn't smile, they just stared; despite being within a stone's throw of the new Millennium Link, the locals were evidently quite unnerved by the sight of a long-distance walker in their midst. I felt totally alien; I also felt completely unwelcome.
Even the pubs were disastrous. I ordered a pint at the Scarecrow just as the jukebox kicked in with 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart', and when I asked if they were doing food, I could hardly hear the bar girl's reply above the impromptu karaoke that the group at the end of the bar decided to inflict on the otherwise empty pub. 'Sorry, kitchen's closed,' she repeated, so I collected my pint and drank it swiftly in the corner. The second pub looked even worse – I didn't even bother to go inside, because it looked like a motorway café but without the character – and instead I resorted to buying fish and chips off the sullen girls in the local fish bar and sat in the old part of town, trying to pretend that the concrete disaster beyond the park gates didn't really exist.
Still, my B&B was great. I did mention that, didn't I?