Taking a narrowboat holiday on the Union Canal

If you’re thinking about trying a narrow boat holiday on one of the country’s canals I would strongly suggest you start on the Union Canal in Scotland taking the Falkirk to Edinburgh route.

The Falkirk WheelMy reasons for this are simple, The Union Canal is a contour canal and has no locks that have to be opened by yourself. British Waterways staff operates all of the locks that access the Falkirk Wheel above and below and are extremely helpful and professional.

The Falkirk Wheel is a stunning piece of machinery when you watch it operating, but to actually be on the gondola as you access the canal is something you will never ever forget. The view from the top is exceptional as the whole of southern Scotland opens up before you.

There’s also another wonderful piece of engineering you have to negotiate namely the Falkirk tunnel some 673 metres long and when it was built it was not lined, so it has interesting stalactites and waterfalls. If you’re at the helm you’ll need a waterproof for the first few yards but again what an amazing experience.

We went with ABC Boat Hire and were thoroughly impressed by the service. We were met by Davie who explained all that the four of us needed to know about the boat from gas bottles to steering and how to top up with water along the way as well as early morning checks. 

You are sent beforehand a canal cruising guide which explains all about the aqueducts (great views again) and tunnels on the canal plus we were given a Skippers Guide which includes a canal map which we found incredibly helpful as we knew exactly where we were at any given time as all the bridges you pass under are numbered. You can download this beforehand from the Scottish Canals website.

Secret BasinThis excellent guide also gives information on pubs, shops and restaurants near the canal and rules of the canal when meeting other boats. You also get an onboard in-flight guide/handbook which tells you everything you could want to know about the boat and your trip.

The canal was built to follow a seventy-three-metre contour along its thirty-two-mile length and winds through beautiful lowlands’ scenery before leading directly into the heart of Edinburgh. It should take you about four days to get to Edinburgh, but this is your holiday, and you can take it as slowly or as quickly as you like. You don’t even have to go all the way as there are turning places before many of the bridges where you can turn the boat around and start making your way back.

The beauty of this holiday is you take it as you want, so we chugged on from Falkirk until we came to ‘The Secret Basin’ and berthed there overnight. It has a very narrow entrance, and we had to do a fair bit of manoeuvring with me in the bow using the barge pole to push us off to get in, but we were so chuffed as we berthed up.

Canal curry night!So our first night was spent in the basin with a hot meal, dominoes and a wee dram or two, the boat has a TV at each end, a DVD player and a pack of cards, but other games are a good idea to bring with you.

Getting out in the morning was a bit more convoluted, again with me using the pole with the resident houseboat owners watching us carefully, so we didn’t crash into them, but soon we were on our way cruising eastwards.

Around about 11 the ancient town of Linlithgow appeared on our left with its amazing crown of thorns church spire and spectacular palace of the Kings of Scotland. We were getting good at mooring now, so we locked the boat up and spent a couple of hours exploring.

Falkirk tunnelCruising on we spent an enjoyable time chatting and waving to people of all ages on the towpath, others tending their allotments joined in and sharing experiences with passing boats. It doesn’t pay to get complacent and stop concentrating for a moment, however, and once or twice we found ourselves bumping into the canal banks or bridges.

Wildlife in the form of swans and other water birds followed us and in places the banks are lined with a riot of colour. Yellow flag iris, purple orchids, red and white dog rose and many other species all shining brightly in the sunlight.

A couple of hours brought us to bridge No 32 at Winchburgh where the guide told us there were a pub and a takeaway. Both the moorings were empty, so we went up to Bridge 33 with its 21-metre wide turning space and after what seemed  a 47 point turn with yours truly again using the pole to help we started travelling back towards Falkirk.

KelpiesAn hour later found us sitting in the Tally Ho pub, about a ten-minute walk from the mooring. A couple of pints later on returning to the moorings we found we had company as ‘Florence’ had moored alongside us.

You’ll find mooring spots along the canal, one of the most useful is at Bridge 55 which is only a two-minute walk from Tesco where we stocked up on essentials and spent our last night.

Talking of essentials, if you’re taking wine onboard take boxes rather than bottles, they’re easier to store and don’t break. The waste bins in Tesco also came in handy before we returned to Falkirk Marina to hand the boat back.

If there’s one thing I remember about this journey, it’s the reflections in the water. In places the canal becomes completely enveloped by woodland when the reflections of the trees and bridges in the still water are simply beautiful, and you can’t resist taking pictures.

ReflectionTo get the full experience, you also need to do two things after you handed the boat back.  

Do have a look at Segway Tours who provide exciting off-road guided tours to the top of the Falkirk Wheel and beyond.

Their guides take you through the basic manoeuvres and steer you through winding woodland paths and off-road tracks to discover breathtaking views and historic scenery, including the remains of the Roman fort above the wheel.

Also,you simply must go and visit The Kelpies, two  30-metre high horse-head sculptures, standing next to a new extension to the Forth and Clyde Canal. The Kelpies are the largest equine sculptures in the world and are a monument to horse powered heritage across Scotland.

If you thought the Falkirk wheel was something else, wait until you stand under these two beauties. Mind you they’ve inspired me to go back and may get another narrow boat holiday and cruise in between them!

Silver Travel Advisor recommends ABC Boat Hire

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Steve Newman

Eco Adventure Cruising writer & photographer

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