The Falkirk Wheel

The Big Wheel keeps on turning

Well, this is certainly big and what a wheel!, well, not quite a wheel, the shape is that of a double headed Celtic axe or a vast ship's propeller, Scotland's most exciting example of 21st century engineering, The Falkirk Wheel is more than just the world's first rotating boat lift it is a magnificent symbol celebrating the new canal age it is an amazing dramatic, moving sculpture.

the Falkirk WheelIt is a simple, but technical master piece of equipment, as the wheel turns, water and boats contained in its two large gondolas are transferred between an aqueduct linked to the Upper Union Canal and 25 metres below, a basin feeding to the adjacent Forth & Clyde Canal.  Connecting two leading lowland canals, to raise or lower boats between two different height canals replacing eleven locks.  The large gondolas can take up to six boats down from the Union canal to the Forth and Clyde canal at the same time as six other boats can be taken up.

We booked to go on the gondola that took us up to the Union Canal, life jackets are provided and a tour guide goes through the history and safety of the transportation.  It is a strange sensation – no sensation at all – just a slight movement and then you realise that you are going up and suspended, until the clunk and you are sailing along the canal.  It is only a short trip but as the gondola turns around on this lovely stretch of waterway, you can see the bridge and the resident heron – nicknamed Harry by the tour guide – then you approach the 'drop' yes, it is a 25 metre drop down to the next canal but the gondola is secured into the cradle and down you go.

The Falkirk WheelThe project known as the Millennium Link offers a direct waterway route between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and also a coast to coast connection linking the rivers Forth and Clyde.  The secret to the boat lift's smooth economic operation – the energy used is that of boiling 8 kettles – is ensuring that both loaded gondolas weigh virtually the same, so that the wheel remains balanced.  Archimedes' principle guarantees that, as a boat enters the gondola, it displaces exactly its own weight in water.  So, regardless of whether the gondolas are empty or full of boats, they will carry the same load.

The Wheel is the centrepiece of a much larger tourist attraction.  Next to the Wheel is a visitor centre and cafe with a huge window which allows views of the whole wheel from anywhere on that side of the centre.  Across the basin from this is a brilliant children's adventure playground, there are walks to go on along the canals and you can even hire boats to start that canal holiday you always wanted to do.  The Wheel is well sign posted from all directions and there is a large car park.  The cost of the gondola transition is £7.50 for concessions, and well worth the trip.

Whether you like 'messing about on the river' or just looking at a mechanical marvel then the 'Big Wheel' is for you, go and take a look it is fantastic.

You may also find interesting:
•  Scotland: Edinburgh the Trossachs and Loch Lomond

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Trevor Sullivan

Town planner for Sheffield City Council and keen cyclist & birdwatcher

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