F is for the Falkirk Wheel

A few miles to the west of Edinburgh is a hidden gem – the Falkirk Wheel. It’s an incredible one-of-a-kind feat of engineering that lifts a narrowboat from one canal up over 100ft to another one.

It also looks like something out of Doctor Who.

A bit more about the wheel, then. It replaces 11 locks which joined the Forth & Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. The locks were dismantled, and so they came up with this wheel to take place of nine of the locks, with the remaining two through a short tunnel at the top. The wheel itself is a unique rotating lift, and I can tell you, it is fascinating to watch.

I arrived at the Falkirk Wheel Centre and wandered around the basin at the bottom, snapping some pictures. When I reached the start, a boat was about to go up in the lift, so I hit record on the video and tried to keep my arms still. This is the result, albeit sped up for brevity.

All in all, the process takes about ten minutes, and my favourite bit is the man in black who seems oblivious to the big spike looming down on him. Of course it never reaches him, but… you would move, wouldn’t you?

Once the boat had been lifted, I had a quick snoop round the visitor centre (really, really nice toilets – it’s important, you know), and then it was my turn to get a boat ride. We clambered aboard, and a man arrived to take our photos. He was there for five minutes, snapped our pictures then disappeared again. I think you are meant to buy them at the end of the trip. Is that really his job? Taking pictures of people who really don’t want their picture taken?

Anyway, some American people came and sat down near me, and I heard one of them say the wheel looked like a “giant pair of handcuffs.” Little bit too much information, if you ask me. We had a guide on board to talk us through the process as we went up. He was very nice and really funny, but there’s not much point in me saying that as it was his last day. If you ever go to the Falkirk Wheel, you won’t find him there.

At the top, you travel through a big ol’ tunnel which has the railway going over the top of it. As you’re going, there’s a video playing describing how the wheel works and it’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise. You catch a glimpse of the two remaining locks, and then it’s back down the way you came.

My only complaint is that the man sitting on the end of my row succumbed to the sunshine pouring through the clear roof and fell asleep. I couldn’t get up to take as many pictures as I would have liked, but never mind.

After the boat ride, I went for a bit of a walk up the canal – just for ten minutes or so, then turned back towards the car. The Falkirk Wheel was definitely my favourite experience so far. Everyone was really friendly, and it was such an interesting thing to see and do. The tour guide said one thing that really stuck in my mind: “It used to take 8 hours and an awful lot of manpower to get through those eleven locks, wasting tons of water in the process. Now it takes two men about ten minutes, and we take the water with us.”

It makes you wonder why there’s only one of these in the world.

9 thoughts on “F is for the Falkirk Wheel

  1. I love the Falkirk wheel… Absolutely awesome 🙂 What an amazing feat of engineering. Loved the trip and as you say the visitor center was very well looked after.

  2. Was this one of the Millenium projects? I vaguely remembering hearing about the Falkirik Wheel years ago.

    Great to hear you had a good time, although not sure about your assertion it was your favourite adventure so far. Surely nothing can beat Big-D? 😉

  3. It used to take 8 hours and an awful lot of manpower to get through those eleven locks, wasting tons of water in the process.

    No way does it take eight hours to get through eleven locks. Getting through a lock if efficiently done should only take about five, six minutes, and the wheel replaces nine of them. The manpower involved is that one person is needed to drive the boat plus a minimum of one other, preferably more, to operate the locks, this being necessary for one lock or fifty. Also, whether there are two locks or eleven, one boat going through will take one lock-full of water from the top to the bottom, so even with only two locks, that lock-full will still be removed from the level above the flight of locks, and still need to be replaced from a reservoir. (If a boat goes down through a lock, then one up, or vice versa, that will be more efficient, as the one going up will let the water into the lock and the one going down will let the water out to the pound below so both can pass using only one lock-full of water.)

    Despite my grump, enjoyed the article very much. It is something I would love to see and I especially enjoyed the footage. Because the two cars weigh the same with or without a boat (since a boat displaces its own weight in water in order to float), a programme I heard on the wireless about the Falkirk Wheel stated that it takes about the same amount of energy to operate the wheel as it would to boil a kettle.

  4. Reply to Sebastian X. British Waterways manuals state that you should allow an average for four lock miles per hour. If you were travelling down a flight then obviously you are not travelling any distance so you might manage six locks per hour. On the Falkirk Wheel website they state that it would take 6 – 8 hours to negotiate through the locks.

    At The Caen Flight, Devizes, there are 29 locks, which take between 5 and 6 hours to complete so theoretically you could get through a lock in 5 or 6 minutes but if you have to wait for boats coming the other way it will take longer. The Caen Flight is only negotiable in the mornings, this gives time to replenish the lost water before the locks are open again the next day.

    As you say there is no water lost at the Falkirk Wheel because the caisons are sealed before moving. This way the same amount of water remains in use.

  5. My Father gets quite irate on the subject of the four lock miles per hour rule, suggesting that anyone that spends fifteen minutes on a lock does not know what they are doing (polite version), and anyone doing a mile in fifteen minutes is going too fast.

    Efficiently done (and as a family we were very efficient) the next lock should be ready and open as the boat is leaving the last lock. This way, getting through a lock took barely longer than the time to fill or empty the lock as appropriate, which is only a few minutes. The occasional boat coming the other way was usually not a huge delay because, if one is going up (for example) then they would empty the lock and open the gate(s) anyway. There might be a delay if they were filling the lock when our advance party (Mum) arrived, but once they were in and emptying, that would be the end of any delay, and if they were already descending, then almost no delay at all. The biggest pain was catching up with a hire-boat (almost always) that were taking too much time.

    We could do the 58 locks on the Birmingham and Worcester Canal in about six to seven hours (which are mostly close together with a couple of ten-minute-walk gaps). We once set off from Stourport at seven-thirty in the morning, down two double-staircase locks to the river, along the Seven to Worcester, and up the 58 locks to Tardebigge by early evening, in time for our parents to leave my sister and I outside the pub with a half-of-lemonade and a bag of crisps each.

    I remember that on the way down flights of locks, it was my job to close the gates and let down the paddles whilst my sister walked quickly to the next lock to shut the gate behind the boat. My Mum would help her get the gate moving and then be at the other end to be opening the first bottom paddle just as the gate was closing, and then across for the other, and then off to prepare the next lock. At the previous lock, I would shut the outer gate, let down the paddle, and then jump the gap to the other gate, to climb over to finish the job, before being at the next lock in time with my sister to open the bottom gates. The last time I crossed a lock, as a short-cut, I walked over the top of the top-gate and was quite nervous about it!

  6. To be fair to our parents, I am sure we got our lunch and tea at some point, but spending many weekends and holidays on the canal boat, I do remember a lot of times when the adults socialised in the pub and we were left to entertain ourselves.

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