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Reinventing the Wheel at Falkirk

A stroll along Scotland's old canal system to see a strikingly modern 21st-century wheel.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 1hr

Ascent/gradient 197ft (60m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Canal tow paths and town streets

Landscape Roman wall, 19th-century waterways, 21st-century wheel

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 349 Falkirk, Cumbernauld & Livingston

Start/finish NS 868800

Dog friendliness Good along canals - as long as they don't fight other dogs

Parking Car park at Lock 16, by Union Inn

Public toilets At Falkirk Wheel Visitor Centre

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1 Start at the Union Inn by Lock 16. This was once one of the best-known pubs in Scotland and catered for passengers on the canal. Turn right now, away from the canal, then go right along the road. Turn right along Tamfourhill Road and go through the kissing gate on the left-hand side of the road. Alternatively, don't turn up Tamfourhill Road yet, but continue walking uphill to go under the viaduct. Keep walking all the way up until you come to a monument on the left. This commemorates the Battle of Falkirk (1298) in which William Wallace was beaten by Edward I's troops. Retrace your steps, under the viaduct, turn left into Tamfourhill Road, and left through the kissing gate on the left-hand side of the road.

2 This takes you to a section of the Roman Antonine Wall - there's a deep ditch and a rampart behind it. Walk along here, going parallel with Tamfourhill Road. When you reach the point where you can go no further, climb up the bank on the right-hand side and go down the steps to join the road by a kissing gate.

3 Go left to continue along the road - you'll soon see another kissing gate on the left leading you to another, much shorter, section of the wall. Leave the wall, rejoin the road and maintain direction to reach a mini-roundabout. Turn left here, along Maryfield Place. When you reach the end, join the public footpath signed to the canal tow path and woodland walks. Follow this track as it winds up and over the railway bridge, then on to reach the Union Canal.

4 Don't cross the canal but turn right and walk along the tow path. This is a long straight stretch now, popular with local joggers. Eventually you'll reach Roughcastle tunnel - but remember that it currently closes at 6pm so as to protect the Wheel from vandalism.

5 Walk through the tunnel - it's bright and clean and dry. This will bring you out to the new Falkirk Wheel and yet another section of the Antonine Wall. You can walk on as far as the Wheel, then walk down to the visitors' centre at the bottom. Bear right from here to cross the little bridge over the Forth and Clyde Canal.

6 Turn right now and walk along the tow path. Lots of dog walkers and cyclists come along here (so take care if you are walking with a dog), while people frequently go canoeing along the canal. Keep walking until you come back to Lock 16, then turn right and cross the canal again to return to the start of the walk at the Union Inn.

The words 'new' and 'unique' are rather overused these days. They seem to be applied to everything from shades of lipstick to formulations of engine oil. But this walk gives you the chance to see something that fully deserves the epithet. The Falkirk Wheel, which opened in the spring of 2002, is the world's first rotating boat lift. It was designed in order to reconnect the Forth and Clyde and Union canals, which stretch across the central belt of Scotland, and so restore a centuries-old link between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The Forth and Clyde Canal, which ran from Grangemouth to Glasgow, was completed in 1790 and immediately made a great difference to the Scottish economy. It opened up a lucrative trading route to America - raw materials could now easily be transported east, while finished products could be shipped west. It also meant that coal extracted from the mines in Lanarkshire could be sent into the newly industrialised areas of Glasgow. The canal was so successful that merchants in Edinburgh soon felt that they were missing out on trade. A plan was devised for another waterway, running from Edinburgh to Falkirk. Work on the Union Canal began in 1818 and a flight of locks was constructed to link it to the Forth and Clyde Canal.

The canals were used to transport not only goods but also people. Many preferred to travel by barge than by stage coach, as they were far less bumpy and decidedly warmer. Night boats even had dining rooms and gaming tables. By 1835 over 127,000 people were travelling on the canal each year.

However, shortly afterwards the canal craze began to give way to yet another new innovation - the railways. Train travel, which gained in popularity from the middle of the 19th century, offered cheaper and faster transport, leading to the decline of the canal network. They clung to life until the 1960s, when they were broken up by the expanding network of roads. However, the canals have now been recognised as an important part of Scotland's industrial heritage and are being restored. The Falkirk Wheel was built to replace the original flight of locks, which had been removed in the 1930s, and it's as much a work of art as a feat of engineering. The Wheel lifts boats from one canal to another and is the only rotating boat lift in the world. Made of sharply glinting steel, it's 115ft (35m) high and looks rather like a set of spanners that have fallen from a giant's tool kit. It can carry eight boats at a time and lift loads of 600 tonnes - that's roughly equivalent to a hundred elephants, in case you're wondering.

An incongruous sight against the gentle tangle of vegetation beside the canal, the Wheel seems to have re-energised the waterways, waking them from their long slumber and drawing people to it like some monumental magnet.

What to look for

Water voles live along the waterways and are often confused with rats. Immortalised as Ratty in Wind in the Willows, voles are a threatened species. They're vegetarians, have a round snout, and are more likely to be spotted during the day than rats (which like to search for food at night).

Where to eat and drink

The Union Inn has a restaurant and beer garden. You can get bar snacks such as filled baguettes, wraps or potato skins or heartier meals like lamb, or trout in lemon butter with almonds. Meals are available both at lunchtime and in the evening. On the other side of Lock 16 is the Canal Inn. This doesn't serve food but has lots of atmosphere. You can sit outside on fine days.

While you're there

You pass several sections of the Antonine Wall on this walk. It was built in ad 142-3 by Emperor Antonius Pius and stretched for 37 miles (60km), marking the most northerly boundary of the Roman Empire.

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