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Friday, 19 December 2014

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Canal ‘mission’ the ultimate stress buster

A CANAL trip in Scotland in April? We signed up for this short school holiday break with a degree of trepidation, most of our fears surrounded what the weather might have in store during what turned out to be the UK’s wettest April on record.

We were also slightly concerned about whether our two children, one a teenager, would really see the benefits of three days of life in the slow lane, so appealing to me in particular given the pace of working life is anything but slow.

Three days later any concerns had proved unfounded. And if you gave any of us the chance to go on a canal boat tomorrow, we would be there like a shot. The whole holiday couldn’t have been more of a success.

The kids, aged 14 and nine, were won over as soon as they stepped inside our boat, and home for the next three days Coleen. I was still loading our luggage at the canal base at the Falkirk Wheel – more of that later – when they were already occupied down below exploring what Coleen had to offer.

We’d set off from Furness at 6.30am on a Wednesday morning. By 9.30am we were at the Falkirk base. And by 10.30am we were having an introduction to our boat. By 11.30am we were on our way at the start of our adventure.

Our mission was to journey to Edinburgh and back. Part of the persuasion package for the whole trip for my wife had been the prospect of a few hours shopping in the Scottish capital.

She’s never forgiven me for living and working in Edinburgh and then moving south before we got married and crucially, for her, before she’d ever got to fully explore its shopping attractions. Sixteen years on she still mentions it every time there’s any reference to Edinburgh. For me it’s become my version of don’t mention the “Scottish play”.

So imagine my horror, and the expression on her face, when during our canal boat induction our instructor said getting to Edinburgh and back was virtually mission impossible. “It had been done,” he conceded, “but not by many people.” You can add Captain Lee to that intrepid list, I thought to myself, as thankfully for my marriage, as much as my credibility, I spent the next 55 hours proving the mission was possible!

First though, the Falkirk Wheel. To the uninitiated it doesn’t sound that exciting. When I’d seen signs to it passing on the M9 on the way up to Stirling and on to Aberdeen, I always ‘wrongly’ assumed it was some industrial heritage site.

Forget that. It is pure 21st century engineering. A stunning piece of kit which lifts up to two canal boats at a time in an arch high into the sky and takes them from the Forth & Clyde Canal from the Glasgow direction to the Union Canal towards Edinburgh.

It was built in 2001 and takes the place of eight former locks. It’s such an amazing experience that they even run boat trips throughout the day just through the wheel and back.

It was a fantastic start to our canal trip, if a little unnerving having to negotiate the boat into the wheel, even though we still had expert guidance at this stage and through the three locks around the basin area – the only locks we would come across on the whole trip.

But once we were out through the top of the wheel, through a tunnel, and the first two locks, we were then left to our own devices for the next three days.

The pace – maximum speed just above three miles an hour – immediately sends you into relax mode.

All your day to day worries are left on the canal bank.

And all you have to worry about is keeping a steady course in the middle of the canal, to avoid getting beached on the bottom (we found this out through experience!).

Meanwhile you can unwind and watch the wildlife – herons and ducks joining you on your journey through a richly verdant landscape.

I can honestly say it’s the ultimate stress buster.

Kids can help you steer, spot wildlife, and adults can sip drinks, read novels and generally take it easy. After a half day of cruising we moored up at 8.15pm at Broxburn, 21 miles into our 33-mile mission to reach Edinburgh.

After a meal, and a couple of glasses of wine, we slept like we do on all family holdays, wiped out by all the fresh air and new experiences.

If we were going to make it to the Scottish capital, and I was going to be true to my word to my family it meant an early start for yours truly the next morning.

Up at 6am, to take on water for the day, check the engine, and clear weeds from the propeller, and then off we glided, with my wife and kids still fast asleep down below.

This was a wonderful time of day to be at the tiller, just early morning wildlife for company as Coleen made her serene way over the impressive Bonnington Aqueduct.

The family were up well in advance of our approach to Edinburgh.

Here there is a stretch of canal between Slateford (Bonnie Prince Charlie) Aqueduct and Harrison Park used by rowing clubs and school pupils, and on which any other boats are banned between 3.15pm and 5.15pm.

Here too the canal bank was a much busier place, with city joggers and dog walkers out for their morning exercise.

And then just after 11am, 24 hours after we set off, with some sleep in between, we arrived at Edinburgh Quay.

The beauty of the mooring is that it is only 10 minutes away from Princes Street and the heart of the city.

We spent a wonderful six hours shopping, sightseeing and soaking in the atmosphere.

And then it was back to the canal boat to start out journey back.

We timed it, so we were just at the rowing section in time for it reopening at 5.15pm and so we could reach attractive Ratho with its canalside pub by 8pm, while it was still light (you are not allowed to journey on a canal boat in the dark) for an overnight stop.

The next day, mission accomplished in terms of Edinburgh, was all about a leisurely journey back to the Falkirk Wheel.

This gave us time to explore Linlithgow.

And what an unexpected jewel this was in Scotland’s Central Belt crown.

The palace, with its striking tower, and sweeping parkland down to a loch, was a delight. It was here that Mary Queen of Scots was born.

The whole town had a wonderfully historic atmosphere, and is certainly somewhere else we will look to go back.

And then it was the final stretch. We needed to get back through the Falkirk Wheel on Friday and moor up at the basin on the other side, so that we were able to vacate the boat at 9.30am on the Saturday, so it could be made ready for the next trippers. We left Coleen with heavy hearts, and over coffee and milkshakes in Stirling afterwards agreed what an outstanding success it had been and that all of us, without exception, would not hesitate to go on a canal holiday again.

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