Engineering Icons of the 2nd and 21st Centuries on the John Muir Trail

…the nature of architecture proceeding as it does from the human mind will express something about the designer and his or her culture. The architecture itself becomes an expression of the larger opinions of a cultural or social group which may then be impressed upon others. By virtue of observation of an architectural work, an individual may come to understand something about the original builder and his or her culture. – from Wikipedia entry on Architectural Propaganda

After a relaxed breakfast at the Spoke ‘n’ Boot, during which we chatted to Sandra and her two gorgeous grandchildren, we set off for one of the End-to-End Trail’s most iconic sites: the Falkirk Wheel. Conceived as a Millennium project by the British Waterways Board and designed in 1999 during what must have been an extraordinarily intense three-week creative and design process (after the original designs submitted in open competition were judged to not be ‘ambitious’ enough), this boat lift was to link the Union Canal with the Forth and Clyde Canal again after 70 years of separation. The design brief was not simply for a mechanical means of transporting boats between canals, but was to be a genuinely iconic sculptural statement for the 21st-century. The resulting design is awe-inspiring. It’s very well hidden by trees and the contours of the land until you suddenly, breath-takingly come across it, a stunning sight.

The design of the scything blades was made to recall a double-headed Celtic axe, but also, in operation and together with the piers which support the high viaduct, the articulated bones of a water creature: “a beautiful, organic flowing thing,” according to the lead architect Tony Kettle, “like the spine of a fish.” One of the things that impressed me was the clean and simple lines of the gearing system, the design concept for which Kettle apparently modelled using his 8-yr old daughter’s Lego:

It would be so exciting to see it in operation. It must just function for leisure craft now, as the canals of course are not in commercial haulage use. As it was we appreciated its architectural form and imagined the perfection of its function. The brothers that we met at the Spoke ‘n’ Boot last night canoeing the canals hadn’t been able to use the Wheel for some reason, and had had to portage their canoe up the hill and onto the higher water channel manually.

We picked up the towpath again beneath the Wheel, and now we were on the older Forth and Clyde Canal. When it had been built in the 18th century, construction stalled for lack of funds until the Scottish Exchequer released £50,000 from the sale of forfeited Jacobite estates.

It is a much more scenic waterway than the Union Canal, partly because it has a much more natural profile: one section needed to be built over marshland (now the Dullatur nature reserve), so they constructed the canal purposefully much too high, and let it sink naturally to the desired level. Over time the banks of the canal have been over-topped by the marsh so the impression given is of a natural river rather than a man-made construction.

The water margins are covered with bulrush and flowering yellow flag iris, and waterlilies, just coming into bloom, abound.

A tarmac cycleway follows the entirety of the canal, and the verge on the far side is full of Rosa rugosa, scenting the air with its strong, summery myrrh fragrance, in place of the hawthorn.

On its leaves and nearby rested damselflies, a male common blue:

and what I would tentatively identify as a female white-legged damselfly:

The fishing is clearly good. We met many men out on a Sunday fishing expedition to catch roach, perch or pike, most out from Glasgow into the countryside and relishing the peace.

Had it not been for the hard asphalt on which we had to walk for 20km, we would have been able thoroughly to have appreciated it all. And we were walking now on the John Muir Way coast-to-coast route which runs between Helensburgh in the west and Dunbar in the east. During our planning phase we had imagined walking this section along river valleys and pine woodlands on soft paths, but we have been disappointed in that respect, that a National Trail named after an icon of tree and wilderness conservation in the UK and the US can be, in our experience, so urban as to actually be pavemented, so unvaried and so punishingly hard on the feet. We will be following it until we reach the West Highland Way at Drymen tomorrow night. The canal winds its way through quite troubled areas, and although there were many, many people out enjoying the path, cycling, running, walking dogs, there are no cafés or other facilities along the entirety of the route. We were glad of the jam sandwiches we had made this morning, instead of having the bread as toast with our breakfast. It seems strange that if Scottish Canals wishes to regenerate the region, then the human infrastructure as well as the industrial has not been put into place. We did pass an old lock building under reconstruction, and I hope they are planning to create a café there.

One other notable feature of the canal today was the passage underneath the M80, a motorway we have travelled many a time. The next time we are travelling north we will look out for the Canal passing beneath us, and no doubt feel very nostalgic.

Staffordshire take note

In the early afternoon the John Muir Trail briefly diverts from the towpath to explore a section of the Antonine Wall, built in the mid-second century A.D. by Hadrian‘s adopted son who had conquered the southern part of Scotland and wished to consolidate his conquest.

Within a generation the forces had had to fall back to Hadrian’s wall, but the gigantic dyke and ditch ramparts were in some ways even more impressive than those along the section of Hadrian’s wall which we saw, although nearly nothing of the turf wall construction remains. What there was is buried under bracken.

The final hill, Bar Hill, tested our calf muscles which had been shortened by days of walking along an entirely flat path. We were put to shame by a woman in her 70s who powered past us, with no sign at all of being out of breath.

At the top of the hill was the original Roman headquarters, of which now only the traces of wall remain on the ground. But there have been some wonderful finds during the various excavations of the last century, which are now in the National Museum of Scotland. Yet another place to add to the list of very many that we will need to revisit.

We retreated to our Peter May audiobook to see us through the last 12 km of towpath. It took our minds off the asphalt, whilst allowing us to look around and appreciate the sun glittering on the water.

Our hotel in Lennoxtown, the family-owned Glazert Country House Hotel, looked after us beautifully. The room even had a spa bath, which was a heavenly way to relax tired muscles, and we both had an excellent night’s sleep.

Today’s Mystery Plant

Stats for the day

Unfeasibly gigantic hills which took our calf muscles by horrid surprise after 2 days on the flat: 2

Number of dogs being pushed in prams along the towpath: 2

Opportunities to sneak off for a comfort break on the towpath: zero

Fly-through with photos and elevation (and also temperature)

Falkirk Wheel to Lennoxtown

4 thoughts on “Engineering Icons of the 2nd and 21st Centuries on the John Muir Trail”

      1. You are welcome! I needed a break from watching the grey and dismal clouds! Right now though, the sun is out at last and we are enjoying a pre-dinner drink, facing west, watching the goldfinches churn out the sunflower seeds till they find the one that suits them best and the fledgling sparrows arguing over the best dust bath. There are clouds lurking ominously in the distance, but right now the garden is looking bright and beautiful! xx


      2. I’m so pleased you are having a little bit of sunshine as the whole country seems to be under water. Love goldfinches. They have done spectacularly well out of the terrible few years the greenfinches have had. They seem to have stepped into their boots.


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