The Falkirk Wheel, Falkirk, Scotland, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Falkirk Wheel, Falkirk, Scotland, UK

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Despite its name, the Falkirk Wheel doesn't look much like a wheel - although part of the brief for the design was that it should be built in such a way that it could be called a wheel.

...reference to the dictionary indicated that a wheel did not need spokes or a rim...
Colin Castledine, Engineering Director.

It looks more like a clunky, elongated double figure of eight, with a shark's fin protruding from the right hand side of each circle of the eight (when it's at the bottom), and a 'gondola' in each circle. It raises boats onto an aqueduct supported by curved concrete columns, 24 metres high, matching the profile of the wheel at the end (minus the shark fins).

The chosen double curved profile emerged from shapes varying from a nodding donkey oil pump to a Barbie doll.
Tony Kettle, Architect.

This is not a very glamorous description of the world's first (and, at the time of writing, only) rotating boat lift.

What's It For?

Built as part of the Millennium initiative to encourage waterway usage, it replaces the 11 locks that linked the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal until 1933. The 11 locks used to take boats eight hours to navigate the 150-foot height difference and mile and a quarter between the canals; the boat lift takes around 20 minutes to turn the half-turn needed to move a boat from one canal to the other. There is one lock from the Forth and Clyde canal up to the wheel, and two were reinstated at the top, so in effect only removing nine - the original locks are now buried beneath roads.

The reason that two locks were replaced at the top is because a main rail line runs across the area, along with the Antonine Wall, the most northern of the Roman Empire's ancient boundaries, which is a scheduled monument and cannot be destroyed. These days, it is more of a ditch than a wall. A 168m tunnel had to be built under these features - the first new canal tunnel constructed in the UK for a century - leaving the aqueduct 35 metres short. The two new locks were added at right angles to the tunnel and wheel to make up the height difference.

What's In It For Me?

It is now more tourist attraction than boatlift.
George Ballinger, Chief Civil Architect.

The wheel is used much more as a tourist attraction than as a lift for genuine water traffic, and makes an unusual day out - and you can make a day of it. There is a play area for children to burn off some steam, walks through the area, and food in the grounds as well as a cafe in the Visitor Centre. This Researcher recommends any visitors take a picnic; the food from the stalls is average, but is hideously expensive. Dogs are allowed in the grounds, although not in the Visitor Centre or on the wheel itself (unless Guide or Assistance dogs) - access is free into the grounds and visitor centre so you can come and go as you please.

The boat trip itself takes around 50 minutes, and takes you up in the lift, over the aqueduct and through the tunnel. It turns around at the top, and then returns. There is also an independent barge that takes visitors on the wheel. The barge is moored on the canal at the bottom, so will access at least one lock. It does need at least four paying adults to make the trip.

You can book ahead for the official boat rides, and this is a good idea if you don't have much time; on arrival you may have to wait some time for the next free seats on a boat - there was a 90 minute wait when this Researcher visited. You can book seats on a later boat if you choose.

Wheelchairs, prams and motorised mobility scooters can all be accommodated on the official boat trips.

The Gondolas on the Wheel Go Round And Round

Once loaded on the boat and driven onto the gondola, the gates rise up out of the water and seal the boat in the gondola. The crew moor the boat to the side, and then have to insert a key on the side of the gondola. They then start a safety brief, pay close attention, but try not to miss the gondola moving off - it's so smooth you could miss it. A short ride to the top, and then the gates on the opposite side of the gondola marry up with the gates on the aqueduct. The 20cm gap is closed with a rubber seal, and then they are lowered and the boat moves off. A trip through the tunnel, turn, and then return to the gondola.

It is extremely unnerving moving back onto the gondola when it is at the top, especially if you are at the front of the boat. The views are outstanding at the top of the aqueduct, so if you feel nervous, try looking out of the sides, and don't think about the 150 feet drop you are steadily moving towards, with seemingly nothing to stop you driving straight off the edge. Once moored again, the boat lift turns again, and you are safely back at the bottom, ready to disembark on to dry land.

When Should I Visit?

Don't pick a very windy day. High winds and bad weather can cause cancellations. If you can, pick a windless day in the early morning or late afternoon. The top arches of the columns on the aqueduct will create perfect circles when the water is like glass, a spectacular sight, according to the crew. They do mention that this only happens five or six times a year, so don't be too disappointed if you miss it.

How Do I Get There?

The Falkirk Wheel is well signposted with brown tourist signs by road from Edinburgh, Glasgow and the North. The free car park is a ten-minute walk from the wheel - those with disabilities should follow the yellow AA signs as these will direct you to a car park directly outside the entrance. This car park is open to everyone, but will incur a parking fee for those without disabilities.

The nearest rail stations are Falkirk Grahamston and Falkirk High Station, and a number three redline bus will bring you to the wheel Monday to Saturday.

Facts and Figures

  • Each gondola is five feet, five inches deep and always carries 300 tonnes, of water only when empty, making a total weight of 400 tonnes. As a boat moves in, that weight of water moves out. This means that both gondolas are always perfectly balanced, which means that it only needs two of the ten 7kW motors (the same amount of power needed to boil two kettles each) to turn the axle. Another two are needed to bring it to a gentle stop.

  • It's as tall as eight double-decker buses.

  • There is room for up to four boats on each gondola, so it's possible to move eight at once. In reality, there isn't this much canal traffic.

  • It is 240 feet above sea level at the top, and 90 feet above at the bottom.

  • The gondolas can accommodate thermal and solar movements, boats crashing into the gates, and even contain the ice if the water ever freezes solid.

  • To demonstrate the mechanism, the architect built a model from Lego bricks borrowed from his eight-year-old daughter. This wonderful example of improvisation sadly no longer exists, as there was a helicopter needing its parts back.

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