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Union Canal - Ratho to the Wheel

Union Canal - Ratho to the Wheel

Postby nigheandonn » Sun Nov 05, 2023 11:02 pm

Route description: Forth & Clyde and Union canal towpath

Date walked: 28/10/2023

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Sunday 3rd September

I've walked as far as Ratho on the Union Canal quite a few times over the last few years, starting with the one I wrote about (and I've had a few drinks in the Bridge Inn since then, too), but the handful of times I'd been further it had been by bike, out to the little picnic spot at Lin's Mill. However, having reached Linlithgow on the John Muir Way I was about to head onto the canal path if I went any further, and before I did that I wanted to have reached the same point by heading right along the canal.

So I was off again the next Sunday - this was the height of the September heatwave, and not at all an appealing day to go walking, but having got going I was determined to keep on. So down to the Gyle to catch a bus which feels like it sneaks up on Ratho from the back, up the little twisty road from Ratho station.

There's a little cluster of buildings on both sides of the canal just at first, and then a more open space which looks like it might have been some kind of garden, and a thing like a floating blue digger doing some kind of work on the canal bank, which I got unreasonably excited about. And then a long stretch first with a wall and a slope and tall trees above, and then a more closed in stretch with a rougher wall holding up a wooded bank.

Canal and wall

The first real landmark is the little island and plywood castle at Wilkie's Basin - I vaguely remember a boat trip along this part many many years ago, but I still have no idea what the castle is for.

Wilkie's Basin castle

It was about quarter to one when I reached Lin's Mill, but it's a nice spot to stop for lunch, so I did, going down and down the steps and under the aqueduct to the other side where the benches are - although it was too hot to sit in the sun, so I ended up just perching on the wall of the bridge anyway. This is the smallest of the three main aqueducts along the canal, but it has a good open view down to the river, although it's impossible to get a good view of it from below.

Lin's Mill Aqueduct

It was getting into the afternoon now, getting steadily warmer, and the sky was streaked quite dramatically with odd clouds.

Dramatic sky

The route of the canal is pretty peculiar for the next few miles, the builders having cared more about the contour than about actually getting anywhere - a turn west to Broxburn, then a great swing north and east again to Winchburgh, and then finally another turn to head steadily west for Linlithgow. There's quite a collection of bridges along the stretch into Broxburn, including the railway line and the M8, and the one which should have the Saturn sculpture under it, except that it seems to have vanished.

On the map the canal heads right through the town, but it's not really like that on the ground - the path is low and tree lined, and any houses in view are set well back until the rows of houses at Holygate, just before the little basin at Port Buchan.

Port Buchan

The route here obviously overlaps with the Shale Trail, which had more poetic marker posts than any other walk I'd seen.

Shale trail

Beyond that again there's a lot on the map and not much to be seen, until a stretch of green fence just before the houses run out. A pretty stretch after that, with stone bridges, leads on to pass a steep-sided bing, quite attractive now with things beginning to grow on it.

Green bing

I have actually walked most of the Union Canal before, many years ago - possibly even all of it, but my best guess is that I got as far as Falkirk High and got distracted. One of the few things that I really remembered from that previous attempt was the tower of Niddry Castle, which looks like it belongs in the borders rather than in this industrial landscape.

Niddry Castle

On the map I now walked through Winchburgh, but the canal sits down well below the streets so that the experience is more of walking through a green tunnel, until I came out to a place where they were building a new bridge, presumably for some more of the many new houses.

A last bend and some nice old bridges brought me into an attractive green stretch - it was nice here, but I'd been hurrying along hoping to make it to Linlithgow, and it was very hot, and my hip was having one of its occasional fits of soreness, and I decided I'd done enough.

Beyond Winchburgh

I dropped off the canal where a little road passes under it at Philpstoun, heading down to the road between Linlithgow and Winchburgh to pick up the X38 - I originally meant to go right down the road and hope there was a bus stop at Gateside, but a path was marked on the map cutting over to Bridgend, where I knew there was a stop, so I took it on a whim - a good idea, because it followed a burn and was shaded by trees for at least part of the way along.

Sunday 10th September

With the unseasonal heat still lasting I came up with a better plan, to get out as early as I could and be home by lunchtime when the heat would start to really hit - the X38 was no use, as it didn't start running from Edinburgh until after 9, and at first it didn't look like getting the first train to Linlithgow at 8 would be much good either, but I accidentally discovered that there was a better bus from Linlithgow which fitted quite well, running through Philpstoun village rather than along the Winchburgh road and taking me much closer to where I'd left the canal.

So after a bit of a mad dash from a late-running bus to Haymarket I found myself in a half-awake Linlithgow, pottering up to the Palace gate while I waited for bus time, and then enjoying a surprisingly wandering kind of bus journey, including a very tight corner which it needed two goes at, and where someone else had knocked a hole in a lovely old bridge.

From Philpstoun I was quickly back on the canal, and wandering along more or less retracing the bus's steps, with only the earliest of the runners and dog walkers for company. It was very much cooler walking than the week before, and hazy, but still very humid, and warm enough that I was wandering along in a sleeveless dress, which didn't feel right for a September morning. The harvest colours in the fields reminded me that it wasn't the height of summer, but in the canal verges everything was tall and green, just with added brambles.

Morning on the canal

I wanted to go up to the church at Kingscavil, about half a mile off the route, to get a picture of the Neptune lamp, which meant turning off at the damaged bridge and the tight corner and heading uphill on another little road. Back on the canal it was getting on for 10 and there was still a long stretch to go to get back into Linlithgow, so that it was beginning to feel like I was spending the morning going nowhere. But although there were houses quite close, there was at least a lovely illusion of middle-of-nowhere emptiness - this canal really is good at hiding from the world.

On and on

And then quite suddenly I was back in Linlithgow, getting a view through a gap to the spire of St Michael's all wrapped up in scaffolding, and then arriving at the basin which seemed to be full of history - stones marked by ropes and stones recycled from the railway and marked by rails, and old canal buildings and an older doocot over the road.

Linlithgow basin

A few houses faced onto the canal, and then it turned its back on the town again and threaded its way through, past a golf course on the other bank, and then back into emptier countryside.

I know I've walked all this before, but I remembered surprisingly little about it in the details - only the castle at Broxburn and the back of the station at Linlithgow. But coming along this stretch I suddenly came to a long building with its doors and windows all boarded up in blue and thought 'Oh, I HAVE been here before'. It had a bench beside it, so made a nice spot to sit down and eat cake, before a Very Loud party of ramblers or similar made their presence known, and I got up and dashed off in the hope of regaining some peace - fortunately they stopped at the bench and I didn't hear them again! (I hope they had a lovely talkative morning. Just not right next to my quiet one.)

Scout building

Under one more bridge, and I was heading onto the Avon Aqueduct, the longest and tallest in Scotland, and second longest in Britain. It is an impressive span, and there's a decent view along the side, but there's not as clear a view down to the river as at Lin's Mill.

Avon aqueduct

Over the aqueduct

There is a way down to river level, but I had decided not to take the detour today and just press on, with Polmont train times in mind. The autumn colours were only just starting to turn, but there were some lovely glimpses of colour just around the bridge, and the canal wound on, past a restaurant and little basin on one side, and a glimpse of a lonely but surprisingly substantial church on the other.

It's another surprisingly lonely stretch, despite never being very far from anywhere - although apparently not lonely for swans.

Seven swans a-swimming

Beyond the last main bridges on this stretch the view suddenly started to open up to the north - Grangemouth smoke and hazy Ochils.

View north

The railway line was now running closely parallel to the north - I didn't have much hope of making a train from Polmont at 12:20something, but there was a chance, so it was just hurry on, and I reached the station road bridge more quickly than I expected - unfortunately it wasn't one of the ones with steps up the side, and a scramble up got me a bit more closely associated with some brambles than I really wanted. However, it did mean that I reached the station at 12:26:20 for a 12:27 train, which seemed worth it!

Saturday 28th October

After delays caused by Doors Open Day and rain and family visits and the John Muir Way and more rain, not necessarily in that order, I suddenly discovered that if I wanted to celebrate reaching the wheel by going up it in a boat there was only one day left to do it, because once the clocks change the boats go into hibernation.

I'd actually walked a couple of miles along the canal past Polmont on the JMW before turning off to Callendar House, but to make things simple I just started from Polmont station again, retracing my steps for the first stretch, and meeting a grey wagtail on the path almost straight away. I ate my lunch with a view of the prison because it was the first time I found a place to sit down, and then headed on again, past the basin by the industrial estate.


I was walking to a deadline of the booked boat trip - I'd tried to count in a bit of time for dithering, but then used up some of it eating my lunch. Beyond the basin the canal goes back to the illusion of emptiness - there really is a bit of space to the north, but to the south the houses come fairly close, hiding behind a strip of lovely birch and bracken woodland.

Birch and bracken

The JMW turns off before a slightly battered bridge, and for the next stretch there were plenty of houses in view, the kind with roofs sloping only in one direction which must have looked modern at the time. Beyond that a burn ran parallel to the canal for a while, turning out to be fed by the overflow, and then one bridge had a lovely high arch and another had a happy face on it if you were going towards Glasgow and a sad face if you were heading for Edinburgh, which seemed a little unfair - apparently the happy face is really looking back towards the easier ground to the east, and the sad face to the more difficult ground to the west.

Happy bridge

Just beyond that the canal plunges below some of that difficult ground in a long tunnel - at first with an arched roof, then just the rough stone. It's lit all the way through, but in an odd mix of colours which I found a bit eerie, and the further in you go the odder it gets - peculiar stuff all down the walls looking as if the roof had thrown up on them. The further end is wetter, too, water landing on me in big drips, and generally it was a relief to emerge into the open air again.

Spooky tunnel

To the best of my recollection, the last time I set out to walk this canal I got as far as Falkirk High - I've never been quite sure, but I think from here on was new ground. The last run along to the wheel started with a little basin with swans, then a signpost for an unspecified battlefield (presumably Jacobite, since the map says 1746) and a boathouse marked dead slow. I passed the last milestone, marked 1/2, although the new section to the wheel meant that there was a good bit more than that to go.

Beyond that the canal seemed to split - I thought it must have something to do with the rerouting but couldn't make the geography work, and when I looked up old maps later I was wrong - the left hand branch is just a little spur for a coal wharf.

Two branches

Still, after the split, and a squeeze across a narrow bridge, things were visibly different - new walking path which left the canalside at one point, rather than old towpath which stuck to it. Beyond another path junction and a last stretch of canal were some Scottish Canals equipment and the only locks on the canal.

The only locks

Round the sharp bend was another tunnel, this time lit up right across the roof in colour-changing stripes - but at least this one was modern and dry. Once I came out I was at the start of the basin at the top end of the wheel, with its hoops ahead.

Above the wheel

I accidentally got onto the wrong bit of path and found myself at the top of quite a steep grassy slope - quite slippery to hurry down. And I needn't have hurried quite as much as that, because the queue for the boat turned out to be quite casual - just stand by the water side and wait for the man to come along.

The wheel in action

The boat trip itself was fairly unexciting - a long time spent turning round in the pool at the bottom to be able to get into the wheel, a slow trip upwards, and a fairly short trip along through the modern tunnel to the wider pool at the corner where we could turn again. Coming down the way there was at least a very good view - I'm glad to have done it, but there wasn't a lot of adventure about it.

By the time I got back inside the cafe was shut, so I just crossed the canal and wandered off towards Camelon station - different canal, of course, back on the Forth and Clyde.

So this time I definitely have walked the length of the Union Canal - and linked the two canals on foot, although I'd really already done that the last time I visited the wheel.
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