The Falkirk Wheel: A decade of quiet revolution in Scottish tourism

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TEN years ago, on 24 May, 2002, Her Majesty the Queen officially opened the Falkirk Wheel as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. A decade later, they both still appear to be in decent working order, performing fairly repetitive functions at a stately pace.

The demands of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year mean that, sadly, she will not be returning to the attractively landscaped site where the rerouted Union Canal stops dead, 35 metres in mid-air. Periodically, a guillotined slice of this waterway is reunited with the Forth and Clyde canal by the ingenious rotating boat lift that can still claim to be the only one of its kind in the world.

One of the visitor boats, Antonine, going through the Falkirk Wheel. Picture: Jane Barlow

One of the visitor boats, Antonine, going through the Falkirk Wheel. Picture: Jane Barlow

If Her Majesty fancied a breather before the Olympics strangle London, the official Falkirk Wheel 10th anniversary celebrations take place on 7 July. The lush basin in the lee of the Antonine Wall will become a bacchanal of boat-related activities, including some brave souls abseiling off the structure.

Back in 2002, the opening ceremony was very nearly delayed by the vandalising of a lock control station that flooded vital hydraulic equipment. In 2012, it’s difficult to imagine anyone in the local area maliciously interfering with the Wheel, so beloved has it become. But what exactly does it represent, a decade on? The Wheel cost £17.5 million, part of a wider £83.5m project that restored a long-neglected canal system and turned a former tar works into a bucolic oasis and playground. That seems like it should be achievement enough. That other famous Millennium project, the Dome, has transformed from national punchline to a corporate-sponsored destination venue that, while gaudy, absolutely rakes in cash. For its part, the Wheel simply abides.

“People always ask me if it’s a working boat lift or if it’s a tourist attraction,” says Mike Lennox, a former naval medic who first started work at the Wheel a week after the Queen snipped the ribbon. “Obviously the answer is that it’s both.” Today, Lennox is working the boardwalk, wrangling the crowds queuing up to take the 50-minute trip up the Union canal on one of the two custom-built, diesel-powered tour barges. Other days, Lennox will be on the boat, providing a running commentary for the passengers. This patter continues on land, where he smoothly fields questions in variously accented English about every aspect of the mechanism.

“I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I can honestly say, no two trips are the same,” he says. “I love it. I never get fed up of watching it go.” His own accent pegs him as a southerner, but Lennox has lived in nearby Linlithgow for almost 40 years, and can remember the state of the derelict canals before the regeneration began. “The political attitude then was, ‘they’re dirty muddy ditches that kill kids’. And look at how wonderful they are now.”

Basin master Jim Harvey inside the axle of the wheel. Picture: Jane Barlow

Basin master Jim Harvey inside the axle of the wheel. Picture: Jane Barlow

Last time I rode the Wheel, something about the skeletal design and curved architecture made me come away with an urge to rewatch Logan’s Run. This time, I’m determined to try and see it with new eyes, to get past the visual overfamiliarity that occurs when a structure has become legitimately iconic. It helps that the day I visit is preternaturally still; there are clouds in the sky but no birds, and the amphitheatre of the basin appears to amplify the hush as well as any sound.

A tour boat gliding into the bottom gondola is the unspoken signal for visitors to line the shore, anticipating the coming revolution. And then, for the four minutes it takes the Wheel to make a half-turn, everyone – adults, children, the staff who have seen it a thousand times before, even dogs – gaze in appreciative awe at this Archimedean magic trick, a counterweight ballet that makes physics appear as elegant as your science teacher always claimed it was.

While the Wheel itself hasn’t changed in ten years, the infrastructure surrounding it has had to evolve, sometimes in unexpected ways. Originally, the visitor’s centre was just one big modernist slice of oversized Edam cheese, but as tourism increased, additional buildings sprouted from it. The original control building, its keypad-secured entrance tucked behind an ice-cream stand, has also been extended; it now houses an office for holiday boat hire, perhaps the industry that has benefited most from the restored waterways. And just last year, an extended waterpark with its own miniature version of the Wheel was added for kids to splash about in.

As a youngster, Aynsley Paterson used to bike up and fish what was left of the canals. “I can remember when there was absolutely nothing here, so the effect has been amazing,” he says. “We had some great days last summer, where it was jam-packed. It’s just a really great atmosphere.” He points out his young son, cheerfully bashing at some tubular bells in the waterpark. “The wee man loves it.”

John Hendry, who owns a steamboat which is moored beneath the wheel. Picture: Jane Barlow

John Hendry, who owns a steamboat which is moored beneath the wheel. Picture: Jane Barlow

There are few things that will bring grown men running like spaniels, but a steam whistle is one of them. Puttering across the basin, John Hendry has been taking his old-fashioned pleasure launch Suilven out for her first run of the year. A marine engineer and steamboat enthusiast, he can appreciate the Wheel from both a professional and personal perspective. “It’s actually forcing me into retirement,” says Hendry. “Because if I didn’t have these facilities I would just keep working until I dropped. So now I’m turning down work so I can spend more time on the boat.” In recent years, Hendry’s work has taken him to the China and Korea, the current powerhouse nations of shipbuilding. “Colleagues over there come in with a picture of the Wheel and ask ‘is this your hometown?’ And the interest is ongoing. It’s like the Forth Railway Bridge. It draws people, and that’s what you really want. Let’s face it, we don’t have any industry left, so it’s vital.”

I ask how cheap Suilven is to run, envisioning a sudden interest in canal commuting as the price of diesel gets ever more dizzying. “A bucket of water and a bag of coal will get you to Linlithgow and back,” says Hendry. “But it depends on how many times you want to blow the whistle.”

Jim Harvey, who has been basin master at the Wheel for seven years, offers to escort me up through the restricted innards of the beast. Many of the day-to-day maintenance issues appear to be pigeon-related; behind one access door, we discover a nest with two white eggs. Halfway up, I can peer down the enormous hollow axle, its metal collar studded with electric motors. Harvey, a veteran of the oil industry, is proud of the fact that it only costs around £10 a day to run the Wheel, but believes they can minimise running costs even further. “You’ve got two big hydraulic motors that are running constantly from 8am to 8pm, even when it isn’t moving,” he says. “We’re thinking about upgrading them.”

This upgrade would be similar to the technology that cuts a car’s engine when it comes to a complete stop, only to instantly restore it when the light goes green. Perhaps greenness is the future: the Wheel was sustainable well before that word became popular political jargon, so it’s easy to picture it becoming a flagship for efficiency in Scotland’s otherwise uncertain future. Optimise the Wheel’s mechanism even further, swap out the diesel barges for rechargeable electrical ones and stick some solar panels on the roof. It would certainly make a fantastic contrast to the sooty chimney stacks of Grangemouth, visible to the east from the elevated canal. “You used to be able to see the Wallace Monument on a good day,” says Harvey, pointing to the more picturesque north. “But the trees have grown too high.”

Back at the shoreline, US students Mark Zamzow and Megan Watson are clambering around the waterpark, waiting for the Wheel to start its next rotation. Originally from Washington, Zamzow first saw the Falkirk Wheel on a Discovery Channel documentary. “It’s always interesting to go and see something in a foreign country that you’ve seen on TV,” he says. “It’s actually bigger than I thought it would be.” A history major, Zamzow is a little surprised to learn that the Wheel is only 10 years old. Sadly, they won’t get a chance to ride it today. “We’re poor students,” offers Watson. They’re bemused but impressed by the two oversize horse heads that flank the entrance to the Visitor’s Centre. These are scaled-down models of Kelpies, the latest equine sculpture from artist Andy Scott, famous for his wire frame Clydesdale on the M8.

The finished Kelpies will be over 30 metres tall, and will stand at the eastern entrance to the Clyde and Forth canal. They are the symbolic figureheads of the Helix, a project transforming the area between Falkirk Stadium and Grangemouth into parkland by 2013. It’s already secured £25m of lottery funds – presumably after the relevant board member woke up to discover a severed Kelpie head in his bed – and will further bolster an area badly in need of development.

Perhaps this is the real legacy of the Falkirk Wheel, as proof-of-concept for ambitious regeneration with an eye on longevity rather than faddishness (it’s designed to function for 120 years, so there’s still over a century on the warranty). In 2002, lead designer Tony Kettle said he viewed the Wheel as symbolic, a way of connecting “an east and west coast that don’t talk to each other”. That project may take a little longer.