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A ride in the sky on a boat for my 1,000th review!
The Falkirk Wheel (Falkirk)
Member Name: SusanLesley
The Falkirk Wheel (Falkirk)
Advantages: Wonderful experience, not expensive, fantastic views
Disadvantages: Non for me - I loved it!
Anyway - let's get on with the review.........
A few weeks ago we spent a day with my sister and her partner on their boat in Northants opening and closing the locks along the river and we got talking about the Falkirk Wheel and I commented that I would love to see it so Dave organised a visit and a ride on the wheel when I went up to Edinburgh with him.
So what is the Falkirk Wheel?
Well it is basically a huge boat lift to move boats from the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal which is 35 metres higher and back again - but there is much more to it than that!
A bit of history
The two canals used to be connected by a flight of eleven locks which covered a distance of 1.5km in the past when the canals were the main form of transport. With the onset of the railways and roads the canals fell into disrepair and the locks were eventually dismantled in 1933.
The Millennium Link
In more recent years the canals across the UK have seen a renaissance as people have used them for leisure and the Millennium Link project was born. In just three years the whole 112km of the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals including all the locks, bridges and towpaths was refurbished but a boat lift was then needed to move the boats between the two canals.
The Design of the Falkirk Wheel
In 1994 Nicholl Russell Studios in association with British Waterways were commissioned to design the boat lift. There were many designs considered from a giant see saw to a Ferris wheel before the Falkirk Wheel we see today was agreed upon.
The design is based on two huge Celtic double headed axes and is truly an awesome sight to see! We were told that the designer actually used his daughter's Lego set to build a scale model of the wheel to prove that it would actually work.
The Building of the Falkirk Wheel
The wheel was built by Butterley Engineering of Derby where the whole thing was built and then dismantled and loaded onto 35 lorries for transportation to Falkirk in the summer of 2001 where it was then reconstructed on site. The whole construction had to be built to an accuracy of 10mm to be sure that it would fit together and work correctly once it was in situ.
Where is it?
It is just outside Falkirk in Scotland and is approximately 23 miles from both Glasgow and Edinburgh. There are excellent local transport links and of course it is accessible by car. The actual address is Lime Road, Tamfourhill, Falkirk FK1 4RS - so you know what to put in the sat nav! Incidentally it has been built on the site of a redundant tar works about 3km from where the original flight of locks were. The Falkirk Wheel is very well signposted from quite a distance away so it was very easy to find. As you get closer you will be able to see it on the horizon - believe me it is BIG!
It would be easy to arrive by bicycle or on foot as part of a walk along the canal as the towpaths have been refurbished as part of the whole scheme and are now ideal for both cycling and walking along the canals.
We arrived by car and parked on the free car park which was big enough for the number of visitors and so it was easy to find a space. We had expected more people to be there but we did realise afterwards that people were arriving and departing during the day as the boat trips were every hour or so. The walk from the car park to the wheel was pleasant, being for the most part along the canal and it took us about ten minutes. (Mind you I have got a broken toe!)
There was a further, smaller car park nearer to the wheel for disabled visitors. This is available for anyone to use at the cost of £2, so if you can't walk very far but don't have a disabled sticker this is an option for you.
As we approached the site we could see how beautifully it had all been designed and built. The paths were nicely paved and as such were nice and flat and easy and safe to walk on. There were also plenty of grassy areas suitable for picnics and an ice cream vendor selling a variety of nice ice creams.
We entered through a small gift shop with an information point and then out into the main site. We turned left into the main gift shop, cafe, toilets and booking area and then out through the other side to the wheel itself.
There is also a booking office on site where you can book a boat holiday - what a lovely idea.....
There are some lovely stone sculptures and two amazing horses heads made from pieces of silver coloured metal. I am not normally a fan of modern sculptures but these are beautiful.
A bridge leads over the canal to a children's play area and, although we didn't visit this, we could see a helter skelter amongst other things there. Again there are a lot of nice grassy banks for picnics and play and they also have various events there from time to time. The day that we visited there was a falconry demonstration.
The whole site is accessible to the disabled visitors and is free to visit for everyone.
We had booked online (more about booking later) and had arrived about an hour and a half before our ride was due to board so we headed for the cafe.
This is an amazing building with an angled glass roof to give fabulous view of the wheel. When we were there at about 12 noon it was very comfortable but I would imagine that it would get hot in there when the sun was on it in the middle of the afternoon.
We bought two pots of tea and I had a scone with jam and cream and Dave had a bacon and egg bap which cost us £7.85 in total. We sat at a table near the edge of the room next to the window so that we could watch the wheel whilst we enjoyed our snack, which was very nice indeed. It is also worth mentioning that the service in the cafe was excellent and the members of staff were friendly and helpful as they all were across the whole site.
The Price and Booking
We had booked our ride on line before we went to the wheel so that we could make sure that we got the time that we wanted. We had chosen a ride departing at 12.30pm and paid by Visa whereupon we were given a form to print out which we were to take to the desk in the centre to get our tickets.
The ride on the boat takes about an hour and the current costs are as follows:
Child (over 3) £4.25
Children under 3 ride free
Family Ticket £21.05
The site is open daily from 9.30am until 6pm from April to October with slightly more restricted times during the winter. The boat trips are about every hour or so. For full details see the website at www.thefalkirkwheel.co.uk
If you book online you are asked to arrive at least half an hour before your trip so that you will have time to collect your tickets and board the boat (which boards about ten minutes before it is due to sail). When you book online you are also given the opportunity to request disabled access - this is quite important as there are limited wheelchair places on the boats.
The wheel itself is going to very difficult for me to describe but I will try to do so without attempting to get too technical! Again all the technical stuff is on the website if you want it.
The bottom of the wheel sits in the canal basin and the top is on the end on the upper canal. It has two gondolas - one at each end - which are effectively extensions of the canals where the boats drive in and moor up for the ride.
Once the boats are all in the gondolas - and they can take up to six each, side by side if necessary, depending on the size of the boats - a gate is raised to keep the water and the boats inside and you're ready to go.
There are then a series of safety checks which are performed in an electronic sequence and if any one of these fails the ride is aborted until the situation is fully checked and resolved.
Once the safety checks are all complete the ride begins to move. The two gondolas rotate about a central pivot using a huge outer cog which remains stationary whilst inner cogs move round within it keeping the gondolas level at all times. The ride is complete when the two gondolas have changed places with one another.
We collected our tickets at about 12 noon and I heard someone say that the next ride booking was the 1.30pm so that wouldn't have been a bad wait for those just arriving but, if you do want a specific ride time it is worth booking online.
We boarded the barge ready for our ride at about 12.20pm. The barge seats about 100 people in red plastic seats in sets of three with an aisle down the centre and there is a space at the back for about four wheelchairs.
Next a lady with a camera arrived on board and took photographs of each person, couple or group and they were ready for viewing back in the shop once we got off the boat. Photographs and key rings were available to buy but we didn't bother.
The next person we saw was one of the two crew members who were going to take us on our ride. He had a microphone and was telling us lots of information about the wheel, the boats etc and he was so funny! He told us that he had one of the two lifejackets available on board and the other crew member had the second one. Seriously it was only because the safety rules dictate that they have to wear them because they are constantly jumping on and off the boats. He did go through the safety information as well so that we all knew what to do in the very unlikely event of an emergency.
As the ride began to move there was an on board commentary backed up by television screens on board showing information films. Again this was very interesting and not at all dull. Sometimes I find myself getting very bored by these sorts of things but not with this one. It was technical enough to be interesting and informative without being so technical that my mind switched off!
The ride moves very slowly and soon we could see the views across the surrounding landscape. I am not good with heights but after an initial uncertainty as it started to move I felt absolutely fine and I was happy to look out at the views.
When the ride finally came to standstill the water pressure in each gondola was equalised with that on the canal beyond and the gates were opened.
Our boat then exited at the top and travelled along the short aqueduct and through a tunnel to a turning place where we turned and then returned to the wheel for the downward journey. More information was given to us about the tunnel and the way the canal here used to be used.
As the boat travels into the gondola for the return journey it looks as though it is going to continue over the edge as the canal at the top stops in mid air! The man doing the commentary asked people who thought that we weren't going to stop to raise their hands and one or two did! He explained that the gate at the end was built to withstand a collision of more than the weight of the boat at a faster speed than we had been travelling so we were never in any danger!
He then pointed out some of the local and not so local landmarks - we could see for miles from up there! Then the ride began to move and we again exchanged places with the other gondola.
Once the boat had exited the gondola and moored up at the side of the canal basin where we initially boarded we were able to disembark thanking the crew members on the way as they had been brilliant and had really made the journey come alive.
We headed back into the shop where there was a range of the usual gifts consisting of pens, pads, key rings, fridge magnets, sweets, books, toys and drinks to name but a few of the items available. We bought a guide book about the wheel for my sister which cost £4.50 and we got a pen, pad and magnet too.
Just a Bit of Other Stuff
The Queen opened the wheel on 24th May 2002 by pressing a button to start the first revolution of the wheel - except that she didn't! They had gone out the day before and bought a bell from B & Q for £4.99 and wired it up so that when she pressed it, it rang in the operations room and the man in there started the wheel! She didn't even get to have a ride, presumably because of her schedule - she missed a treat!
Although we paid for our ride on the wheel commercial traffic travels for free just as you would through any lock or bridge.
The wheel is always balanced whether or not there are boats in both gondolas as Archimedes theory tells us that each boat displaces a weight of water equal to itself.
Would I Recommend a Visit?
You bet your life I would! It is an amazing structure to go and see even if you don't want to go for a ride. We thought that the ride itself was wonderful and a very reasonable price when you compare it to some of other visitor attractions around the UK. It was safe, interesting, entertaining, visually stunning and generally good fun - what more do you want?
The bit of technical information included in this review has been taken from the guide book, the website and the information given by the crew on the boat.
Summary: Well worth a visit - it is incredible