The Truly Fascinating Falkirk Wheel in Stirlingshire is the world’s only rotating boat lift – it is designed to connect the Forth & Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. (map) Named after the nearby town of Falkirk, the wheel was opened in May 2002 by Queen Elizabeth II as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, reconnecting the two canals for the first time since the 1930s. Prior to the Wheel the two canals were connected by a series of eleven locks, which dealt with a 35m level change. It required 3,500 tonnes of water per run and took most of a day to pass through the flight. The Falkirk Wheel has replaced all of this!
1,200 tonnes of steel was used to create The Wheel, and over 1000 people were employed in the construction of it… it has been designed to last for at least 120 years. The structure was fully constructed and assembled in Ripley, Derbyshire. It was then dismantled in the summer of 2001, and transported on 35 lorry loads to Falkirk, before being reassembled into five sections on the ground and lifted into place. The structure contains over 15,000 bolts which are matched with 45,000 bolts holes. Each of these bolts was hand tightened.
The wheel has an overall diameter of 35m (equivalent to eight double-decker buses stacked on top of each other) and consists of two opposing arms extending 15m beyond the central axle and taking the shape of a Celtic-inspired, double-headed axe. Two sets of these arms are connected to a 3.8m diameter central axle, which is 28m long. A water-tight chamber, or gondola, is fitted on each end of the arms. Each of these hold 250,000 litres of water – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in total. The gondolas always carry a combined weight of 500 tonnes of water and boats, with the gondolas themselves each weighing 50 tonnes. Each of the two gondola measures 6.5m across, and can hold up to four 20m long canal boats. They must balance so care is taken to maintain the water levels on each side, thus balancing the weight on each arm. Right, here comes the science bit: According to Archimedes’ principle floating objects displace their own weight in water, so when the boat enters, the amount of water leaving the gondola weighs exactly the same as the boat. This is achieved by maintaining the water levels on each side to within a difference of 37mm using a site-wide computer control system comprising water level sensors, automated sluices, and pumps. It takes 22.5 kilowatts to power ten hydraulic motors, which consume 1.5 kilowatt-hours per half-turn…this is unbelievably roughly the same as boiling just eight kettles of water!
Even if amazing feats of engineering are not your thing it is so worth visiting the Falkirk Wheel. The visitor centre is located on the east side of the lower basin. Boat trips on the wheel depart approximately once an hour. Since the wheel opened, around 5.5 million people have visited and 1.3 million have taken a boat trip, with around 400,000 people visiting the wheel annually. All of the staff we came into contact with were so friendly: the pilot or captain of one of the boats spent ages talking to Hoover before he took his trip out…when he came back we had climbed up the grassy hill to the upper canal to get a closer look, and he took great delight in calling to Hoover who happily trotted along next to the boat for a short distance. That dog has always got to get in on the act!!! Sadly dogs are not permitted on the boat trips or in the visitor centre, but they are welcome on the rest of the site and it was so easy to while away the afternoon watching the comings and goings of the canal boats, and the steady rotation of the wheel. There is ample free parking (streetview), and loads of green space to wear the dog out.
The site is very family friendly – there’s lots to do. You can hire a bike at the activity hub, or use your own bike, to cycle along the 20 minute, traffic-free route along the canal towpath to The Kelpies (see our previous post). Alternatively you can take the pink bus to The Kelpies from the turning circle. There is a water play park for the kiddies, canoe hire, electric boat hire, walking routes, a childrens’ activity zone, a nature trail, and even Segway hire
There is no charge for visiting The Wheel or the visitor centre, just for the boats trips. The visitor centre (streetview) has a coffee shop and gift shop, as well as loos, including disabled toilets. It is open from 10:00 – 17:00, daily. The Falkirk Wheel can be found at: Lime Road, Tamfourhill, Falkirk, FK1 4RS.