I didn’t have to wait as long between the last two walks as I had between the first two. We were keen to finish the canal now and, once the weather had started to get a bit better after winter, we arranged a date in late March 1995 to walk Kilsyth to Falkirk.
(Keen-eyed readers will note that technically that’s not the whole canal; it finishes in Grangemouth, not Falkirk. But I actually walked the section from Underwood Lock near Bonnybridge to Grangemouth only a few weeks before doing Kilsyth to Falkirk as part of a guided walk series, so I didn’t mind stopping a bit short with Ian and Chris. The last mile or so was filled in and culverted at that time anyway so there wasn’t a lot of canal stuff to see there).
I had mixed feelings as the day of the walk dawned. Of course I was looking forward to seeing more of the canal and spending another day with Ian and Chris, but I was a bit sad that this would be our last Forth and Clyde Canal walk, unless we decided to go back and do it again in the future which wouldn’t be quite the same. Also, what with this being a shorter walk and having already walked some of the route before, I decided it probably wouldn’t be as eventful as our first two walks, though I think I was wrong on that count in the end!
We’d done the second walk without a car or a dog, but both were now rejuvenated and were coming with us for the finale. I also had my own camera back again and planned to make up for the shortage of photos from the second walk by photographing practically everything on the third! As we sped along the M9 on our way to Falkirk (a novelty to me as my mother always preferred to take the back roads instead, leading me to think of places like Linlithgow and Falkirk as being much further away than they actually are), I was glad to see that it didn’t look as if it was going to rain this time. But then it hadn’t the second time either…
We had planned to leave the car at Falkirk Grahamston Station and get the train to Croy, then walk back. Unfortunately a broken down freight train was blocking the line so we decided we would have to get the bus instead. It was a while until the next one so we ended up in the same cafe as last time, but no chip butties were consumed this time. It was a bit too early in the morning for that.
It took so long for our drinks to arrive that we nearly missed the bus again, but soon we were safely seated up at the back, behind two teenage boys who were discussing the Simpsons. Ian decided that in the absence of chip butties he would have to start eating his packed lunch. I couldn’t really blame him; what with the train problems and the wait for the bus it was now a few hours since we’d left my house and we still hadn’t even seen the canal yet.
Kilsyth main street looked horribly familiar as the bus rounded the corner and pulled up at our stop. After last year’s experience we had no desire to look at it for any longer than necessary, so we turned away and headed down the side road that led to the canal. It seemed a much longer walk now than it had done last time, probably just because we were impatient to get on by this point. As we arrived at Auchinstarry Swing Bridge we saw that we weren’t the only people who’d given up our Saturday morning lie-ins to come to the canal: some canal society members were working on their boat, the Gipsy Princess, in the reedy basin next to the bridge.
After I’d taken photos of both the bridge and the boat, we (finally) set off eastwards. Although there was no rain, the wind was blowing in our faces, which was annoying. Chris said she’d planned all the walks so that the wind was likely to be on our backs, but it hadn’t worked today. I guess planning around the Scottish weather is never a very reliable proposition.
It didn’t take us long to reach the next bridge, at Craigmarloch. It wasn’t very much like I’d imagined. The books I’d read about the canal all made it sound like a really picturesque, significant place, I think mostly because the famous “Queen” pleasure steamers that used to sail out from Glasgow terminated here. But now, both the pavillion-type building used by the steamer passengers and the pretty little bascule bridge had gone, and Craigmarloch was just the point where a minor road crossed the canal on an anonymous concrete bridge. About the only mildly interesting thing left was the canal’s main water supply, which ran into it on the north side, the towpath crossing it on a little bridge.
Chris and I, having so far resisted the temptation to start on our packed lunches, were getting hungry by now, and since there was a little picnic site near the bridge, we decided to stop there and have our lunch. We had hoped to put a few more miles behind us first but the transport delays hadn’t been our fault and there was no point in walking along feeling hungry. While we ate we talked about the exams I had coming up at school, and Ian and Chris told me about what theirs had been like.
Beyond Craigmarloch, the canal widened out to maybe twice its normal width, and for a mile or two it cut dead straight across open country, looking quite impressive. This was Dullatur Bog which apparently gave the canal engineers a lot of headaches when they were trying to build through it. We saw some fishermen sitting in little tents on the grass verge away from the wind, their rods set up on the canal bank with some sort of electronic alarms that would trigger if a fish rose to the bait. This seemed pointless to us as we thought the point of fishing was to sit there holding your rod, but after we discussed it we came to the conclusion that the fishermen probably thought it was equally pointless for us to be walking along the canal.
Another thing I couldn’t understand was the rubbish. Even here, on one of the most remote stretches, people had dumped rubbish in the water, and there was even the remains of a television in the grass at the side of the towpath, which someone must have walked at least a mile from the nearest road in order to dump there.
The wide, straight, open section came to an end at Wyndford. The canal resumed its more usual proportions and finally curved again, and there were some trees around as well. There was also the first lock we’d seen all day, in fact the first one we’d passed since the Maryhill flight, way back on our first walk. There were more people fishing here, but unlike the ones we saw earlier they were doing it properly.
Round another few bends was the A80, the main Glasgow to Stirling dual carriageway. The whole reason the canal was closed back in the 1960s was so that this road could be built across it without the expense of a huge lifting bridge, so it was kind of notorious among people who liked the canal. Fortunately we didn’t have to dodge 70mph traffic to continue our walk; there was a dingy little concrete underpass through the road embankment. Chris had described it to me before as being the kind of place where “there’s things in corners that you don’t look at”, but I didn’t think it was quite that bad. On the far side of the blockage, Ian and I both stood on the old metal swing bridge that used to carry the old A80 so that we could take photographs of the new one (not that it was particularly photogenic).
As we walked on, we had to jump to the side quickly to avoid someone who was driving along the towpath to get to an old lock keeper’s cottage at the next lock. Like the Maryhill flight, these locks had been restored, and Ian couldn’t resist having a go of the new metal gates.
“I’ve always wanted to do this”, he said as he heaved one of the lower gates open. “But I’ve never dared to on the Crinan Canal in case the lock keeper comes out and shouts at me”.
“Someone’ll probably come out of that house and shout at you in a minute!” said Chris.
I wanted to have a go too, so I closed the gate Ian had opened, while Chris stood there looking embarrassed. No-one came out and shouted at us, but we moved on all the same.
A few hundred yards further on was Underwood Lock, where I’d started my guided walk a few weeks earlier. So that was it: I’d seen the whole canal! We were starting to get hungry again after having our food so early in the walk, so we decided to go into the canal side pub in the old lock house and see if we could get a snack, or at least something to drink. It didn’t really have the homely-traditional-canal-pub vibe I’d been expecting and was actually quite a smart restaurant, with very tidy looking families enjoying their meals and looking surprised to see a bunch of scruffy walkers like us slouch in. After a few minutes of wandering around we couldn’t find any staff.
“They must have seen us coming and run away”, I said, as we gave up and returned to the towpath somewhat regretfully.
A little further on, on the far side of Bonnybridge (probably quite close to where the Falkirk Wheel is now in fact, though it was a pretty nondescript location back then), we decided to stop and have the remainder of our food and drink, not that there was much left by this time. This stop turned out to be the unexpected highlight of the day for me, although I’m not sure if Ian and Chris enjoyed it so much. We sat down on the bank of the canal with our legs dangling over the edge. The bank was pretty high at this point and several feet below was a narrow shelf of mud next to the canal itself. Ben looked wistfully down there, no doubt feeling thirsty and wishing he could drink from the cool water.
“I don’t think you can get down there, Ben”, began Ian, seeing what was about to happen, but it was too late. Ben took a flying leap over the bank and landed on the mud below with his head nearly in the water.
“Bloody hell, Ben!” said Chris.
“How’s he going to get back up?” I said, and then had a laughing fit.
Ben seemed happy enough where he was for the moment, and at least it meant he could have a drink now, so we left him there while we had our drinks and snacks. At one point some people passed with a black labrador of their own, and that one jumped down next to Ben as well, so for a moment there were two of them down there! But the other dog, unlike Ben, was young and fit and managed to scramble back up the bank, leaving Ben well and truly stuck.
Eventually, when we’d had enough and wanted to move on, Chris jumped down and hauled Ben back up the bank, while Ian took some action photos and I watched and laughed.
Maybe it was the three cans of Irn Bru, or the constant wind that was blowing around my legs and making the canal water lap at the bank all day long, but I just could not stop needing to pee that day. I’m normally fine on long walks; I’m pretty sure I managed the Bowling to Glasgow walk fine with just a single toilet stop at the Clyde Shopping Centre, but for whatever reason this third walk was different. I found a secluded spot down an embankment near where Ben had his unexpected adventure, but no sooner had we resumed walking than I could feel the pressure starting to build again.
By the time we reached Falkirk and started to descend the lock flight towards Camelon Bridge, I was starting to look around anxiously for anywhere I could find a moment’s privacy, but there were houses and roads all around us now. It was just as well I knew this part of the canal quite well, having walked along it twice before, because right now I was too distracted by my bladder to take much of it in.
Finally, as we passed the little bridge over lock 8, I spied a wall with some trees behind it on the far side. That was good enough for me. I ran across the bridge and in between the wall and the trees, finally able to get some blessed relief. It was only after the urgent cries from my bladder subsided a little that I started to think: what is this place, anyway? It’s probably someone’s garden, isn’t it? But thankfully no-one seemed to notice me slinking sheepishly out again. (If you’re reading this now and it actually was your garden, all I can say is I’m sorry).
We left the canal about there. I probably would have insisted that we go right to the very end, even though it was just a crumbling weir surrounded by rusty fencing in a run down industrial area, but having already done that a few weeks ago I didn’t feel the need to inflict it on Ian and Chris now. Eventually we managed to find our way through the industrial estates of Falkirk to the Grahamston Station car park, where there was coffee for all of us waiting in a flask in the boot of the car (except for Ben who had the leftover milk). I’d only recently started drinking coffee, having decided that being wired on caffeine would be a good strategy for my upcoming exams.
So that was it. Three of the best days out of my life, which I’ll always remember fondly. Sadly we never did get around to doing any more walks together; both the Crinan Canal (which could be done in a single day, and indeed I did walk it in a single day on my own years later) and the West Highland Way were mentioned at various times, but we were never organised enough to actually do them. I did walk the central part of the Forth and Clyde Canal again with Ian about ten years after the initial walks, though; by that time it had reopened and was quite different from how I’d remembered it.