Union Canal section 5: Calder Crescent to Hermiston

This was definitely the most miserable weather we’d had for one of these walks yet, but I decided I was going to do it anyway rather than be cooped up in the house, for the sake of my sanity. My 21 month old son, though, had the right idea; previously he’s been happy to toddle along on his reins at least for the first part of each walk, but this time he was having none of it and immediately demanded to be put in his cosy buggy with the waterproof cover over it.

We started from the car park at Calder Crescent and walked back a little way to the Westburn Footbridge where we finished the last walk, then set off back the other way for our main walk. Unlike the last, this stretch of canal hasn’t changed hugely since I first walked it 30 years ago, though there have been some additions. The first is the Bridge 8 Hub by the car park, where it’s now possible to hire canoes and kayaks for fun on the water. They’re closed at the moment due to Covid-19, but it’s still possible to admire the beautiful wildlife murals painted on some of their storage containers.

Colourful containers and pretty carvings at Bridge 8 Hub
Colourful containers and pretty carvings at Bridge 8 Hub

Bridge 8 itself is a bit to the north, now sandwiched between the two utilitarian concrete bridges that replaced it. Although the canal runs mainly east-to-west, a few hundred yards here runs north-to-south: the lack of locks on the Union Canal means that it tends to wiggle about more than most canals do in order to keep on the same level, as well as making heavy use of embankments, cuttings and aqueducts.

Bridge 8 from underneath its replacement
Bridge 8 from underneath its replacement

Speaking of aqueducts, there’s an interesting one just after the canal rounds the corner to head west again, a modern concrete one crossing over the very busy Edinburgh City Bypass. This road very nearly spelled disaster for the canal when it was first proposed in the 70s: the original plan was for it to cut across the then-derelict canal at water level, possibly putting an end to any hope of reopening the waterway into Edinburgh, or at least making this prohibitively expensive. But various canal users, enthusiasts and related organisations fought the proposals and won, the road authorities agreeing to put the road in a cutting so that it could pass under the canal instead.

Scott Russell Aqueduct
Top of Scott Russell Aqueduct with Edinburgh City Bypass down below

Originally the aqueduct was called the Hermiston Aqueduct after the nearby village, but it was later named the Scott Russell Aqueduct after an engineer called John Scott Russell. A quiet rural section of the Union Canal might seem an unlikely place for a major scientific discovery to happen, but he discovered the Solitary Wave here by observing the waves produced by passing boats soon after the canal opened. As well as the name plate on the aqueduct, there’s also a plaque on bridge 11 commemorating him.

Plaque on bridge 11
Plaque on bridge 11 commemorating John Scott Russell

The canal changes markedly in character once you cross the bypass. The houses and commercial buildings that have lined its banks since the beginning are replaced by open fields. The bridges are different too – while most of the original stone arched canal bridges within Edinburgh have gone, from here onwards almost all of them survive. There are also a few new ones – bridge 10A at Gogar Station Road is a bit nicer than most of these, with its stone cladding and arched deck.

Bridge 10A at Gogar Station Road
Bridge 10A at Gogar Station Road

While the canal itself looks much the same here as it did in 1990, it doesn’t sound the same – the M8 motorway was extended in the mid-1990s and runs almost parallel to the canal, getting particularly close at bridge 12, resulting in a constant roar of traffic on what was once a fairly tranquil walk or sail. This is where we turned back, having finally had enough of the rain for one day.

Union Canal section 4: Wester Hailes

For the first time in my current attempt to walk the whole length of the canal, I’m deviating from the sections we walked the first time, 30 years ago. In fact, we didn’t walk this section at all first time round, but in our defence we did have a very good reason… there was no canal there back then!

Here’s the view at the end of Hailes Park back in the early 1990s…

Blockage on Union Canal at Wester Hailes
The canal disappeared into the Dumbryden Road embankment

and here’s roughly the same view this morning. Better, huh?

Union Canal at Dumbryden Road
Union Canal at Dumbryden Road

Just over a mile of the canal was filled in here in the late 1960s to make way for the new housing scheme at Wester Hailes. The water flow was maintained through large underground pipes, with a pumping station to keep it flowing to the now-cut-off city section. (Contrary to popular belief, canals aren’t stagnant; a lot of water actually flows through them every day, so if you block one off, this water still has to go somewhere). I once read somewhere that the original plan for the housing estate was to keep the canal as a sort of linear park, but after some boys drowned in the nearby Murray Burn, the plan was changed and both canal and burn were culverted instead.

But by the end of the century, things were changing. There was increasing momentum behind the idea of reopening the canal and eventually its owners succeeded in obtaining a large grant from the National Lottery’s Millennium Fund that would (along with funding from other organisations) completely reopen both the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal as well as linking them together with an impressive new rotating boat lift (which we’ll come to in another 28 miles or so). After two years of painstaking construction work and many millions of pounds spent, the pumps at Wester Hailes were switched off in the summer of 2001, the water flowing freely through a brand new canal channel instead.

Union Canal at Wester Hailes
Union Canal at Wester Hailes

Thankfully the canal mostly flowed under roads and green spaces rather than buildings, which made restoration easier and less disruptive than it might have been. The only demolition required was an internet cafe and, other than at the west end where it’s been diverted slightly to the south to avoid Wester Hailes Education Centre’s playing fields, the restored canal mostly follows the same line as the original canal did before it was filled in.

I seem to talk about bridges in all of these posts, and this one will be no exception, not least because there are loads of them on this stretch of canal – six road bridges and seven footbridges, far more than anywhere else. The road bridges are all the same design as the one at Kingsknowe, though number 7 is noticeably chunkier since it carries the Wester Hailes Road dual carriageway. My favourite one, though, is this one next to Dumbryden Road, because it has a interesting story behind it.

Bridge rescued from inside embankment
The bridge that was rescued from inside an embankment

This wasn’t one of the original 62 canal bridges (you can tell as it’s lacking a number on the keystone), but it’s built to the same design so I think it’s a pretty early one. It also survived being buried in a road embankment for about 30 years! During that time, the only clue to its existence was a low, slightly curved stone wall next to Dumbryden Road that looked suspiciously like a standard Union Canal bridge parapet. The bridge was dug out and patched up during the restoration work and doesn’t look much the worse for its ordeal. The parapet on the other side, which would have been right under the road surface, was missing and a new one had to be constructed, though time has made the difference in the colour of the stone less obvious than it was at first.

You see a lot of dog walkers along this stretch, not surprisingly considering how much housing surrounds it. At one of the road bridges it appears some of the dogs couldn’t wait until the concrete surface on the towpath had set before using it.

Paw prints in the concrete
Paw prints in the concrete

Overall, putting the canal back seems to have been a success. It’s a nice green space for local people, especially now that it’s been here long enough for the vegetation to grow a bit, and obviously essential for boats to get in and out of Edinburgh. If its presence has caused major safety problems I haven’t heard about them – the water is pretty shallow with gently sloping sides and there are generally plenty of people around to help if anyone did get into trouble.

We turned back at the Westburn Footbridge where the former filled in section comes to an end and the original canal takes over. You can still see the entrance to the old culvert on the north side (you can at the other end too), but otherwise there’s not much indication now that this is anything other than a normal stretch of canal. Well, except for the big display board telling you about it, of course.

Culvert entrance
The entrance to the culvert that used to take the canal underneath Wester Hailes before it was reopened

Union Canal section 3: Slateford to Dumbryden

This canal walk starts off on a high – literally – with the Slateford Aqueduct, soaring far above the valley of the Water of Leith on eight elegant stone arches. On most canals an aqueduct of this size would be the undisputed king, but the Union has more than its fair share of impressive aqueducts and Slateford clocks in at only the second longest and third tallest. Though famous engineer Thomas Telford apparently thought it was the best aqueduct in the country when he inspected it, so I guess that counts for something.

Slateford Aqueduct
Slateford Aqueduct, with the bowling club in front and the railway viaduct behind

Like the first two this is a rerun of a walk I did about 30 years ago. The aqueduct is still the same as it was back then, but there have been changes down below, in the form of a new section of the Water of Leith walkway suspended over the river, with some quite steep steps linking up to the canal towpath. (I had to carry my son up and down these steps in his “lightweight” buggy, and can now confirm that just because the buggy is lightweight doesn’t mean the occupant is). I think this was one of the last sections of the river walkway to be completed, probably because the lack of space on the bank here for a path made it a bit tricky. It now stretches almost uninterrupted from Balerno all the way to Leith. There’s also a little visitor centre between the aqueduct and the main road here, but that was of course closed when I passed (along with just about everything else right now).

Slateford Aqueduct top
Slateford Aqueduct top, with overflow sluice gate on the left

This was a very green walk with the vegetation on both banks looking a bit overgrown. I guess the recent hot and wet weather coupled with lack of maintenance during the Covid-19 restrictions has probably caused that, but I did pass the Scottish Canals dredger on my way back along today so maybe they are getting back on top of things now.

Scottish Canals dredger
Scottish Canals dredger working on a very green canal

Two railway bridges cross the canal west of Slateford. The first carried the Balerno branch line which is now a walkway leading towards Colinton. One of our regular dog walks when I was a child was to park at Slateford, walk along the canal towpath to this bridge, then along the railway path, down into Craiglockhart Dell, and back to Slateford along the river. The other railway bridge is still in use and carries the West Coast Mainline, whose viaduct runs parallel to the canal aqueduct but at a lower level.

Balerno Branch bridge
Balerno Branch bridge

There’s a tiny aqueduct under the canal at Redhall between the two railway bridges, just a pedestrian tunnel really. I’m sure it used to be possible to walk through it, but it was flooded when I went down for a look today.

Bigger changes have happened round the corner at Kingsknowe. After the canal was closed, bridge 5 by the station was taken away and replaced by a road embankment, completely blocking the canal (though with large pipes under the surface to maintain the water flow). Several bridges along the route suffered the same fate, though this damage was eventually repaired. Thirty years ago we had to climb up the embankment and cross the road to continue our walk, but today I was able to walk under the reinstated bridge 5 instead.

Kingsknowe Road blockage
The old blockage at Kingsknowe, taken in the 1990s

These new bridges are all of the same style, with an “arch and keystone” effect cast into the concrete of the deck as a nod to the canal’s original stone arched bridges, and “MM” engraved on some of the pilasters, recognising that the largest portion of the money used to build them came from the National Lottery Millennium Fund.

Kingsknowe Bridge
The new bridge 5 at Kingsknowe

The work that had to be done to reopen the canal for navigation at Kingsknowe Bridge pales into insignificance compared to what was at the other end of Hailes Park… but that’s where I turned back today, so it will have to wait til next time.

Union Canal section 2 (Harrison Park to Slateford)

I walked the second section of the Union Canal today, from Harrison Park to Slateford. (See my first post for background on what I’m doing and why). Again this corresponded exactly to a section we walked back in 1989. For some reason I thought this stretch was much longer than the first one, but in reality it’s almost exactly the same length (about a mile).

Flats at Meggetland
I remember when this was all fields. OK, playing fields… but still…

This part of the canal, a pleasant meander through the suburbs of south west Edinburgh, really hasn’t changed very much at all in the last thirty years. It’s still quiet and pleasant and green, though slightly less green than it was past the Meggetland playing fields where several new blocks of flats have been built on what was once open grass. On the plus side, at least they’re reasonably nice looking compared to most modern flats, with their round towers and multicoloured brickwork. Another change (which applies to the whole urban portion of the canal) is that the towpath, once just a rough track, is now tarmacked and has LED lighting embedded in it, making walking the canal after dark much safer than it used to be.

Bridge 4 at Meggetland

There are three bridges over the canal between Harrison Park and Slateford, two of which are worth mentioning. The first of the canal’s original stone arched bridges survives next to Meggetland. When the route first opened there were 62 of these, 50 of which still stand today, which is not bad really considering it’s now two centuries since they were built. The one at Meggetland is number 4, with a handy new sign on it saying “Bridge 4” just in case the large “4” that’s always been carved onto the keystone wasn’t obvious enough. This bridge is no longer in use, having been bypassed by a nondescript new concrete bridge on the east side; all of the canal’s original bridges are now listed structures, so the ones that have required upgrading since the 1980s or so have their replacements alongside like this (prior to then the old bridge would just have been unceremoniously demolished, as most of the others within Edinburgh have been).

Allan Park Footbridge
Allan Park Footbridge, originally built as a tram bridge

There’s also an unassuming metal footbridge at Craiglockhart, which I only found out recently has more of a history than I’d realised. It was actually built originally to carry a tramway to Redford Barracks, which perhaps explains why it looks more substantial than most footbridges. The tram line was never finished and it was only ever used to carry water mains, which you can still see attached to it in the photo above.

Top of Prince Charlie Aqueduct

In addition to the overbridges, there are a couple of places on this section where another route passes underneath the canal. The first is where the Edinburgh South Suburban railway line tunnels under the canal (as well as a boathouse and Colinton Road) adjacent to the long-defunct Craiglockhart Station. This line is still used to allow freight trains to bypass Haymarket and Waverley, but hasn’t seen a passenger service since the 1960s.

Prince Charlie Aqueduct by night
Prince Charlie Aqueduct over Slateford Road by night

The canal also passes over Slateford Road on a wide single-arched, slightly art deco style concrete aqueduct which, as the inscription above the arch suggests, replaced the much narrower original stone aqueduct in 1937. The Union Canal is well known for its aqueducts and we’ll be seeing much more of them (including in the very next section, in fact!).

Lockdown Blog 3: Walking the Union Canal (the first mile)

For obvious reasons I can’t do my usual mix of day trips, weekends away, family holidays and so on this summer. So, while I have to admit that “making the best of a bad situation” doesn’t come easily to me, I’ve turned my attention to what I can do closer to home instead to try and preserve my sanity until things are a bit more normal. And one of my ideas was “Let’s walk the whole length of the Union Canal again”.

Lochrin Basin
Lochrin Basin at the eastern end of the Union Canal

I used to be a bit obsessed with canals and bridges and so on as a boy, and when I was about ten my mum (who liked to encourage this interest) suggested that we walk the whole of the canal (in sections, since 31 miles in one go would be a bit much!). In fact, we’d already tried to do something similar with the River Almond, but walking the canal would be a lot easier since it had a towpath all the way along. I was excited about this. I’d already visited a few locations along the canal and found them all interesting, so seeing the whole thing would be great.

We started the “Canal Expedition” as we called it at the Edinburgh end in the summer of 1989, which I can hardly believe is over 30 years go. We mostly walked sections of one or two miles at a time, though a few were longer, and our progress was very sporadic – if I remember rightly, we got about half way within a few months, but then didn’t do any more for several years, and it wasn’t until late 1994 that we triumphantly completed the final section, from Polmont to Falkirk.

Leamington Lift Bridge
Leamington Lift Bridge at some point in the 90s, before restoration

Once our strict lockdown ended and we were allowed to travel a bit for leisure again, I thought it would be interesting to do the same thing again now and see how much it’s changed 30 years on. I love the canal so obviously I have been back to it numerous times during the intervening decades, but this is the first time since then that I’ve actually set out to walk the whole thing from east to west. Right now, there’s still a 5 mile travel restriction in force in Scotland, so I’ll only be able to do the first few sections until this is relaxed, but the rest’ll give me something to look forward to. Anyway, enough of the preamble… on with the walk.

The first section I walked was from the Edinburgh terminus of the canal at Lochrin basin to Harrison Park, about a mile out from the city centre. It was exactly the same section we started with in 1989, but it’s changed a lot in the mean time. Back then it was still mostly unused and forgotten, the first few hundred yards surrounded by run down looking industrial buildings. It was also quite rare to see boats in this area – although the Edinburgh section of the canal was used sometimes by rowers and canoeists, there were no larger boats. Not surprising really, considering that at that time they would only have been able to sail a few miles before finding a road in their way (more on that later).

(Actually, I didn’t walk quite the same route this time; the first time around we started on Lothian Road, where the canal used to terminate at a large basin called Port Hopetoun before it was truncated to its present terminus in 1922. This time I didn’t bother with that and just started from Edinburgh Quay near Fountainbridge, since there’s nothing to see on Lothian Road other than a stone carving on one of the buildings commemorating the old port).

Boats moored near Viewforth
Boats moored near Viewforth

Today the area has been transformed. The canal was fully reopened in 2001 (though the link to the Forth and Clyde Canal wasn’t restored until the following year) and the newly created Edinburgh moorings are usually busy with colourful narrowboats, some privately owned and some community boats owned by organisations such as Re-Union. The old industrial buildings have been swept away and in their place are smart new blocks of housing, offices, bars and restaurants with open spaces allowing pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy the waterside. A lot of people were taking advantage of this opportunity at the same time as I was – I suspect it wouldn’t be so busy on a “normal” night with the pubs and restaurants open.

Further out, things start to feel a bit more closed in, with tenement blocks backing onto the canal on both sides. It opens up more again at Harrison Park, with the park itself on the north bank and larger suburban houses on the south. This area is definitely the prettiest part of the city section of canal with the picturesque church next to Harrison Road Bridge, the yellow boathouse at Ashley Terrace, and usually plenty of boats and wildlife on the water as well.

Ashley Terrace Boathouse
Ashley Terrace Boathouse at Harrison Park

The Union Canal has no locks except at its far western end near the Falkirk Wheel, so the most obvious canal features on this section are the bridges. There are five in total, all the same ones that were there when I first walked it, though the impressive Leamington Lift Bridge has been restored to full working order since then, and the metal bridges numbered 1, 2 and 3 have had a new coat of smart pale blue paint, having previously been quite drab looking. (Bonus geeky fact: if you’re wondering why the numbering doesn’t start at the first bridge, apparently the first few bridges at the Edinburgh end were originally built as little wooden drawbridges, and for some reason they had their own distinct numbering system, separate from the stone arched bridges used along the rest of the canal. So now you know).

I’ll hopefully be out again soon walking westwards from Harrison Park, so shouldn’t be too long until the next post.

Lockdown Blog 2: Training an AI to recognise the Simpsons

Introduction

I’ve been meaning to have a proper play around with modern artificial intelligence techniques for a while, and during lockdown with more time on my hands seemed like a good time to give it a go. So I trained a deep learning neural network to recognise characters from The Simpsons. (As you do).

This was actually my third foray into neural networks: I used one (not very successfully) for my final year university project way back in the mists of time, and I also experimented with training one to generate text last year. (Among other things, I fed it megabytes of text from my diary and got it to generate its own diary entries based on them, which was pretty hilarious if not particularly useful). But this was the first time I’ve attempted to use one in what’s probably their biggest application area, namely computer vision and image recognition.

I thought recognising Simpsons characters would be a good way to get started with this, for several reasons. Firstly, I really like the Simpsons (or at least I did until it all went downhill in the late 90s or so). Secondly, it was relatively easy to get hold of large amounts of Simpsons images for training and testing the network (more on that in a moment). And thirdly, because cartoon characters look so distinctive, it would be easier to get a computer to tell them apart than it would in the case of (for example) real people.

Before I go any further I’d like to give a shout out to the fantastic Practical Deep Learning For Coders course made by the developers of fast.ai. I watched all the course videos a few months ago and found them incredibly interesting and inspiring, possessing the rare combination of being instantly accessible but also going into the subject in great depth. As an illustration of what I mean, after the first half hour or so of the opening lecture you’re already up and running with training a classifier to tell different cat and dog breeds apart, while the second half of the videos delve right into the code, explaining it right down to a line-by-line analysis of the algorithms that make up a neural network. Highly, highly recommended for anyone who knows how to code and is at all interested in AI.

Preparing the data

The first step in building a deep learning model is getting together some data that you can use for training and testing the neural network. In my case, I needed as many images from The Simpsons as I could get hold of, and I also needed to “tag” them (or at least most of them) with the names of the characters that appeared in them.

I decided to write a Python script that would download random images from Frinkiac, which is basically a Simpsons screen grab search engine, often used for making memes and so on. I felt a bit bad as it probably wasn’t intended for this usage, but in my defence I was quite gentle with it – I left my script running over a period of days, grabbing a single image at a time and then sleeping for a while so as not to hammer the site’s bandwidth. By the end of this process I had a completely random selection of around 3,000 screen captures from the first 17 seasons of the show sitting on my hard drive.

The next step was to “tag” these with the names of the characters that appeared in them. You might wonder why I had to do this… after all, my aim was to get the computer to identify the characters automatically, not to have to do it myself, right? Well yes, but in order to train a neural network to perform this sort of recognition task, you need to give it “labelled” data – that is, you show it an image along with a label describing what’s in it, in quite a similar way to how you might train a person to recognise characters they weren’t previously familiar with, in fact. So you need the data to be labelled.

I wasn’t looking forward to this bit as I knew it would take quite a bit of time consuming manual work – I was going to have to look at every image myself and identify the characters present, then enter that information into the computer somehow. To ease the pain, I built a little web app to try and make this process as fast as possible. It showed me the images in turn, allowing me to tag each one and move onto the next one with the minimum of key presses, writing the image names and tags into a CSV file that I could use with the AI software later on. In all I think it took me maybe an hour to write the web app and about 2 hours to tag the images, which wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

Initially I had planned to train the network to recognise all the named characters in the show, but I later realised I probably didn’t have enough data for this – some of the more minor characters only showed up a handful of times in my training images, not really enough to make the recognition reliable. So instead I decided to focus on just the four main characters: Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa.

Training the model

Once I had the tagged training data ready, I turned my attention to actually training a neural network to recognise it. I used the same software used in the fast.ai course I mentioned above, namely fast.ai itself (which is built on PyTorch), with the code written in the form of a Jupyter Notebook for easy experimentation. I used a ResNet34, a classic architecture for image recognition, though I also tried using a larger ResNet50 to see if it worked any better (it didn’t). Training (on my GeForce 1050Ti) only took about 5 minutes, then I was able to play with the resulting model, testing it on images it hadn’t seen before.

Overall, I was reasonably happy with it, for a first attempt. It worked very well indeed (almost perfectly) for images that included a reasonably close shot of one of the characters’ faces. For example:

Prediction: 99.78% Bart
Prediction: 99.01% Marge
Prediction: 98.98% Lisa
Prediction: 99.99% Homer

(You may notice that the model doesn’t just give a straight yes or no prediction, but a percentage score indicating how confident it is that each character does appear in the image).

The model doesn’t work so well for more complicated situations such as characters being partially hidden, characters viewed from an unusual angle, characters wearing unusual clothing (especially clothing that covers up some of their distinctive features), characters far away in the distance so that they appear very small in the image, and so on. Below are some examples where it doesn’t make such a confident prediction, and my speculation as to why that might be.

Prediction: 35.4% Marge. The model thinks it’s more likely that Marge is in the image than any of the other characters (who all scored likelihoods of less than 10%), but still isn’t very confident, probably because she’s in a slightly unusual position and has her head turned away.

Prediction: 54.23% Homer. The model thinks there’s a decent chance Homer is in this image, but isn’t very sure, probably because only the top of his face is visible in this one.

Prediction: 99.88% Lisa, 11.55% Bart. The model is very certain Lisa is here, but nowhere near as confident about Bart. I think this is probably because Bart is partially hidden behind Lisa and Maggie, while Lisa is fully visible.

Prediction: 97.23% Bart, 97.49% Homer, 88.81% Lisa, 68.79% Marge. This time the model correctly identifies that all four characters are in the image, but it’s significantly less certain about Marge than the others, probably because her face is obscured behind Bart.

Prediction: 87.75% Bart, 53.09% Homer, 94.77% Lisa, 39.25% Marge. In this shot, all the characters are present but not in their usual clothing. Bart and Lisa are recognised with a high degree of confidence, but the model is understandably not so confident about Homer, since only the top of his face and head is visible. Surprisingly, it’s even less confident about Marge, maybe because her trademark hair is mostly hidden from view.

Prediction: 98.25% Homer, 74.86% Marge. The model is a lot less confident about Marge than Homer, presumably because Homer’s glass is obscuring most of her face.

Prediction: 91.71% Homer, 93.39% Marge, 67.27% Lisa. Homer and Marge are recognised with more than 90% certainty as expected. Interestingly, the model also thinks that Lisa is probably here, I’m guessing because Maggie looks very similar to Lisa in some ways, notably her hair and eyes.

So that’s my model. I have no doubt at all that it could be done much better by someone with more expertise (or, for that matter, a better training data set), but as someone who started programming back in the days when it would have been unimaginable for a computer to do this, it’s amazingly cool to see it working even as well as it is.

Can I play with it?

More seriously, I’d like to find out how to make models like this available online for people to have a go of, but I’m not there yet. I’m new to all this and don’t want to end up overloading my web host, or running up a huge bill if I go down the cloud hosting route, so I’d definitely want to do some research or testing before attempting this.

Lockdown Blog 1

I haven’t posted on here in a while… I think it’s fair to say that, back in the now very innocent seeming days of mid-2019, I did not expect my next post to be written from a country in full lockdown, forbidden from leaving our homes except for a few very specific reasons. I don’t think anyone else saw it coming either.

As I write this, we’ve been in lockdown for just over a week, and I personally have been working from home for just over two weeks. I should acknowledge right from the start that I’m in a pretty fortunate position compared to a lot of people: no-one close to me seems to have got the virus yet, I have a pleasant and secure place to spend lockdown with people I love, and I’m relatively safe from the financial effects of all this as well. I fully support the lockdown and I know that people suffering from the virus and those on the front line of treating it are much worse off than I am.

That said, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that this is an unprecedented upheaval for almost all of us, and that it’s clearly going to affect everyone one way or another. So I think it’s completely legitimate to talk about how it might affect our mental health and what might be good coping strategies, even for those of us not on the front line.

Speaking for myself, a few weeks ago when it started to become clear what was about to happen, I was utterly dreading it. Probably not an uncommon reaction, but I had particular reason to be worried. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve spent a lot of my life (almost the whole of the first 15 years of adulthood, in fact) living with clinical depression and anxiety. Eventually I managed to get this mostly under control, but the only way I ever found to keep the depression at bay was to keep doing lots of exciting things to keep my mood up: folk dancing, solo foreign travel, urban exploration, taking part in the Beltane Fire Festival, and so on.

I’ve pretty much spent the last several years making sure I always had a few of those things lined up to look forward to within the next few months, and it has made a massive difference: to put it bluntly, the difference between life feeling worth living, and… well… not worth living. So hearing the news that none of these activities were going to be possible for several months, quite likely not for the whole of this year, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt as if, after years of thinking I’d never be able to walk again, I’d finally learned to hobble around with the aid of crutches, only to now be told I wasn’t allowed to use the crutches for the next several months. And I really, REALLY didn’t want to go back to the way I used to live my life before I found the crutches.

After that initial panic was over with, though, I feel like I’ve settled into a new routine a bit better than expected. It actually reminds me a bit of two previous periods of my life, in some ways at least. One is the time 18 months ago when my son had just been born and I was off work on paternity leave. All the usual rules and day-to-day routine just went out the window and suddenly there was only one objective: to survive each new day as it came. I don’t mind admitting that I had some pretty dark thoughts at times during those early weeks, wondering whether I’d ever get a decent (or even adequate) night’s sleep again, wondering whether I’d ever get my life back, whether I’d ever be able to do the adult things I’d once so enjoyed again or whether I was destined to sacrifice everything for this tiny little new person for evermore. (In the end it was nowhere near as bad as I feared and, while some stuff obviously has changed, I was back to sleeping OK and back to doing most of my activities within a few months).

The other period this reminds me of is when I was a child myself, in the sense that my horizons seem to have suddenly and drastically shrunk back to nearly where they were back then. As a child, almost my whole life revolved around my home, my school a short walk away, and nearby places like the shops and the green spaces where we would walk our dog. Going anywhere further afield, like to visit extended family, go on holiday, go for a walk in the countryside or even go into the city centre felt like a rare special treat in comparison. As for going abroad, I’d never been at all.

After I became an adult, the world seemed to open up: the city centre became somewhere I would go every day for work and often for multiple nights out per week; I would go for frequent weekends away, sometimes as many as two or three in the same month; everywhere within an hour or two’s drive could be visited on a whim just by jumping in the car on a day off; and I would go abroad, either for work or pleasure, anything up to four or five times a year. That became the new normal for me. Now it’s abruptly reversed and I’m suddenly back in that closed, parochial world of childhood again, only even more so this time.

Whilst neither of those past experiences were quite like what’s happening now, I feel I did learn some stuff from them that might help in the present. I’m trying to view the current situation very much like I viewed the early days of fatherhood: focussing on surviving one day at a time, not worrying about anything bar the essentials, and trying to keep the faith that things will go back to normal eventually. I’m also trying to remember the habits that got me through spending so much time in or near the house back in my teens: enjoying music, TV, movies and video games, being creative, and looking forward to the fun stuff I can do in future when the opportunities arise. I’ll probably write some more entries about specific things I’m doing (I’ve already got a few ideas) over the coming days and weeks.

Of course, it’s a bit hard to look forward to fun stuff in the future when we have absolutely no idea how long this is all going to go on for. I find myself really hoping that the government are going to follow the “hammer and dance” strategy set out in this very informative article, because that would mean only a few weeks of strict lockdown, followed by relaxing some restrictions and applying some more targetted and intelligent measures instead. But it’s hard to tell from the briefings whether this is their intention, and I’m not qualified to judge whether it’s even a viable plan at all. So I’m trying to prepare myself for the possibility that we might be locked in for much longer than that.

Fear Of Missing Out (or in my case “Fear Of Already Having Missed Out”

I saw this fantastic article posted on a friend’s Facebook. I read it thinking that it might relate to my own experiences, and I wasn’t wrong.

I’ve suffered from the “fear of missing out” (or in my case maybe more accurately the “fear of having already missed out”) for most of my adult life. But before I delve into that, here’s a bit of background. Not because I want to moan about how hard my life’s been or elicit sympathy, just because what I want to say will make a lot more sense with that background.

You see, in my case the “fear of missing out” wasn’t entirely groundless. I did miss out on a lot of stuff in my late teens and early 20s, a time of life when everyone’s supposed to be out exploring the world, bonding with their peers and having amazing experiences. For me it wasn’t like that at all, in fact it was the lowest point of my life so far. By the time I left school and went to university, years of bullying (plus some other more complicated stuff that I won’t go into in this post) had left me with anxiety and depression that was almost crippling.

Throughout my entire time at university I had no close friends, no love life, in fact hardly any social life at all (at least to begin with). I would go in for my classes but afterwards I would come straight home to my bedroom in my parents’ house, certain that there was something terribly wrong with me but with no idea how to fix it, or even what it really was.

Thankfully, things did start to get gradually better. As I got more used to being around people, my social anxiety subsided slightly. I still wasn’t really up to forming meaningful relationships, but at least I got better at dealing with everyday situations without wanting to run away and hide. The depression was alleviated slightly as well, helped a bit by therapy and a bit more by experiencing some major successes in my life (namely getting my first job and passing my driving test).

I started to socialise with my new colleagues and soon I was going for nights out reasonably often and coping with them a lot better than I used to. I tried out various social groups outside work as well, finding some that suited me quite well. Eventually I finally got to the point where I started to form meaningful relationships, and I was also living on my own by that time.

At that point you might think that my problems were nearly solved. After all, I had overcome the depression and anxiety to the extent that I was able to live independently, work, socialise and have relationships. I was more or less functional in every major area of life. But my stupid dysfunctional brain had other ideas.

It really started when my first relationship ended very badly. Of course, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that; I think most people’s first relationships end quite badly. Relationships are actually quite hard work and not all as fun and glamourous as they’re made out to be. The problem was how I handled it. Instead of picking myself up, shrugging and moving on with my life, I became fixated on the idea that this had happened because I’d left it too late: I’d missed out on the experiences that most people had in their teens that taught them how to deal with relationships, and as a result I would never be able to have a proper, healthy relationship.

It wasn’t just in the field of relationships, either. I found myself obsessing over how I’d missed out on all the amazing social experiences most people have at high school and university, and I thoroughly convinced myself that nothing I could possibly do in the future would ever live up to that. Of course, even if that had actually been true, the rational response would have been to cut my losses, stop fixating on it, move on from it and get on with making the rest of my life as good as it could be, regardless of whether it was going to live up to what I’d previously missed out on or not. But I found myself unable to stop thinking about those lost years.

Thoughts like that are pretty debilitating. Although I continued to attempt to socialise in the present (after all, what else could I do?), constantly comparing it to an imagined past that I should have had was a pretty good way to kill any enjoyment I might otherwise have experienced, not to mention putting up a barrier that stopped me from really getting close to anyone. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about going out for drinks when all you can think about is all those amazing wild nights that everyone else was having as a student, and about how boring and tame your night is going to be compared to those. And it’s hard to feel a connection to anyone when you’ve written yourself off as damaged goods due to not having had the proper formative experiences that everyone else has.

I think a large part of the problem is that a lot of this stuff is so over-hyped in the media that the reality is almost certain to fall short. The ideas that (for example) teenagers and students are constantly bonding with each other and having wild parties, or that sex is unimaginably, mind-blowingly amazing are constantly rammed down our throats these days. So when various “firsts” for me (first time in a nightclub, first time having sex) left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed and thinking “is that it then?”, it was easy to assume that I must have somehow done them “wrong”. And instead of thinking that maybe those experiences just weren’t the be-all and end-all like I’d been led to believe, I convinced myself that they would have been if only I’d done them at the right age. They were only disappointing because I’d left them “too late”.

(Don’t get me wrong, I like going for nights out and I like having sex. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, and I’m not saying they aren’t enjoyable. It’s just that they’d both been built up to such ridiculous levels in my head that I was expecting them to be completely off the scale compared to everything else I’d experienced before. And they just weren’t).

As I became more and more frustrated with this feeling of having missed out, I started to go out of my way to try and have experiences more like the ones I was convinced I’d missed out on. I even contemplated a really major life change that I thought might help, though with hindsight I don’t think it would have and it’s probably for the best that I didn’t go through with it.

Looking back now, though, what interests me most is the complete lack of consideration I gave to whether I actually wanted those experiences for themselves or not… were they things that were important to me, things I thought I would get a lot of enjoyment from? Not really, no. They were really just things I wanted to tick off a list so that I wouldn’t have to feel as if I’d missed out on them anymore. To paraphrase Mark Manson’s article, I wasn’t motivated by the joy of experiencing something great. I was motivated by the fear of not experiencing something great.

If I’m brutally honest with myself, the idea of being a stereotypical young person who’s constantly out drinking and sleeping around didn’t really appeal to me when I actually was a teenager, which is probably why I didn’t make very much effort to live that lifestyle at the time. At that age I was actually happier working on my computing projects, going out for walks and having uneventful nights in with my handful of friends. Sure, I liked the idea of having a relationship at some point, but I wasn’t consumed by the idea and was happy enough on my own for the moment. It was only afterwards when I started to panic about having missed things that Everyone Else seemed to have done and bonded over that I started to obsess over it. And in fact, I started to feel much better as soon as I started to ask myself what I really wanted out of life, and realised that I wasn’t so far away from it after all.

Realistically, I doubt I’m the only one who didn’t do all that stuff at the “normal” age. In fact I know I’m not from various conversations over the years. More than that, everyone’s lives are different: there isn’t some gold standard Young Person Experience where you work your way through everything in some prescribed order, ticking off each life lesson at exactly the right stage in your development and moving cleanly onto the next one. That’s one of the reasons why it was so futile for me to fixate on trying to recapture this lost experience. I was chasing after something that simply doesn’t exist, something that never existed except in my own imagination.

If my life had panned out differently, maybe I would have ticked off some of those things at an earlier age, maybe closer to the average age. But I’d bet my bottom dollar that the main difference wouldn’t have been that they were materially better at that age; it would just have been that I would have learned sooner that those experiences rarely live up to the hype surrounding them.

Ultimately, if I missed out on anything, it wasn’t getting laid in Freshers Week and going out clubbing three times a week for the duration of my course. It was living in the moment and enjoying things as they come. And I’m starting to see that that can only be fixed by getting away from the whole mindset of having “missed out”.

Where have the political posts gone?

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you came to look at one of my political blog posts and got redirected to this one instead. Hi!

I’ve taken the political posts down. I’d been thinking about it for a while, and in the end it seemed the best option. The truth is, it wasn’t doing me any good to be spending as much time as I was thinking about things that make me angry and that I can’t realistically have any influence over, so I’m going to try and stop.

I know a lot of people won’t agree with this. They’ll see it as pathetic, even childish to bury my head in the sand instead of facing reality. They would probably argue that if I strongly believe in what I was saying, I should try to do something about it, try to change people’s minds, campaign for things to be better, etc. It’s true, people can sometimes make a positive difference that way… but I haven’t been making a difference. I’ve just been getting myself worked up into a state of anger and stress over the news almost daily and occasionally venting on here in a way that was unlikely to convert anyone to my point of view.

Even if I was to direct my anger towards something a little more constructive, I have to be realistic and balance the very small positive difference I might be able to make against the considerable personal cost. I’m not particularly good at campaigning or persuading people and I find that sort of thing mentally draining, not to mention that it would take a lot of time I just don’t have these days. On the other hand my family need me to be good at being a husband and father, my employer needs me to be good at writing software, and I need myself to be in good enough mental shape to cope and actually enjoy life sometimes. Spending half my energy getting wound up by the political situation jeopardises all of that. And if the worst should happen and things in this country are potentially going to get really bad in a way that affects me personally, I need to be on top form to deal with it as best I can.

And some people would no doubt say it’s pathetic that I can’t control my thoughts and emotions sufficiently to stop that stuff from bothering me so much. I disagree. What I’m doing now is taking control over those effects, the only way I know how. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my mental health isn’t the best and I make no apology for that.

My views on the issues I wrote about haven’t actually changed. I’ll still be voting against the stuff that pisses me off any time I get the chance. I just don’t want half my life to be consumed by unproductive thoughts about it anymore.

But why not leave the old political posts up for people to read and just don’t write any more of them? Several reasons, really. Firstly in cases like this I find it easier to draw a line in the sand and try to make a clean break with the past. If I left the posts up I might decide not to write any more now, but then change my mind next week and go straight back to my old ways again. Secondly, whenever new comments come in on the old posts and I get notified about them, it drags all of these issues back into my awareness again and I’d rather avoid that as much as possible.

Thirdly, contrary to how it may have sounded at times, I actually don’t want to alienate all the people who disagree with me and cause further division. Some of them are people I need to be able to get on with, even people I care about. Their views don’t make them bad people and it does no good at all to introduce unneeded tensions into my relations with them.

And finally, those posts were just not really in the spirit of what this blog was supposed to be about. When I started it back in 2011 I just wanted somewhere to post about things that I found fun or interesting, and to talk a bit about my ongoing recovery from anxiety and depression related problems. It was never meant to be dominated by angry, divisive political rants and I’m hoping to take it back to its roots in the coming months.

Thanks for reading and, whether you’re of the same political persuasion as me or not, peace be with you 🙂 .

Kilsyth to Falkirk Canal Walk

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.

Auchinstarry 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.

Gipsy Princess in her berth among the reeds. There’s a huge marina and The Boathouse restaurant here now

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.

Craigmarloch 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.

Wyndford Lock

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).

The notorious A80 obstruction

The old A80 swing bridge

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.

Lock 19 (with a blurry Ian, Chris and Ben)

“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.

Lock 18, the one Ian and I played with. The photos from here onwards were taken by Ian, who had a proper camera and knew how to use it, so they’re a lot better than mine!

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 stuck down the bank

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.

Chris readies herself for the rescue operation

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.

Up he comes!

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.

Me, Chris and Ben by lock 10, almost the very end of our Forth and Clyde Canal adventure

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.