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‚Ķ 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.