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”.
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.
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).
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.
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.