Forth Clyde Cycle Ride
It’s long been on the list, the Forth & Clyde canal, one of the remnants of our industrial past, an ancient yet timeless example of Georgian ingenuity, an inland link between two great bodies of water, a navigational gift and an easily-ridable path. The Forth and Clyde canal was once an artery of trade, packed with narrow boats and barges transporting goods from Clydebank to Grangemouth, then to Edinburgh once the Union arm was built. As with most canals, its profitability declined with the dawn of the railways, and in the 1960s, 200 years after opening, it was abandoned. Nature was quick to claw back the land, water stagnating, lock gates becoming rotten and broken, towpaths succumbing to the creeping progress of brambles, and sluices rusting. Canal restoration is a modern phenomena, prompted by a wish to preserve our industrial past while giving new life to waterways that now provide pleasure for walkers, boaters, cyclists and tourists. So in the early 2000s, after a multi-million-pound project, the Forth and Clyde canal re-opened.
Being a boater myself it’s no surprise I am drawn by the inland waterways, and with no way of taking my own boat up there (other than by sea – no chance, or by lorry – too much hassle), the bicycle was the best option. I would usually travel with my bike by train, but with a limited income the £10 coach ticket was far more tempting. The only snag was that full-sized bicycles are not permitted on the National Express, so I would be doing this ride on my brother-in-law’s Brompton. I sold the idea to my friend Jude, adding the extra draw of taking a ride out to see the newly-opened Queensferry crossing; a fellow bridge enthusiast, I knew she’d be game.
An overnight coach would take us from London to Edinburgh, and as the evening grew old the coach weaved its way out of city streets packed with traffic. Heads nodded and a rumbling, disturbed sleep followed, with vague flashes of the M1 in the confusion between dreams and reality. I awoke sometime near dawn to find a wan, orange-yellow orb staring back at me; we were following the Northumbrian coast and the early morning glow played over the distant waves. Between dozes the sun slipped steadily higher, its light growing in intensity, flooding full over the landscape by the time we crossed the Scottish border. On reaching the capital city we unwrapped ourselves from sleep, shaking out limbs and righting cricked necks.
Coast to coast has always had a draw of intrigue, to wave goodbye to one shore and ride on a steady trajectory until you can ride no further. So with a sense of adventure (and full of BBL’s delicious vegan Lorne sausages) we stood on Edinburgh’s crown and stared down the Forth to the open sea, then turned our backs, rattling down cobbled streets before ducking out of the city along a disused railway line. The hills were few, but still too much for my two gears, so it was off and pushing frequently, which I didn’t mind at all – on such a tiny bike it was the easiest thing in the world to hop on and off.
By midday we had reached the trio of bridges and took a break in the little tea shop residing beneath the rail bridge. It’s hard not to be impressed by such a magnificent structure, so iconic and grandiose, and we watched the trains crawling like centipedes through its belly. It is exaggeratedly three-dimensional; as Jude described, the detail of its girders have the blur of a 3D picture. We traced the cobbles through Queensferry then came up to the road bridge, bouncing across it in the inevitable high wind, feeling the vulnerability of the gusts and the movement of the carriageway as the buses made their way across. From our vantage point we were afforded stunning views down the firth, and unique perspectives on both the rail bridge and the new road bridge. Only public transport now uses this crossing, all other traffic diverted to the new bridge, and the cycle paths on either side remain.
Once more on solid ground the wind began to take its toll, and we were both feeling the limitations of our tiny bikes, especially with luggage on our backs. It was, therefore, a bleak slog around the north coast of the Forth, following the Fife coastal path – an exposed route, through docks and industry, up and down hills. Partway round I regretted the route choice, wishing we had stuck to the southern round-the-forth route, knowing we could have bailed and made a beeline for Falkirk at any time without the wide expanse of the firth between us and our ultimate destination. But the grass is always greener, and all that. Part of the experience of cycle touring is being in the moment, accepting the journey as it is, a lesson that I re-learn with each trip.
By the time we had reached the Kincardine bridge we were desperate to be out of the wind, but every way we turned seemed to be the wrong one. The bluster whistled in our ears and when we eventually reached the point at which the Forth and Clyde canal begins its passage, the water’s surface was tellingly choppy. Standing guard over the basin were the weird and wonderful Kelpies, 30ft high metallic horse-heads braying into the gusts.
Soon afterwards we reached the Falkirk Wheel, a mind-boggling example of engineering ingenuity, a rotating lift that moves boats vertically from the Forth and Clyde canal to join the higher elevation of the Union canal. Eleven traditional locks once stood in its place, but they were replaced by this design, in which boats enter a watery trough which is then sealed and lifted by the wheel, arriving at the top level five minutes later. It was late in the day when we reached it, the desired trip no longer possible, though with a £13.50 price tag, a 50-minute excursion and an advanced booking, it was perhaps surplus to our adventure requirements. Tea and flapjack it was, then, and as a stroke of luck, just as we were about to leave, the last rotation of the day began, to return the trip boat to the lower level. We watched, awed into silence.
No matter how much experience one has, naivety can still rear its head. Both Jude and I have many thousands of miles under our wheels, and a whole day to cycle a mere 50 miles sounded simple, especially on a largely flat route with straightforward navigation. But dawdling and gawping, tea-drinking and snacking, battling the headwind we should have expected but forgot about, and riding on those silly little wheels added hours. For the last fifteen miles we were distinctly uncomfortable, tired, hungry and aching, and losing patience with our bikes. Oh, for the luxury of a tent and the ability to pitch wherever we chose! But that would have proved impossible to carry on the rack-less Brompton. Onwards we pushed, to our pre-arranged accommodation.
And what hospitality we found in our Warmshowers hosts Robert and Pauline, who had prepared a vegan feast in their beautiful house. “That shower was life-changing,” said Jude, and it wasn’t an understatement; the simple things can have such an impact when life is reduced to the basic instincts of food, rest and shelter. We slept a profound sleep that night.
Rested, refreshed and renewed (though still a little sore in the undercarriage), the following morning we set out onto the canal once more, our eyes seeing the landscape as if for the first time. Hills rose dramatically at the far side of the valley, some with snow at their tips, and the canal lay mirror-like beneath a piercing sky. What a difference a day makes. This was certainly one for shorts.
We had reached the canal’s summit pound, so it was a steady descent of 18 miles to arrive at the pretty little basin at Bowling where the water met the Clyde. Though still miles inland, the river had the distinct air of the sea, and we watched seals dive off-shore as we ate our lunch. From there it was a further ten miles into the city, passing back beneath the towering Erskine bridge and following an old coal-line railway adjacent to the water. Once in the city’s clutches we pottered around the grid of streets, then settled on the grass in a buzzing George Square beneath a cloudless sky.
From sea to sea, from city to city, from east to west, we had completed our task. All thoughts of yesterday’s trials had been forgotten (though we were mightily relieved not to have to sit on those saddles anymore) and we had a rush of affection for our micro-bikes that had, over the course of 48 hours, traversed 80 miles and facilitated our little adventure. We would be back at our desks by Monday morning, our faces aglow with the imprint of the sun, and our minds brimming with tales to recount to our colleagues. Well done Brompton. I might just take you out again.
Biking on a budget:
Travel = £21 return coach journey (overnight London to Edinburgh £10 (advance) + £1 booking fee, daytime return from Glasgow £9 (advance) + £1 booking fee)
Accommodation = £0 (one night Warmshowers, one night with friends)
Food = less than £20 (for breakfast on arrival and snacks. Lunches were packed in advance and other dinners/breakfasts were provided by hosts)
Maps and directions:
Round the Forth Sustrans route (National Route 76) from Edinburgh to Grangemouth (north or south of the water), a mixture of on-road and traffic-free routes, well-signposted throughout. Buy map here: https://shop.sustrans.org.uk/edinburgh-stirling-the-forth-cycle-map-40
Forth and Clyde canal from Grangemouth to Bowling, then National route 7 into Glasgow centre. Mostly traffic-free on towpaths and disused railway lines. Buy map here: https://shop.sustrans.org.uk/glasgow-stirling-the-clyde-cycle-map-41