First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The Falkirk Wheel is a strange and beautiful object. This futuristic boat-lift on the Forth & Clyde Canal was opened in 2002 to raise boats up to the Union Canal, which runs all the way to Edinburgh.
The Wheel resembles two enormous birds side by side, each with a hooked beak and a hollow eye. From the canal bank below I watched, fascinated, as with a greasy whine and a series of loud clanks the bird heads tilted slowly backwards in unison and a big pink pleasure-boat rose with slow dignity to the upper level where it chuntered off and out of sight.
Time for a leg stretch. I set off west along the line of a remarkable Roman monument, the Antonine Wall. This earthen rampart was built between the Clyde and the Forth across the narrow neck of Scotland in AD 142-3, twenty years after Emperor Hadrian built his wall between Tyne and Solway a hundred miles to the south.
A mile or so along the valley, the Antonine fortification of Rough Castle lay ringed by trees. At the gate a notice exhorted dog walkers: ’Cura ut canis excrementum in receptacula in area vehiculorum posita depones.’ This dog latin wasn’t too hard to decipher.
Grassed-over lumps and bumps showed the location of principia (headquarters), granary, barracks and commander’s house. Analysis of latrine waste shows that the soldiers ate a good mixed diet of bread, porridge, bacon, shellfish, cheese and vegetables. But it was a hard life in harsh conditions, the weather often foul, the discipline rigid.
What’s more, the Picts could be expected at the gates at any time. Just outside the fort the ground is pitted with dozens of little oval depressions. These are lilia, or pit traps. A sharpened stake was fixed in the bottom, the pit filled with rushes or decayed leaves, and the charging attacker was left to stumble in and skewer himself.
I left the grassy old fort and followed the line of a Roman military road, flanked by an avenue of beech trees whistling in the wind. To the north, the far outlines of the Ochil Hills; southward, the jagged grey ramparts of the Bonnybridge fireclay mine’s spoil heap, a reminder of this valley’s industrial past.
At Bonnybridge I climbed steps to the Forth & Clyde Canal and sauntered back along the towpath to Falkirk, while moorhens skittered across the water and narrowboat admirals saluted me with beer glass in hand.
How hard is it? 5 miles; easy; waymarked trail and canal towpath
Start: Falkirk Wheel car park, Ochiltree Terrace, Falkirk FK1 4LS (OS ref NS 854804)
Getting there: Bus 1 from Falkirk
Road: Signed from A803 (Falkirk-Bonnybridge)
Walk (OS Explorer 349): From turning circle behind Visitor Centre head uphill on paved path (‘Union Canal, Antonine Wall’, then ‘Rough Castle, Tunnel, Union Canal Viewpoint’). Up to viewpoint between tunnel and top of Wheel. Return downhill to first fingerpost; left (‘Rough Castle’); follow ‘John Muir Way/JMW and ‘Rough Castle’. At Rough Castle (846799) follow clear track through fort and on west. 300m beyond fort, through gate (839797); on beside wall along track, then lane, then road. In 1¼ miles, on left bend by No. 5 and ‘Bonnymuir Place’ label (826801), keep ahead on path to tunnel under Forth & Clyde Canal. At Bridge Street, right (824801); right along Main Street; in 150m right up steps to canal (827803); left to Falkirk Wheel.
Lunch: Café Falkirk Wheel
Accommodation: Premier Inn Falkirk Central, Main Street, Camelon, Falkirk FK14DS (0333-777-7934, premierinn.com)
Falkirk Wheel: 01324-619-8888; scottishcanals.co.uk/falkirk-wheel
Antonine Wall: antoninewall.org