21st Century Waterwheel (The Falkirk Wheel, Falkirkshire, UK)

If there is a more incongruous piece of transport infrastructure anywhere in Britain than the Falkirk Wheel, I should be very surprised. Standing at the heart of a canal route, one of the oldest, simplest modes of transport in the country, is this most high-tech and modern of structures. It is as much of a surprise as would be finding a timber trestle bridge on a high speed railway line. The Falkirk Wheel is surprising, wonderful and spectacular.

By Sean Mack [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY 2.5, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Falkirk Wheel with visitor centre behind. Photo by Sean Mack [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY 2.5, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It opened in 2002, the same year as the Anderton Boat Lift (see last week’s entry) reopened, and the Falkirk Wheel’s construction was similarly overseen by British Waterways. A number of projects were carried out in Britain to celebrate the turn of the millennium, with funding disbursed by the Millennium Commission for good causes and useful schemes which would have a lasting legacy. British Waterways decided to bid for a £32m contribution towards the £78m total cost reinstating of a long-lost canal through route between Scotland’s two greatest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Like canals throughout Britain, those in Scotland had become so popular as a holiday attraction that it was possible to justify the project on tourism/leisure grounds alone. The remaining funding came from British Waterways, local councils, European funding and private donations.

The Union Canal between Edinburgh and Falkirk, and the Forth and Clyde Canal between Grangemouth and Bowling (with a branch to Glasgow) had originally been linked at Falkirk by a flight of 11 locks. The two canals come close to each other but the Union canal is well above the Forth and Clyde Canal. The original flight of locks was dismantled in 1933 and its course filled in. British Waterways sought a landmark structure as a replacement and as the flagship for the reopened Edinbrugh-Glasgow canal route.

Photo by David McKelvey [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Detail of the Falkirk Wheel. Photo by David McKelvey [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Architecture practice RMJM delivered in spades, with a scheme costing £17m. After considering various types of lift, including conventional counterbalancing caissons similar to the arrangement at Anderton, not to mention a rather fabulous-sounding toppling egg-shaped tank arrangement, it settled on a rotating beam arrangement. It’s called a wheel, but it isn’t really. I suppose the Falkirk Beam doesn’t sound as good.

At the bottom a large circular basin provides holding space for canal boats wanting to use the lift, as well as framing the wheel. The basin is accessed by a lock from the Forth and Clyde Canal, which takes on the job of meeting the first few metres of the elevation requirement. The lift itself, 35m tall, is supported on giant concrete piers with hooped upper ends. It’s all about circles at the Falkirk Wheel. Two caissons are held at their ends between a pair of beams which extend out from the central axis of rotation. The arms hold the caissons within their own hooped ends, and because the caissons are mounted on bearings within the arms, and are bottom-heavy, they remain level as they are raised and lowered by the lift. It’s a good thing too, as the results of an accidentally non-rotating caisson spilling out its contents into the basin below wouldn’t make for a pretty picture. Just to make doubly sure that the caissons stay level, a gigantic set of cogs at one end of the lift counter-rotates the caissons as the lift structure rotates.

800px-Cog_mechanism_falkirk
The Falkrik Wheel’s gear arrangement. Photo by Lowattboy at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s something eminently appropriate about the fact that this ultra-modern structure uses clockwork at its heart, a throwback to a much older technology, just as the canals it links are throwbacks in the world of transport. Thanks to the fine balance of the wheel, it requires relatively little energy to operate it, just 1.5kWh spread across 10 hydraulic motors.

It takes about 20 minutes for the wheel to lift/lower a boat (or boats, as the caissons can hold four regular sized canal boats at a time). You can see the wheel in action in this timelapse video (if you’re reading the email version of this entry, you might need to head to the web version, here, to see the video):

Fabrication of the steel components was carried out by the Butterley Company of Derbyshire, which already had one of the greatest claims to transport fame for providing the ironwork in the great trainshed at London’s St Pancras station. Sadly, however, the company closed in 2009.

Once at the top, canal boats traverse an aqueduct, supported on more hooped-top concrete piers, and then go through a tunnel under the Roman Antonine Wall, underneath a railway line and then through one more lock which sorts out the final metre or two of the elevation change, and up into the Union Canal. Travelling the other way, I’ve seen the experience of taking a canal boat through the tunnel and onto the slender aqueduct with its abrupt termination at the wheel described as like sailing off the edge of the world.

Sarah Charlesworth [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
On the aqueduct, looking back to the wheel. Photo by Sarah Charlesworth [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most notable features of the wheel, the scythe-like extensions of the rotating lifting arms (described as being like ‘dinosaur horns’ by one commentator (Jones (2006): p178)) are purely for show, reinforcing the wheel’s operation. Otherwise, it’s an undecorated, uncompromising structure that makes very few concessions when it comes to its appearance. It’s big, bold, and makes little attempt to blend in with its surroundings. But like all great architecture, it’s so well-designed that it doesn’t need to attempt to camouflage itself. It has a won a place in Scotland’s cultural life, featuring on the back of a £50 banknote issued by the Bank of Scotland.

When it opened, it was the world’s first rotating boat lift; yay Britain! (which is what any English person says when they want to claim some of the reflected glory from things that have happened in Scotland). It is well seen from the segment-shaped visitor centre also designed by RMJM, from where tourists can take a short boat trip up and down the wheel. It remains the only boat lift of its type, a unique piece of transport architecture and a place where centuries of transport development are linked in one extraordinary structure, where the old meets the new, low-tech meets high-tech, and canal boats to take to the air.

how to find the Falkirk Wheel

Click here for the beauty of transport’s map

bibliography and further reading

The Falkirk Wheel’s official website, administered by Scottish Canals (which took over British Waterways’ responsibilities in Scotland in 2012), here

RMJM’s project page for the Falkirk Wheel and visitor centre, here

Jones, Will (2006): New Transport Architecture. Mitchell Beazley, London.

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