Falkirk Wheel, Falkirk, Scotland

‘I’m sorry,’ said my Amazing Big Brother’s teacher to Mama recently, ‘that I can’t make everything about animals.’

Sometimes, when Mama feels that my Amazing Big Brother’s interests have been driving the family outings rather too much, she tries to make a special effort to accommodate what she thinks might be particularly cool for me.

Hence the Falkirk Wheel.

Mama has this fond notion that I am a budding engineering genius, mainly because she feels I take after the practically-minded Papa and I do not have quite the same aversion to construction toys and anything involving manual dexterity as my Amazing Big Brother.

Which is how we found ourselves standing at the bottom of this elegant looking metal structure, which allegedly lifts canal boats high up in the air to the next section of river in the sky, wondering how on earth it actually works. Because Mama’s theory prior to seeing it that it just goes straight up like an elevator was quite clearly wrong and unfortunately I might be able to slam a few building blocks together but this is quite out of my league. Currently.Falkirk Wheel

Luckily we did not have long to wait to find out. To make sure that the Falkirk Wheel is in use for the perhaps surprising number of people come to look at it, there are regular boat tours which start and end with a trip round the Falkirk Wheel and progress gently along the subsequent canal in-between times.

Which you may need to book in advance if you, like we, go on a reasonably fine day in the school holidays. While we were there the queue was looking like a few hours wait at least until the next slot and Mama decided against it.

Instead, after we had seen the Falkirk Wheel do its thing, we climbed up to the higher stretch of the canal to see what this contraption looked like from the top.

Waaaaaaaay cooooooooooooooool, in Mama’s opinion, she who spent a good deal of her formative years reading speculative fiction. Mama considers that the Falkirk Wheel from above is an excellent model for what some kind of futuristic transport system you could accelerate down and disappear in blizzard of sparks and a few licks of flame should look like.

Falkirk Wheel from the top

And at night, it gets all lit up. Imagine how excited Mama would get if we let her go and see that!

We were more impressed by the tunnel and enjoyed the ten minute walk through and back where we could shriek and make echos to our hearts’ content. Until Mama, after an incautious question from my Amazing Big Brother, told us all about canals, HORSES and canal boats, people lying on their backs to walk the boats through the tunnels, followed by a very lengthy excursion around the industrial revolution. Which sounds smelly.

Also, locks, the workings of and why the Wheel is an improvement, despite the fact that traditional locks are, Mama says firmly, a pretty damn nifty bit of engineering genius in and of themselves. A topic of discussion which was aided by the fact that back down below they have kept one of the eleven originals replaced by the Falkirk Wheel to, presumably, better contrast its method boat elevation with that of the older model.Falkirk Wheel and a lock

Which you are probably still wondering about.

Well, the clue to the operation of this feat of man’s triumph over nature is in the name. The Falkirk Wheel does not so much lift the boats up, as spin them around. It is genuinely awesome. The first three or four times, anyway. I’m not sure it needed to be photographed from every conceivable angle myself, but Mama clearly disagreed, and so we got to see it in action quite a lot.Falkirk Wheel in motion

What’s particularly impressive, Mama thinks, is that you can move a boat up and one down with the same operation. From which you will gather that Mama is very lazy and admires efficiency of effort above all things.

Falkirk Wheel from the side

Although she does rather wonder why, a fair old while after the canals became obsolete as a serious method of transportation, Scotland has gone to the trouble and,  more importantly, expense of building the thing. Still. What I say is that sometimes science and engineering just are, and we should marvel at them. Some people question the point of the space programme too, and that’s clearly crazy talk.

However, it wasn’t all improving educational experiences. The other reason why Mama thought I might like the Falkirk Wheel is because of the water play ground in its shadow. The main damp inducing area wasn’t quite ready when we were there just before Easter, but a glorified multi-level paddling pool, with its own locks and  pumping stations was.

We got quite thoroughly wet.

Luckily Mama had anticipated this, which was why she had saved this bit for last over our strenuous protests. A change of clothes was thus only a short squelch back to the car away. In even better weather, Mama thinks that parents should just go straight for the swim wear, or at least make sure whatever the kids are wearing it dries easily.

There is also a dry playground too, if your children are less enthusiastic about getting sodden than we are. And other attractions include various woodland paths, some of which will take you to Roman remains. Allegedly. We were too busy sploshing about to want to take advantage of this or the café and various hot food vans dotted around.

But Mama called time in the end and then we tried to action the third reason why Mama had chosen the Falkirk Wheel for me, which was that it is close to the gigantic horse-like Kelpies sculptures. Yes, that’s right, GIANT HORSE-LIKE STATUES!

Sadly, Mama, who considers the signposting to the Kelpies from the Falkirk Wheel somewhat inadequate, got lost trying to find them and we ended up in Stirling, which is, apparently, quite some way away in the other direction. When we eventually did get back to the Kelpies there was a lengthy queue for the car park, so we bailed and only got lost twice more in the way back to where we were staying, resulting in a lengthy detour round an oil refinery.

Which shoots real flame out of its chimneys! Not sure that this wasn’t more exciting than the Kelpies, to be honest.

Luckily, Heather at My Life in Type has written about the Kelpies here, so you can find out all about them and the park they are set in. If you can find it.

Anyway. Mama is now considering a trip down to see the Thames Barrier in action. Admittedly when she last did this she concluded that watching paint dry was more exciting, but this was possibly because she was an unimpressable teenager at the time and because she didn’t have the prospect of a a trip down the Thames on a river boat to sweeten it, which Mama has decided is the best reward for travelling to a more Easterly London location.

And the highlight of the day for my Amazing Big Brother?

The frog that was sitting on the walkway next to the Falkirk Wheel when we first arrived.

A frog at the Falkirk Wheel

You can’t keep the next David Attenborough down with man-made genius at all, can you?

More Information

The Falkirk Wheel’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Falkirk Wheel.

Address: Lime Road, Tamfourhill, Falkirk, FK1 4RS

Opening: The Visitors Centre and boat trips are open from 10am to 5.30pm March to October. The site and play areas are closed by 8pm.

Admission: Access to the site is free. The boat trips are £8.95 for adults and £4.95 for children (3+). You can get lunch/ tea deals too. Booking via the website can only be made prior to the day you want to go. Otherwise you need to phone or show up in person to book tickets.

By car: For some reason the Falkirk Wheel is insistent that you should use junction 8 of the M9 from Edinburgh, which has the advantage that it will take you past the Kelpies. However, other exit options are available, and unlike the Kelpies, as Mama can attest having driven all over the area trying to find them, reasonably well signposted, especially if you head towards Falkirk. From the North, the website recommends exiting at Junction 9. From Glasgow you should take the M80, then the M876 and exit at Junction 1.

The carpark costs £2 a day, but is extensive and very convenient.

By public transport: There is a rail station in Falkirk, and the website recommends a taxi or the #3 First Bus route.

Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Polytechnic Museum entrance

The Polytechnic Museum is Moscow’s premier science, engineering and technology museum.

It’s currently closed for a total refurbishment.

Luckily it has found a temporary home in one of the large pavilions in the exhibition park VDNKh. Mama heard was particularly chock full of interactive aspects. Clearly we had to check it out.

The pavilion is rocking a sort of ornate classical look, but once you get inside you are in a dim mysterious world of technological goodies gleaming in the spotlights of all the different ways artificial light can illuminate.

Polytechnic museum pavilion, ornate details

We first came to a stop in front of a large TV screen showing a life size image of a scientist pottering about his laboratory.

Then he started to talk to us! In Russian, but we were invited (in English) to hold our hands up, in which case he switches to English. I know this because Mama immediately did. The hologram goes on to give you a little overview of the section you are standing in, with options at the end for you to ask him to explain more about some of the individual exhibits.

It’s FAB.

And repeated for all of the different areas and themes. Mama enjoyed the stern Soviet era babushka physicist and the floaty cosmonaut but she was particularly impressed by the splendidly sneery rapper who introduced the display on genetic engineering, although the translation really doesn’t do him justice.

Holograms at Polytechnic Museum

She was a bit dismayed thereafter though to find that the in depth explanatory labels, also helpfully provided in British English as well as Russian if you stab at the Union Jack in the corner of the screen, were a good few notches above her level of understanding of how physics works. And sadly this was not due to dodgy translations.

But Mama is soothed by the suspicion that the designers are being very clever and providing enhancements pitched at different levels of understanding or different levels of interest, rather than make every interactive dodad work for the under tens.

Fair enough.

So as well as the labels for the serious enthusiast, the museum has comfy armchairs which murmur soothingly in your ear about inventions and inventors for the senior citizens, child-height tablets showing short visual cartoon clips explaining things to the next generation, and an array of frankly bonkers artistic interpretations of science for the humanities graduates.

Still, Mama thought the bit that worked best for her was the section on teraforming on Mars because she actually came away knowing more about the subject than she did when she started, and interestingly, this was arguably the most traditional of the displays, with a series of dioramas doing most of the work.

Or perhaps she was just most interested in this. Too much Heinlein in her formative years.

Which is not to say that she didn’t enjoy the modern art. The one with the bank of TV screens of performance artists interpreting science was hysterical if almost completely baffling, and we were all delighted by the installation which converted waterflow into binary digits for, as far as we could tell, no real reason whatsoever.

Science is Art at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

We also enjoyed lighting things up, making electricity spark, smearing our fingers all over the many many touchscreens, the experiment to make water spike into different shapes by the power of hand held or knob-twiddled magnets, and especially the place where we were all able to lay flat on some cushions and contemplate the universe swirling on the ceiling above us.

Mama’s main reservation is that some of the whiz bang squeeeeeeee completely overshadows the actual exhibits rather than enhancing our appreciation of them, although I think she is being a bit of a killjoy there. It would also have been nice if more of the buttons were actually working. Mama in particular was disappointed she didn’t get to launch a spaceship.

She thought the doors which invited us to guess what invention had been inspired by someone observing nature closely were particularly good value, though, being comprehensible, touchy feely and, specially for my Amazing Big Brother, involving copious animal interest.

Nature-inspired science at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

The actual name of the whole exhibition is ‘Russia did it herself’ which is both disconcertingly flag wavy and also oddly defensive, Mama says. This might be because, as most of the actual stuff is from upwards of 40 years ago, you do get the impression that Russia’s glory age of scientific exploration is somewhat in the past.

But then, what glory days they were!

Clearly the pinnacle is the TV with the water filled goldfish aquarium as a standard attachment. Papa says his Papa used to have one of these at work. Once again I am persuaded that this Soviet Union must have been a paradise. How great must that have been?

TV with fishbowl lense at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Mama’s highlight was the simulation of a nuclear bomb exploding. Now, some people might feel that this is a monumentally tasteless bit of button pushing fun, and Mama admits that there is some merit in this although, she also points out, the Russians have never actually used a nuclear explosion to incinerate thousands and condemn survivors to a particularly nasty lingering death, unlike some people.

Perhaps you should assume that what the designers are trying to do is instill awe in the visitor at the sheer scale of the power involved. And if you do, then by means of clever white out lighting, a super strong blast from some hidden fans, and a truly impressive noise which is not only loud but so low it vibrates right through you it really does the job.

If it helps, you have actually ask for the exhibit to be turned on. It gets a bit much otherwise, the docent said, and lessens the impact.

Guess who did the asking in our party?

Nuclear bomb at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

It’s not that the museum ignores the destructive uses of this invention. Visitors are invited to reflect on what happens when science is harnesssed for evil purposes while adding to an ever-growing mobile composed of origami doves. Not sure it entirely makes up for it though. Mama clearly was more interested the BIG BADDA BOOM than contemplating the horror, and, again, it is perhaps a tad sophisticated for us kids, especially my Amazing Big Brother, who has the paper folding skills of a jellyfish.

Basically, if the aim is to make people generally excited about how utterly cool science, engineering and technology can be, Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum scores a resounding win. And Mama thinks it’s pretty exciting that given a temporary space to play with, the Polytechnic Museum has decided to have fun and accelerate right out beyond the edge of what an established museum might attempt with its displays.

So as a teaser for the eventual reopening of the main building it is very successful. She will certainly have us first in the queue to find out. And we will be bouncing up and down beside her.

More information

The Polytechnic Museum’s website (in some English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Andrei Sakharov, the USSR, the H bomb and human rights.

Address: VDNKh, Pavilion #26.

Opening: Tues – Fri, 10am to 8pm. Sat – Sun, 10am to 9pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Prices: Adults – 300 rubles (£4.50), schoolchildren – 150 rubles (£2.30), under 7s – free.

By metro: From VDNKh (on the orange line) you need to walk through the VDNKh exhibition park. The Polytechnic Pavilion is easy to find, being on the left of the full size space rocket.