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.

Scottish Owl Centre, West Lothian

Almost the entire point of going to Scotland as far as my Amazing Big Brother is concerned is visiting the Scottish Owl Centre, conveniently situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the M8.

Owl slide at the Scottish Owl Centre
This slide is whizzy! And very cool.

This is because of the owls (surprise!).

There are a lot of them though. Big ones, medium ones, small ones, really really small ones, white ones, grey ones, brown ones, ones with speckled feathers, stripy patterns, spots, owls that hide away in burrows with alarmingly long legs, fishing owls, owls from hot countries, cold countries and tropical rainforests (Tropical! Rainforest! Owls! Says Mama, delightedly), owls with black eyes, yellow eyes and orange eyes (there’s a story behind that), owls with signs on the doors suggesting you stay weeeeeeell back so that they do not savage your little fingers, hooting owls, screeching owls, owls which make other hauntingly beautiful noises while you eat your sandwiches and play happily in the sunshine, and lots of owls who are, apparently, getting ready to hatch out new baby owls before our very eyes.

Which is reassuring from an ‘are the owls enjoying themselves in those cages’ kind of way.

And all of these owls had that thousand yard solemn unblinking stare and did that distinctive wiggly head movement as they watched me go by.

Tropical owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
Tropical owls! Tropical! Owls! Wanting to eat me for lunch! Cooooooool!

My Amazing Big Brother is convinced this means they are trying to get a bead on the aerodynamic possibilities of swooping down and carrying me off like a mouse.

Sometimes it’s quite worrying being small. But it certainly added a bit of spice to our visit.

Burrowing owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This one will probably not be able to make off with me.

But despite the variety of owls, the Scottish Owl Centre is not really a full day out, even if, like my Amazing Big Brother you insist on going round twice, very very slowly, getting Mama to read all the placards. In fact, it will probably only take you forty five minutes to an hour tops to saunter around all the owl enclosures, although there is also a giant fast tube slide and a small crawlabout maze to occupy you next to a picnic area, and some oldschool educational displays in a covered space, which do an excellent job of conveying really quite a lot of information about owls, their habitats and habits in a simple, but fun interactive manner. We particularly recommend the one where you have to stick your hands in squidgy wet artificial snow and play hunt the voles. It’s FABULOUSLY gross.

British owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
My Amazing Big Brother got all of these right – can you?

Luckily there also is an excellent and quite extensive adventure play area right outside in Polkemmet Country Park, where the Owl Centre is situated. There’s a sandpit with its own built in sand toys, a wooden castle, various climbing nets and structures, a zipwire, and swings.

Playground at Polkemmet Country Park
Please be as amused as Mama is by the can of Iron Bru.

There’s also a real life steam engine parked and ready to climb over, although much to our disappointment, you couldn’t actually turn the handles, stoke the fires or set it moving.

Steam train at Polkemmet Country Park
Choo choo!

Tickets for the Scottish Owl Centre are valid all day so you could pop in and out after playing there, and there are also woodland walks to had, although much of the park is taken up by a golf course, which Mama says might spoil things, although I think she might be quoting Churchill there.

Why would you want to pop back in, I hear you ask?

Because the highlight of your visit to the Scottish Owl Centre will be the thirty minute flying shows that take place twice daily in winter and three times in the warmer months.

It’s not just that wherever you sit in the covered flying area you will feel (but not hear, their silent flight not being a myth) an owl swoop millimeters past you, or, if you go to the show where you get to lie down on the floor while the owl skims your nose, over you (which frankly is thrilling enough), but that the handler’s chat which accompanies the display is packed full of genuinely interesting tidbits of owly facts as well as a fair amount of background into the history of the place and its work as a conservation centre.

Grey grey  owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
Release the owls!

The particularly nice thing is that each show is different, with different owls, different information and even different handlers, so Mama and my Amazing Big Brother think it is well worth sticking around for more than just the one. I, on the other hand, was enthralled for the entirety of the first show, but I did find that my three year old attention had wandered a bit by the end of the second one. This was the reason that we didn’t go back for the third.

I think our favourite bit, though, was when we got to HOLD THE BIRDS! One of my Amazing Big Brother’s most prized possessions is the photo of him with an owl on his arm from our first visit here, but that time he was only my age so he had to make do with a smaller owl. This time, he was determined to hold a really big one, and so he did, even though it was so heavy he could barely manage it on his own.

I took one look at the size of the Milky Eagle Owl’s beak and declared myself quite happy with the exceptionally cute White Faced Owl, whose parents Mama had only just that minute been admiring. You have to pay extra for this privilege, of course, especially if you want the centre to print you off a photo, but we are convinced it is well worth it.

White-faced owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This was my owl! Isn’t it cute!

Plus, if you have any burning owl questions still left unanswered, this is the time to ask them. The advantage of this small venue is that the people manning this attraction are fully involved in the work of the centre and very happy to chat about it.

There isn’t any food outlet on the Owl Centre site, barring some tubs of ice cream in the reception foyer. The café in the grounds of the park (which otherwise gets rave reviews, Mama understands) was also closed when we went. But you can take sandwiches. There are certainly some attractive places to eat them both inside and outside the centre and the website for the Polkemmet Country Park also boasts a site you can hire for your very own barbeque in the spring and summer months.

All in all, a child less relentlessly fixated on the animal world than my Amazing Big Brother might not think that the Scottish Owl Centre is quite worth a drive of two days with an overnight stop at an unrevamped motel in a service station off the A1 to get there, but my Amazing Big Brother certainly does. I’m not joking – he’s been going on and on about in the three years since our last visit and clearly did not accept Mama’s description of quite how far it was as any kind of barrier for a weekly trip.

Mama and I are a touch less enthusiastic, but we both agree that if you are in the area and the weather is even halfway decent it is definitely somewhere you should have on your list.

More Information

The Scottish Owl Centre’s website.

The Polkemmet Country Park page on the West Lothian council’s website.

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

Address: Polkemmet Country Park, Whitburn EH47 0AD, Scotland

Opening: Feb, March, Sept, Oct, Nov: 11.30 to 16.00 (flying displays 12.30 and 14.30). April to August: 10.30 to 17.00 (flying displays 11.30, 13.30 and 15.30). December to January: closed.

Admission: Adult: £7.50, child (3-15): £5.50, family (2+2): £24

By car: Leave the M8, which runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow, at junction 4a. The Centre (and Polkemmet Country Park) is clearly signposted from there on brown signs. The Centre is probably about 45 minutes from both cities. The car parks in the park are FREE!

By public transport: Apparently, buses which run through Whitburn and Harthill pass the entrance to the park.