Usually here in the Backwards Van we are all about taking Dixie out of society to the most remote and rural destinations when we explore any region or country and Scotland is no exception, more time has been spent pouring over maps of the majestic snow-capped mountains, isolated valleys and the rugged Northern coast of this whole island than anywhere else. To get there, from the direction of York this time, means passing through the wide band between Glasgow and Edinburgh where most Scots reside, and although eager to go as “wild” as possible we were not willing to rush by Falkirk, a town of 38,000 in the central lowlands of the Forth valley. Falkirk might be better known for its industry rather than its tourism offerings but a cursory glance at the map showed lots of places of great interest (to us) nearby and we have a couple of friends here too… perfect.
We started off a very memorable few days in Falkirk by picking a great overnighter on our way there, a spot aptly named on Google The Carpark In The Sky. The flat tarmac square sits nestled in the Campsie Falls, a large green valley on the edge of the Campsie Faultline. Dixie pulled her door tight to the edge for the night and our view by day light was amazing, if a little sickening, right outside the window behind the low stone wall was the huge ravine of the fault, an ancient rip in the landscape over Glasgow. Its not a usual thing, to put your head down to sleep right beside a faultline. Sometimes, shadowy distorted images of where we are (or where I imagine we are as arriving in the dark can be really discombobulating) creep into my dreams and that paticular night I dreamt we were falling, falling, falling; we were tucked up together in bed inside Dixie as usual but we were falling, falling, falling into the fault, deep into the dark tear in the Earths crust. I never have nightmares just very long and very memorable, vivid dreams.
Cruising down the M9 into Falkirk, (after we made the bed neatly as shown above although… I admit I had to get Williams assistance near the back door, I was not prepared to risk falling out, over and down just like the dream, or potential prophecy, foretold) the sunshine kept our moods high and we sang along with the radio and probably made the motorway slow lane much slower than usual. We anticipated we would pass by the Kelpies sculptures at some stage and we did, two mammoth horses heads cast in silver, punctured with holes to catch the light and rising up from behind the metal hoarding on the side of the road. A Kelpie is a kind of water spirit in Scottish folklore and the artwork is a nod to the hard working Northern horses of the past, this is the largest horse sculpture in the world! A quick U-turn saw us joining the traffic queueing to enter the grounds of the equine exhibits, however, it quickly became clear that a busy and warm weekend afternoon was probably not the best time for us to look around at our usual leisurely pace, the place was swarmed with bodies, people walking their children and their dogs and the usual loud throngs of chattering photo-hungry tourists, so with another deft U-turn Dixie took us gratefully away from all that. We enjoyed the Kelpies from the roadside instead, still impressive, still arresting even from the distance.
We went to meet with Clare, Mark and the inimitable Spud at their home in lovely Linlithgow. Having spent a few days in this town last year, (its the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots and her palace has a stunning garden!) and seen the surrounds of nearby Blackness and Bo’ness, we feel like we sort of know our way around this part of the world now. Familiarity is a strange feeling when you’re travelling every day, we don’t find it much on the road and somehow, thanks to a random Scottish-Irish-Bermuda roommate connection, this little Falkirk town is now our Scottish base, close enough to drive from the ferry (or with just one stopover), close enough to my offspring in York University, close enough to everything really. Clare & Mark recommended the Firth of Forth bridges as a Falkirk must-see and as avid pontists (with little else to do that day) we were far too excited, we said our goodbyes and headed straight that way.
Driving over the brow of the grassy hill into Queensferry our first sight was the magnificant and aptly named Queensferry Crossing bridge, hoisted high like 3 tall white sails and straddling the brown Forth estuary below. Newly opened in 2017 to trucks and public transport, the overpass seems to wave in the wind, the cables and hangers ripple like linen sheets hung out to dry on a long washing line. Soon the other two bridges came into view, the slimline, modern Forth Road Bridge in the middle and the huge red industrial-looking Forth mega-bridge, its narrow deck the route of all trains across these waters. When viewed together (at an angle impossible to photograph, believe me I tried) the three structures fight for space on the skyline, drawing long and slanted lines of colour like crayon trails over the rivers wide mouth, individually the bridges are amazing and artistic feats of engineering.
Dixie somehow glided into the best parking spot anywhere along the long packed promenade, parked between the serious silver streak of steel suspension Forth Road (built like a no-nonsense Golden Gate, but always shying away from the camera, fading into the background cloud, perhaps suffering from middle-bridge syndrome since two became three) and the bright red robot to the right, standing there since 1890 like a giant transformer toy, ready to unhook its thick steel limbs, dislocate its huge arms and pack itself into an ambulance or a tank or an airplane in an instant. It was a gorgeous clear blue sky evening and the quiet rocky shore took us for a long walk across sand and stones and over thick slippery blankets of smelly seaweed and under the massive brick columns of the Forth bridge. I had on my waterproof socks and lucky too, that kelpy carpet hides a wealth of sea puddles and the tidal estuary fills up faster than you might be ready for. Look at the sheer size of each of the Forth Bridges column brick bases, the high water line reached over my head!
Queensferry is a very friendly spot and everyone we passed greeted us as we tripped the cobbled streets of the town eating icecream, a local flavour the Scots call Scottish Tablet, it was sickly sweet, syrupy, with way too much sugar but that didn’t stop us devouring it, when in Rome remember, when in Rome. A short route led us past the neat rows of souvenier shops, shuttered for the evening, up stone steps to a grey dilapedated graveyard, around a pub twice (much to the bemusement of the man stood outside in the doorway as we wandered past him in the same direction for the second time in 2 minutes and I announced aloud my feeling of de ja vu) and through a wooded area and an incredible sweeping view of sunset over those three marvellous bridges. The decision was made to stay put for the night as we sat on a bench and watched the many lights of Queensferry and across the dark waters in Dalgety Bay come flickering on one by one. We wandered back to the promenade, busy with bodies on an early Spring evening and the mood was high, people sat on nearby benches chattering and playing music and out our back door the old red Forth bridge (by now my firm favourite of the three) was all lit up magically from below.
I read once that your brain doesn’t fully shut down when you sleep in a new place, it simply refuses to, and the example given in the article was the act of camping. Brains remain on high alert when in unfamiliar surroundings, always ready to act should a new threat appear or situation arise, and never more so than when you’re attempting to sleep outdoors as every aspect of the experience will be completely new. Now, I know we’re not technically camping, having a strong tin roof above us and the protection of insulated walls, but to say that we hear every little thing that happens out side the van is no exaggeration. A bird dancing on the roof, a faraway crack of lightning, a mournsome cow, a private conversation in a deserted midnight carpark (I always assume between politicians), two seagulls arguing in monotone squalks, we hear it all. We feel the weather happen to us, high winds rock the van around and a rainshower can sound torrential and all of this happening while we rest is bound to invade our dreams. Unfortunately this is also true for our olfactory glands and sometimes nature doesn’t smell so great either, cows in particular though fun to look at, tend to smell like… well, like cow shite I suppose. All of our senses are on high alert all the time, overworked, always moving, always on.
Waking up between the bridges (with no nocturnal visions to report this time) dawn was just as scenic as dusk and after coffee we took a walk in the other direction this time, away from the overpasses, past the houses and businesses of Queensferry and out of town to Whitehouse Bay, noting plenty of excellent potential overnighting spots to wild camp along the way… Scotland is very accommodating that way. After a little lunch, in spite of much reluctance to depart an almost perfect place and with my usual stalling tactic of taking “one more photo” (surely 800 is not enough for the blog) wearing thin, we left the Firth of Forth, the slow murky river, the cool red robot bridge, the tall sails and of course that one in the middle, how could we forget that.
The Falkirk Wheel was built and that was about all we knew, except for a few vague online comments we’d read, describing an odd fairground-type attraction that actually functions as some sort of massive boat lift. This was one attraction we knew nothing about and we were excited to see the thing for ourselves. We got there just as the sun was setting, thrown off plan briefly by a height restriction or twelve present at our original destination but true to form we slithered in through the back entrance, past cars and trucks and campers and motorhomes, heading as close to the mysterious device in the valley as we could and not 2 minutes later, in typically serendipitous style, Dixie came to rest in the best (and unexplainably vacant) parking spot in the whole place. Here miniature Kelpie sculptures stand guard over one corner of the carpark, we didn’t need to visit the real ones after all. The raised ground gives way down a grassy slope to a disarming sight: the tall, spindly canal bridge, up on stilts and emerging from the trees, the still-as-a-pond water below and the ginormous and bizarre looking device itself. The wheel had already clocked off for the evening by the time we arrived and neither of us wanted to look for videos online, preferring to build the suspense until we saw it for ourselves in the morning instead. We read all we could about the wheel over dinner and watched the sun set slowly behind the giant sideways corkscrew, the perforated silver horse heads and pink dusky skies adding to the weirdly post apocalyptic scene. It was definitely the strangest view from Dixies window yet.
In the morning (talk about a strange and vivid dream, it was like a bad low budget sci-fi movie, Dixie was a little metal spaceship flying through space and we were joining forces with other campers to defeat the evil shiny silver horse overlords) we opened the door, brewed the coffee and watched the wheel perform its act, bang on time. Basically, (extremely basically – I won’t go into the Archemidean principle the structure works on, I’m not sure myself but I’m also not sure that it matters too much) two dry docks ferry the boats from the upper canal to the lower (or vice versa, depending on the occassion) thus connecting two of Scotlands major waterways, the Clyde and Firth and the Union Canal. The wheel was built in 2002, is as tall as 8 double decker buses and replaced 11 canal locks which would previously take half a day to navigate, it is the only one of its kind in the world, costing £85 million to install…Its strange, interesting, arty, its really very cool!
Vanlife offers few luxuries more enjoyable than sightseeing from the comfort of our own bed. We read the Kelpie marquette outside is 1/10th scale of the original and is part of a set that can be and often are moved around to new locations! After 2 more pots of coffee consumed lounging in pjs watching the metal marvel at work we closed the door, got ready and left to get a closer look.
Between those things, getting ready to leave and actually leaving, a nice man knocked on our side and asked could we please move along, they required use of that car park for an event later that day. We chatted for a while about Scotland and the wheel and life in general and and he directed us to some other spots we could park in on the grounds and wished us well on our travels. We watched him courteously approach every vehicle with the same request and at each car he stopped for a conversation and a laugh, this country is wonderful, so laid back, friendly and worry free. Nothing is any trouble to the Scots.
What a strange attraction the Falkirk Wheel turned out to be. Inspired in part by a Celtic axe, the two huge claws pierce the air slowly and steadily, carrying boats and their passengers 180° steadily up or steadily down. The grounds surrounding are grassy and cheerful, a little path leads from the hill all around the wheel itself and dotted along the way are informative signs and fun interactive exhibits for kids, a little water park, a jungle gym and a miniature wheel modeling the principles of the contraption on a smaller scale although we saw few smaller people around, a weekday in April may not be peak season. The large tourist office and cafe was busy though, we sat to the side eating our packed lunch and watching the claw of the wheel through the window, the huge hook looked ready to pierce the glass roof on its way down but instead slid through the air past the staring tourists and into its dock at the base with a loud clunk.
We examined the wheel doing its mesmerising 180° dance from every angle we could find. The water is so still between boatloads of traffic that the entire mechanics of the thing reflect like a mirror on its surface and my poor brain had to work extra hard to decipher the confusing double image. We followed the path along the canal to see where the boats go after they’re taxied down here from the clouds, a train came bursting from a tunnel beneath the basin, evidently the entire basin project was a huge undertaking and a one-off engineering project, one that Falkirk should be proud of, its a strange and interesting attraction not to be missed!
The absolute darkness you find when camping, when the torches are turned off and the campfire damped out, has a profound affect on the brain and its ability to switch off and sleep too. As electricty is a much required resource around here and not one to be wasted, we have no digital clockface nor any blinking lights to disrupt the darkness inside Dixie. The tiny green bulb that indicates our monoxide meter is working is down low to the ground, any light it emits is swallowed up by the shadows. When we are parked somewhere really wild, far away from anyone or anything, eyes closed or open, we see nothing but night.
No visit to Falkirk would be complete without a death-defying detour to the curious Pineapple House in Airth. Erected most likely to either impress someone or piss someone off, the house and its visitor carpark sits way back off the A905, down a ridiculous dirt track we hasten to even call a road. You know the kind of turn-off you’re immediately unsure about yet you put the foot down and press on, cautiously but optimistically? Your suspicions grow with each ever-widening pothole but by the time you realise you should go back you can’t, it’s too late, the road is too narrow to turn and is only getting worse…
If you find yourself on that awful road you might as well persevere because that is the way to the Pineapple where you can curse and reverse in the carpark. Alternatively your satellite navigation friend may direct you to the front of the house although that route is rather antisocial, the house is currently occupied as a private residence and access is only from the back gates of the garden.
The 4th Earl of Dunmore built the Pineapple for use as a summer house, himself having just returned from Central America where the spiky fruit is given as a gesture of welcome. It looks from afar like an ordinary building wearing a woolly winter bobble hat. Up close it looks a little strange and sinister.
A lovely walled garden surrounds the Pineapple house and we spent a quiet hour strolling around the empty grounds, wondering about the absurdly decorated house and the other fantastic oddities of Falkirk. That weird corkscrew wheel, the 4 silver horses, the trio of beautiful bridges, I didn’t even mention the two UNESCO sites, New Lanark and Callendar Park , both we visited, both we really loved (the first the most with its uniform houses and string of waterfalls!) and both I will have to save for another blog. Falkirk is full of interest and fun, we will be back soon for sure.
So what about people like us who move around everyday and stay in new places every night, what happens to our brains? Do they ever truly sleep? We’re almost 9 months living in Dixie and that’s a lot of mornings, a lot of nights and a lot of time spent dreaming. I think it is safe to say that if we haven’t slept properly we would surely be tired of travelling by now. We’re not tired of travelling yet, not even close 😉🚐🗺📅
*Between editing and hitting publish on this, I came across a fact about the unnoticable middle child of Forth Bridges trio. When opened in 1964 it became the largest suspension bridge anywhere in the world outside the USA. And looking through our photos with this new knowledge, we think that when the dusk light disguises the white sails from view and the night is pink and still and reflective, that’s her time to shine. Beautiful.