Step inside the world's only revolving boat lift with new behind the scenes tours at the Falkirk Wheel

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It’s perhaps something of a cliché that we all take what’s on our doorstep for granted, but it is so often completely true.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been to the Falkirk Wheel and how many times I’ve seen it turn transferring boats between the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal, however last week I was reminded just how incredible a feat of engineering it is when I donned a hard hat and hi-vis vest, stepped inside and went ‘Behind the Wheel’.

For the first time in years, members of the public are being given the opportunity to step inside the heart of the world’s first – and still only – rotating boat lift with the launch of a new regular tour.

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The team at Scottish Canals, who own and maintain the tourist attraction, are now hosting monthly guided tours offering people the chance to step inside the iconic structure and see its internal workings.

Members of the public will have the opportunity to step inside the Falkirk Wheel as Scottish Canals launch their Behind the Wheel Tours.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)Members of the public will have the opportunity to step inside the Falkirk Wheel as Scottish Canals launch their Behind the Wheel Tours.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)
Members of the public will have the opportunity to step inside the Falkirk Wheel as Scottish Canals launch their Behind the Wheel Tours. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

And it’s certainly a sight to behold with a few surprises and fantastic views along the way.

With tour guides Corin Rhys Jones and Conall Ross alongside you every step of the way, they will share their wealth of knowledge on the engineering masterpiece and its history.

I guarantee you’ll come away with a whole load of facts, figures and details to share with your friends and family that you never knew before – I certainly did.

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For example, did you know that each time the Wheel rotates, it turns in the opposite direction? How I hadn’t realised that having stood watching it spin on visits over the last 22 years I’ll never know!

Tour guides Conall Ross and Corin Rhys Jones will lead visitors on the two and a half hour tours, which are set to take place each month.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)Tour guides Conall Ross and Corin Rhys Jones will lead visitors on the two and a half hour tours, which are set to take place each month.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)
Tour guides Conall Ross and Corin Rhys Jones will lead visitors on the two and a half hour tours, which are set to take place each month. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

The Wheel was built as the centrepiece of the Millennium Link, joining up the re-opened Union and Forth and Clyde canals.

It replaced a flight of 11 locks that once stepped the Union Canal down to the level of the Forth and Clyde over a distance of 1.5km that took more than half a day to manoeuvre.

The rotating structure lifts boats 35m (115ft) between the waterways and instead of taking several hours to complete the journey, now moves vessels between the two canals in just seven minutes.

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And it does so extremely efficiently with its gondolas balancing each other, wasting no water and using hardly any electricity.

The tour offers a chance to see the engineering that makes the boat lift rotate.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)The tour offers a chance to see the engineering that makes the boat lift rotate.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)
The tour offers a chance to see the engineering that makes the boat lift rotate. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

The timing of the new Behind the Wheel tours comes after the landmark underwent a revolutionary £2.7 million upgrade over the winter. The project saw the Wheel closed in November before reopening at the end of March – an unprecedented 17-week closure compared to its normal six-week maintenance shutdown each year.

The tourist attraction also celebrated its 22nd birthday last month, having been officially opened by the late Her Majesty the Queen in 2012.

Those taking the tour will learn more about the benefits the upgrade will bring to the operation.

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Ross McMillan, head of destinations for Scottish Canals, said: “We’re excited to be offering these incredible tours on a regular basis. It was fitting that after the huge refurb that we were able to mark this by launching the Behind the Wheel tours.

A glimpse of the bottom of one of the two boat carrying gondolas from inside the Wheel structure itself.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)A glimpse of the bottom of one of the two boat carrying gondolas from inside the Wheel structure itself.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)
A glimpse of the bottom of one of the two boat carrying gondolas from inside the Wheel structure itself. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

"Hundreds of thousands of people have experienced our boat trips, but only a handful have ever stepped inside the heart of the Wheel and we can’t wait to share this magical experience with everyone.”

The Behind the Wheel tours will run twice a day over two days each month, with the first public tours taking place on Saturday, June 15 and Sunday, June 16.

Following a short presentation inside the conference suite, visitors will begin their tour with a walk around the site providing a fascinating insight into the historic significance of the structure, before heading inside.

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Once inside, it’s definitely not for those who don’t like heights or enclosed spaces, as you begin the climb up the ladders, stopping at each level to learn more about the inner workings.

New signs and panels have been added at each floor to share even more information for visitors, complementing the guides.

Highlights for me on the way up were the spindle and the incredible view when you pop out of a trap door at the very top.

At different levels inside and outside the Falkirk Wheel you see different views of both the internal and external engineering.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)At different levels inside and outside the Falkirk Wheel you see different views of both the internal and external engineering.  (Pic: Michael Gillen)
At different levels inside and outside the Falkirk Wheel you see different views of both the internal and external engineering. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

We were also lucky enough to have the Wheel rotate several times while we were inside, letting us see – and hear – the engineering in action. An experience that I’ll certainly remember for some time.

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The experience also includes refreshments of a brunch or light lunch, depending on the timing of your tour.

Tickets are strictly limited to eight people per tour, with the recommended age for participants being 16 and over.

The whole tour experience lasts approximately two and a half hours and those attending should note that it involves walking around the site and climbing several flights of ladders.

To book or learn more about the tours visit the Scottish Canals website here

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