Falkirk Wheel opens up for first in series of tours inside iconic structure

Since its creation in 2002 The Falkirk Wheel has rightly been marvelled at as a piece of engineering ingenuity the world over.

By Jonathon Reilly
Friday, 1st March 2019, 8:30 am

The fact it is the only rotating boat lift on the planet already sets it apart, however, the appeal and uniqueness of the tourist attraction has just been cranked up a notch or two.

That is because by Scottish Canals is now giving visitors to The Wheel the chance to see the inner workings of the mechanical structure on a regular basis.

The invitation was extended to guests for the first time ever last weekend while The Wheel was closed for the second part of a two-phase annual MOT.

Those with cameras will be offered a unique opportunity to capture stunning shots once inside. Picture: Michael Gillen

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    The yearly maintenance work, which is carried out to ensure the structure is in good condition, meant engineers had the opportunity to show groups of guests behind the scenes, as boat trips are currently postponed until March 22.

    Around 60 people lucky enough to get their hands on tickets for last weekend’s inaugural tours, as well as a select group of members of the media, were guided through the core of a lift that welcomes around 500,000 visitors each year.

    Thrust right into the heart, or ‘engine room’, of The Wheel within a matter of minutes, guests are given an insight into how exactly the boats are picked up from one canal and dropped off on another.

    The hour-long tours, led by Scottish Canals engineers, then climb up through the central spindle before eventually emerging onto the upper aqueduct to leave visitors with the spectacular views of the Ochils in the distance.

    The Falkirk Wheel is opening up to visitors for special tours. Picture: Michael Gillen

    Now that the idea to allow visitors inside has been trialled and tested, plans are in place to open up The Wheel to the public for a series of guided tours, some of which could even be held at night.

    Organisers hope that by adding an extra dimension to the attraction more visitors, including children, will be enticed to spend time at the site.

    Peter Robinson, head of engineering for Scottish Canals, said: “This winter we’ve actually shut it down for two periods because we’re doing a bit more extensive work.

    “The gate bearings are being replaced, we’ve taken the big gates off the gondolas that hold the water in.

    Michael Matheson MSP was invited on the opening tour. Picture: John Devlin

    “They’re pretty beefy gates, they could take four hippos bucking into them — they’re really strong.

    “As part of that second closure we realised we had a bigger opportunity and we’ve decided to socialise what we’ve got and open it up.

    “We’re looking at how we can then develop this and make it accessible on a monthly basis.

    “The problem we have is we can’t bring people in while The Wheel is turning so we’re looking at whether we can create opportunities to bring people in early in the morning before we start operations or maybe in the evenings as the boats operate between 10.30am and 4.30pm.”

    Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, inspects the inner hub of The Falkirk Wheel. Picture: John Devlin

    While Scottish Canals is confident Falkirk district residents and those from farther afield will want to tour round the inside of The Wheel, it is now also hopeful of attracting interested parties from overseas.

    One recent enquiry from an Australian engineer exemplifies the sort of appeal the idea holds.

    Mr Robinson continued: “What’s surprised us is the level of interest — people who are into engineering and then people who are not.

    “Engineering is becoming a lot more attractive because you see it a lot more on the TV, it’s picking up a lot of interest.

    “During the summer we had an engineer who came over all the way from Australia and he got in touch with me to effectively go for a one-on-one tour but I couldn’t get him in.

    “But if we start to create that opportunity it could be that we get more international visitors coming because they know they can come inside.

    “The Institution of Civil Engineers was 200 years old last year and they identified this as one of the 200 global engineering projects and it’s in their book so it’s already got an international status. All we’re trying to do is make it really attractive and socialise it.

    “It could be some people might want to experience the boat trip and then see inside.

    “We can get kids in and do STEM and effectively use The Wheel to inspire another generation.

    “It’s about making it accessible as it’s Scotland’s asset.”

    For further information and to book a tour, visit www.scottishcanals.co.uk/falkirk-wheel/internal-tours/. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.