Despite being situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and home to the world's only rotating boat lift, Falkirk remained pretty much under the tourist radar until the arrival of two giant horse-head sculptures in 2014. Since the launch of The Kelpies and the regeneration of the surrounding area, Falkirk has become an essential inclusion in many travel itineraries as visitors now flock to the town to admire it's two unique feats of engineering and design. I'm the first to put a guilty hand up and admit that until recently my own visits to Falkirk haven't extended beyond these two attractions.
But what else, if anything, does this Central Lowland town have to offer a visitor?
That was the challenge on our latest Scotlanders campaign as we spent a weekend discovering the other gems worth searching out in the area and I was tasked with showcasing Falkirk as an outdoors destination.
Thanks to new cycle paths, the opening of the John Muir Way and general redevelopment, the town is gradually transforming itself into a tourist and outdoor activity hot spot.
Nordic walking classes, mountain bike trails, water sports, fishing, golf, Segway tours and skiing are some of the more adventurous activities available, however I opted for two of the most accessible and enjoyable ways to explore the town and it's attractions - by bike and on foot.
The HArTT Cycle Route
On the Saturday I picked up my hire bike and braved the inclement weather to explore part of the new Helix Around Town Tour, a 16 mile circular cycle route which passes the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel, Callendar House and some lesser known places of interest.
You really can do as much or as little of the circuit as you like and as the mainly flat trail follows cycle-ways, towpaths and woodland, it is an ideal biking route for novices or families.
I found that travelling between the attractions on two wheels gave me a whole new perspective on the town as I discovered quiet, scenic pathways hidden away from the busy roads. Wetland, woods, canals and tunnels provided an ever-changing backdrop as I travelled through a variety of urban, industrial and landscaped scenery. I particularly enjoyed the sections running alongside the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals, with colourful boats moored along the way and curious swans swimming alongside in the hope of a feed.
One of the more interesting hidden gems to look out for is the 630m long Falkirk Tunnel on the Union Canal. The cycle route passes by it, however I recommend stopping to explore inside. Although there is some lighting, I found the tunnel pretty dark and just a wee bit creepy so a torch is useful if you do decide to have a look around.
The tunnel was completed in 1822 with hand picks, shovels and gunpowder used to cut through the bare rock. The walls aren't lined and peculiar calcified forms and stalactites have built up over the years which means you also have to watch out for lots of drips. A strange, spooky and worthwhile stop off!
My next destination was at Callendar Estate where I had a welcome lunch date with fellow Scotlander Nicola who was exploring Callendar House as part of her heritage theme. The restored mansion was a very pleasant setting for our afternoon tea and the visitor staff were more than happy to safely store my bike away while I refueled.
Those wanting to add a more challenging cycle can try out the network of mountain bike trails on the estate. Each trail has been graded according to its level of difficulty and challenge from easy to exhilarating!
After lunch I may have gone off route at some point when I got a bit confused by the map (another way of saying I was temporarily lost!), ending up in an underpass which actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise with some colourful street art of the Falkirk attractions, including a bright interpretation of the wheel. It's chance finds like this that are the reason I usually enjoy getting lost.
I can't explain why, but I am magnetically drawn to The Kelpies and couldn't resist finishing my cycle with a visit and having some photo fun by stroking their wee chins!
Having spent the day travelling off the beaten track and along the urban canals, I gained a new appreciation of Falkirk's lost industrial past and it's modern day engineering achievements that inspired the creation of the sculptures. More than ever, I see them not just as a tourist attraction or giant steel horse heads, but as a fitting celebration and connection of the land and water they proudly tower over.
My bicycle was hired from Dawson Bike Club, which is tucked away in an Industrial estate next to the canal-side and only a short distance from the Kelpies. The Club is actually a great wee community project which teaches people bike maintenance, organises cycle rides, trains people with skills to increase their chance of employment and recycles unwanted bikes that are then sold on or hired to keep the club self-sustaining. This is the kind of place that really benefits from people supporting it and it is in an ideal location to join the canal towpath.
They have maps of the HArTT cycle route and can give advice on which sections are best to do if you want a shorter cycle. they can also provide helmets and locks.
The John Muir Way
On Sunday I braved even more torrential rain and a rapidly worsening head cold to explore more of Falkirk, this time on foot. There are lots of walking options but I was curious to check out some of the John Muir Way, a 134 mile coast to coast route which passes through the town heading towards Linlithgow. I would love to do the full long distance walk at some point so it was good to get a taster of one of the sections.
I started at the Falkirk Wheel, the world's first and only rotating boat lift. A bit like the Kelpies, I never get tired of watching this graceful feat of engineering as it gently revolves with it's design said to have been inspired by a Celtic double headed spear, a vast turning propeller of a Clydebank built ship, the ribcage of a whale and the spine of a fish!
While you are there you can also take a ride on the boat-lift, go on an off-road guided Segway tour or just relax in the cafe.
The John Muir Way takes you to the top of the Falkirk Wheel and the entrance from the Union Canal which always makes for pretty photographs, even on a grey day.
Leaving the wheel behind, I followed the easily identified John Muir Way markers into a wooded area and along an autumnal carpet of fallen leaves. Although I'd only walked a short distance, the contrast between the mighty mechanical structure and the oasis of trees couldn't have been more extreme. It was discovering these little pockets of nature hidden behind industrial landscapes and housing estates that surprised me most during my visit.
With the wind and rain doing their best to strip the trees of their already scant cover, I admired the tenacity of the occasional leaf which was still stubbornly clinging to it's branch and defying Mother Nature.
Just as I settled into the tree lined scenery it dramatically changed yet again and a short distance after leaving the woods I was reunited with the serene water and open views of the Union Canal. As much as I was tempted to keep going on for another few miles, my head cold had brought on an unattractive stream from my eyes and nose which was almost as constant as the rain, so I decided it was time to call a day on my outdoor adventure.
After my weekend explorations I highly recommend venturing a bit more off the beaten path than the other tourists and hiring a bike for an easy cycle along the canal-side between The Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel or following some or all of the HArTT route if you have the time.
During our trip we were based at the Falkirk Central Premier Inn. I can honestly say that Premier Inns have really changed since the last time I stayed with them if the standard here is anything to go by. The room was spotlessly clean, spacious, quiet and had THE comfiest bed, in fact it was so comfy I'll admit to checking out their advertised website link to buy one! I'll definitely have to look in to staying with them again on future trips, even if it's just for the promised sound sleep, Zzzzzz.
Thanks to Visit Falkirk for inviting us and be sure to check out their own website for lots of ideas.
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