Falkirk Wheel brings Victorian brilliance back to the canals

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The Independent Online

First came the Blade of Light. Then the London Eye. And now the Falkirk Wheel.

The giant rotating boat-lift, which began trials last week, is part of the ambitious £84.5m Millennium Link project to rejoin the Forth & Clyde canal to the Union canal in Scotland. A world first, it has given messing about in canal boats a whole new slant.

The Wheel is an iconic statement of intent by British Waterways and one of 17 schemes aimed at encouraging traffic on Britain's 2,000 miles of canals, which attract 10 million users annually. The Wheel is expected to draw more than 150,000 boaters and rubber-neckers to an area of south-east Scotland still in a post-industrial meltdown.

The Wheel is part of a £500m scheme to renovate or reopen hundreds of miles of canals a year. Though canals carry 3.5m tonnes of freight a year, British Waterways' strategy is to increase leisure use. This helps local economies and property development while generating earners such as optical-fibre trunk lines under towpaths.

The Wheel is the showstopper, a return to the can-do brilliance of Victorian engineers, whose skills produced wonders such as the recently restored Anderton boat-lift in Cheshire.

The Wheel was designed by RMJM Architects, Scotland's biggest practice, working with engineers Arup. Perhaps surprisingly, the radical design is down to British Waterways, which rejected the designers' first proposal as too clunky.

The sheer scale and technical challenge posed by Falkirk's lift makes it unique. The 35m-diameter Wheel rotates around a 3.8m axle and, with its two boat-carrying caissons, holding 500,000 gallons of water, it weighs 1,800 tonnes. The Fine Art Commission for Scotland called it "a form of contemporary sculpture which has resulted in a truly exciting solution".

Ah, but is the Wheel as exciting as the Caisson Lock at Coombe Hay in Somerset? Here, 18th-century engineers created a truly hair-raising boat-lift in which an enclosed and almost waterproof caisson contained a manned longboat that was submerged, drawn down a well then released through a hatch into a lower canal. The lift, with ghoulish onlookers attending, closed after two years because of some spectacular accidents.