Weekender: Across Scotland on the flat
Route name: The Union and Forth & Clyde Canals, Route 754.
Start/finish: Bowling (NS 451 735) to Edinburgh (NT 246 728).
Maps/guides: Landranger 63, 64, 65, 66.
Ride length: 101km (63 miles).
Climbing: Essentially none – it’s flat.
Bike type: Any.
Ride level: Any.
Coast-to-coasts don’t come easier. The 60-ish miles of canal towpath from Bowling, west of Glasgow, to the centre of Edinburgh is all flat, mostly tarmac, car free and well signed – Britain’s longest such bike route. Sustrans says that this route, NCN 754, is 99.3% traffic free and 68.9% asphalt.
It can be ridden either way but west-to-east follows the prevailing wind. There are a few short stony bits through tunnels and across lofty viaducts, but essentially it’s a smooth, stress-free, family-friendly delight.
Train access is great, thanks to mainline stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh connecting you to the rest of Britain. Regular bike-friendly Scotrail services run parallel to the route, giving lots of bailout opportunities if the weather turns.
You can blast the route in a day or do it at leisure in two. Falkirk is halfway, with plenty of accommodation choice, and you ride right past a modern wonder of the canal network: the Falkirk Wheel’s unique canal-lift-carousel hybrid. There’s also the Antonine Wall, a smaller version of Hadrian’s. A short side trip away is the Kelpies’ pair of horse head sculptures, and a glimpse of the sea.
Scenery isn’t mountainous but it’s all easy on the eye and camera – from the open calm east of Glasgow, through Falkirk’s engineering and sculptures, past elegant, waterside Linlithgow, to the sense of urban climax as you burrow into Edinburgh’s handsome centre. Cafés and shops are never far away, and you start and finish right in the middle of two very visitable, very different cities.
From Bowling Station, half an hour’s train journey from Glasgow Queen St, follow signs along the brief rail path to join the canal. There’s a bike shop (no hire) and café. A smooth gravel path follows the canal past a giant bike sculpture in Clydebank and then painlessly into, round, and out of Glasgow.
At the edge of Glasgow, stop off at Lambhill Stables, a friendly – and award-winning – community café. From here to Falkirk it’s a long, open stretch of canalside trundling, with low, gentle hills either side. In the town you brush past en route are several signed opportunities for cafés, snacks and so on.
You’ll see the swanlike form of the Falkirk Wheel appear in the canal basin to your right. Carry straight on and you soon get to the Kelpies. Or turn right past the Wheel to leave the Forth & Clyde Canal to step up to the Union Canal, which takes you Edinburgh. On your way out are some fun-spooky tunnels, as well as a train station.
Stop off at this charming lochside town, whose now-roofless but largely complete medieval palace was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. Plenty more refreshment opportunities here (and another train station if you need it).
The canal zigzags slowly through a post-industrial landscape of spoil heaps and more towns. A few miles of backwater-feeling riding take you through Ratho and along some giddy, narrow-pathed, cobbled viaducts – best walked!
The towpath goes steadily from outskirts to suburbs to centre, past pleasant parks near the final basin. Maybe savour a picnic? After the end basin, follow signs a mile or two across another park to the Old Town and Waverley Station. Or you can round off the ride in stunning style by cycling down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, past Holyrood, then clockwise round Arthur’s Seat.