Welcome to LEJoG Day 64: feel that Central Belt around a perfectly flat waist

Day 64 pre-amble

This is a landmark three-day week for 50FootHead. Perhaps it has to be, to compensate for the lack of variety or excitement in the terrain and scenery. These three days (#64 to #66) will be spent walking two canal towpaths for about 90% of the total distance between Edinburgh and Milngavie. I might as well level with you right now: it’s going to be monotonous.

But, as planned since the start of the walk, it’s also the point at which I level with you by revealing my real name. How’s that for excitement huh? Anyone who ploughed through this 29,000 word opus in the ‘Head’ section will already know my first name. However, at the end of this section I will give my full name and explain the alias under which I’ve been writing for the first two thirds of my journey.

Because I will be traversing Scotland’s Central Belt, each of the next three posts will have a title loosely themed around the human body and specifically the waist. This also ties in to the way I have chosen to reveal my name on Day 66. I warned you back in the Pre-Amble that we’d be returning to the metaphor of country as human body…

Finally there’s a double meaning in the title of today’s post. The whole of this walk takes place on the Union Canal, which follows the 73m contour throughout its full length. Hence Day 64 is, uniquely for LEJoG, an entirely level walk.

LEJoG Day 64 (Monday 24 August 2020)

Edinburgh to Linlithgow (19½ miles)

Cumulative: 917½ miles

Facts: Time on walk: 5 hours 30 minutes. Average speed: 3.55 mph (the fastest since Day 35: hardly surprising on the flat). Weather: Cloudy, cool, drizzle at start of day; becoming mild and then warm mid-late afternoon. Beautiful sunny evening.

Practicalities: For the weekend prior, see Sidetracks: Arthur’s Seat. This morning, we had breakfast at the usual time of 7:30, then I went to Asda for drinks. Packed everything I needed into the 30-litre pack and sent my Adidas bag home with mum and stepdad. Driven to the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, just below the Slateford Aqueduct and the easiest place to rejoin the towpath from the road. Said bye to the parents after a lovely weekend: Mum took some photos. The steps to the aqueduct represented the only climb of the day. Walked about half a mile to the finish point from Day 63 before starting my watch.

The walk

Start: Junction of the Union Canal and Water of Leith Walkway, Slateford, SW Edinburgh, 10:40am. End: Junction of the Union Canal and Preston Road, Linlithgow, 4:55pm.

Today’s walk uses OS Explorer maps 350 (Edinburgh, linked yesterday) and 349 (Falkirk, Cumbernauld and Livingston). The course of the Union Canal is clearly marked in blue throughout.

The walking is easy throughout Day 64. I may have promised revelations later in the week, but it’s safe to say that isn’t one. The first 2 miles meander through suburbs in the WSW octant of Edinburgh, on the way to the City of Edinburgh bypass (A720). There’s a noticeable increase in road noise here, of course. You pass over the A720 close to where it meets the M8, by way of the first of several aqueducts on the Union Canal route. This one is the Scott Russell Aqueduct, and to be honest it’s the least interesting. Here’s a photo anyway, just so you know I’m not teasing:

641 Aqueduct

The Scott Russell Aqueduct over the City of Edinburgh Bypass, and some algae

The road noise stays with you for a while as you walk within a few hundred metres of the M8 for a mile or so. It subsides for the last couple of miles to the town of Ratho, about 5½ miles from the start of the walk. Many boats are moored here and there’s a marina. One major bonus for the walker or cyclist is a generous array of picnic tables. Even though I was little over a quarter of the way into my walk, this was too good an opportunity to spurn and I stopped for lunch (12:10 – 12:30).

642 Ratho canal sign

Union Canal marker post at Ratho, showing developments through history

644 Ratho level sign

“It’s all on the level!” sign explaining the Union Canal’s topography, at Ratho

643 Ratho Marina

Ratho Marina. More boats are moored on the main canal either side.

The Union Canal continues westward, drawing close to the M8 (Junction 2) at Wilkie’s Basin. A quick word at this point on giving way to cyclists. The towpath is very narrow in many places. Officially the advice is for cyclists to give way, but this simply isn’t practical or particularly desirable. As long as they use their bell and walkers aren’t rude enough to use headphones, everyone gets by amicably. I’m not the biggest fan of sharing space with cyclists in general, but I couldn’t fault any of them today. By the time I reached Linlithgow I’d probably given way to two dozen cyclists, and every one of them thanked me. It does mean there’s no ‘Listening Pleasure’ section for these three days.

Just under 2 miles after Ratho is Lin’s Mill Aqueduct, which carries the Union Canal over the River Almond.

645 Lin Mills Aqueduct

Lin’s Mill Aqueduct, River Almond below

Thus far the most constant landmark en route has been the towers, cables and blinking lights of the Queensferry Crossing, about 7km north of Ratho according to the OS map. As you approach Broxburn, however, the crossing is less prominent. Instead your eyes are inevitably drawn to a striking, incongruous, flat-topped red rock, standing guard over surrounding woods just beyond Broxburn. Mark Moxon was particularly taken by this ‘Scottish Ayers Rock‘ back in 2003 and I had much the same thoughts, right down to being reminded of Uluru*. Indeed I’ve ended up choosing it for today’s header image. A kindly commenter explained to Moxon the history of this and similar tips (bottom of linked page). Apparently they are called ‘Bings’. Closer examination of OS Explorer 350 reveals this one as ‘Greendykes Bing‘ and it’s even a scheduled historic monument. It dominates the skyline for the next hour until, you round the eastern side on the approach to Winchburgh.

[*which I’ve never seen in the flesh, travel experts, and I have no doubt it’s considerably more spectacular than a big red rubbish tip in Scotland’s Central Belt, OK. Just referring so shape, colour and prominence, not scale…]

About 8 miles in, just short of Broxburn, is when the monotony of the canal walk really started to kick in. I tried to keep myself happy and entertained with distractions such as passing under the M8 (the first motorway crossing since the M62) and walking directly under a flight path for Edinburgh Airport. Even waved at an EasyJet flight at one point.

Other LEJoG bloggers and writers have referred to Broxburn as a low point of the journey. Andy Robinson even hints that it might be dangerous when walking alone (see Dave’s introduction here). For this reason I was never going to rest there, and earmarked Winchburgh for my second stop. Well, my early afternoon stroll through the industrial town wasn’t that horrible. I’d never call it an attractive place, but I certainly didn’t feel threatened. Shortly afterwards I passed a dozen workmen on the towpath, and feared a possible landslip after the floods of a couple of weeks earlier. Thankfully the diversion was a very minor one, through a vehicle park.

I stopped for snacks and drinks at Winchburgh, about 12½ miles in, from 2:30 – 2:50. About a mile after that I changed maps from Explorer 350 to 349. This is a double sheet map and you will need the East sheet to start with. The Union Canal proceeds almost directly west for the remaining six miles to Linlithgow, running parallel with the M9 but not close enough for traffic noise. Indeed this is the most consistently rural, unchanging section of the day. There’s a car park near Philpstoun Muir, and a railway running in the same direction but much closer than the M9. Apart from that, though, all you can expect to see are a few footbridges and minor road bridges, and scenery like this:

647 Rural near Philpstoun

Canalside view, near Philpstoun

If that’s your bag, you’ll have a grand day. It’s not really mine though. That said, I was happy to take the trade-off of easy, flat walking, knowing that the West Highland Way is likely to satisfy my mountain cravings in September.

Made one more 10-minute stop at a bench, just before the road crossing and restaurant at the Park, about 2 miles from Linlithgow. This was partly to rest my shoulders – although I’m only carrying the 30-litre pack, it is full and long days still bring a certain stiffness. It was also so that I didn’t catch an old couple on the narrow towpath.

The obvious stopping point was Linlithgow Basin (photo below), but as I was booked in at the West Port Hotel, I thought I’d knock about a mile off tomorrow’s journey and walk to the junction of the Union Canal and Preston Road. The hotel was right opposite the end of Preston Road, about half a mile north of the canal.

648 Linlithgow Basin

Linlithgow Basin

After the walk

I can’t say I was thrilled by my introduction to the West Port Hotel. After almost 20 miles of walking, I didn’t appreciate being told that I couldn’t reserve a spot for dinner as they were fully booked. Of course I understood that the main reason was the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme, but this had been in operation during my previous week in Scotland and hotels still managed to accommodate residents. The only exception was at Innerleithen, where the restaurant wasn’t re-opening until the following night. In fact this was to be the case all week, so by Wednesday I felt like giving Rishi Sunak a hearty kick in the bollocks. There were no biscuits in the room, which actually seems much more common in Scotland than England: I think they were provided only in Peebles so far.

After fuming for a bit, I went downstairs to book the “contactless continental breakfast” for 7:30 on Tuesday. This just means they drop it off in a bag outside your room. Felt much more welcome after that. And anyway, the fully-booked restaurant was a substantial blessing, because it meant I could have my evening meal from the Golden Chip takeaway on Linlithgow’s High Street. I heartily recommend this place: its special haddock supper was probably the best fish and chips I’ve eaten in many years.

The early evening was bathed in lovely, warm sunshine. I ate my takeaway at one of the ideally-placed picnic tables by Linlithgow Loch, at least until the many seagulls started to take an interest. The benches next to the High Street were an ideal retreat. My only regret from this evening was not taking a picture of Linlithgow Palace. It was an uphill walk, which for understandable reasons I didn’t wish to undertake. The best idea would have been to take a picture from the canalside. You can see here how photogenic the Palace is. Definitely the visual highlight of any visit to Linlithgow, especially if you can capture the Loch in the same image.

I had one more important task to carry out from my room. Earlier this month, the Union Canal had burst its banks due to flooding, leaving a 30-metre breach directly on tomorrow’s walking route. Therefore I had to check the Scottish Canals website and Twitter account for any updates on official diversions. The original plan was for walkers to use the A803, but after some pushback on social media, Scottish Canals came up with an alternative as shown here. The website was only updated on the day of my walk, and the only other source as of the evening of 24 August was this post on Twitter.

Picture (taken 24 August 2020) shows my first unobscured view of the “Scottish Uluru”, Greendykes Bing, shortly after passing under the M8 south of Broxburn. The levelled off top makes it the ideal choice for today’s post title 🙂

Next: Day 65 (25 August 2020)… in which it’s Tuesday. In August 2020. In Scotland. So it must be raining.

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