Five weeks from now and we would be heading for France for the Le Tour de Loire Valley du Tandem. So the “old git” and the “old gal” decided another training run would be a good idea. The venue for this ride was the canal paths around The Kelpies – 30 metre high horse head sculptures by Andy Scott which tower above the M9 motorway in Falkirk.
The metal sculptures are magnificent, quite spell-binding in fact. This “old lady” classic tandem – no mean feat of engineering herself – was really impressed! And it even allowed the “old git” to indulge his sense of humour with his headline writing – claiming that when I was there it was “three iconic steel structures” together!
The “old gal” had roped in good friends and solo cyclists Gillian and Craig to help with today’s training run and we met them at the stylish new visitor centre at The Kelpies hub, the centrepiece of an area of land transformation now called The Helix.
The plan was to do an easy 16 mile circuit from The Kelpies, round to another masterpiece of engineering – The Falkirk Wheel – and back to the Kelpies. This circuit – known as the HArTT Cycle Route (Helix Around Town Trail) – is heavily promoted on the park’s website, to encourage cyclists to enjoy the network of cycleways, canal paths and woodland trails around the area.
This is our second visit to this trail as those with a good memory will remember that exactly a year ago Team Matilda went on a voyage of discovery with Gillian and Craig as we got well and truly lost as the park owners hadn’t got round to installing way markers along the way. The trip nearly ended in disaster as by following the paper map, we ended up coming down a country lane on to fast moving transport and then having to dangerously tandem along a busy dual carriageway to return to the start.
After much discussion, and as a direct result of some negative publicity on the issue, the owners of the Helix Park decided way markers was a priority and installed them earlier this year.
So – despite a forecast of winds gusting at over 50 mph – we were all keen to do the route again, hopefully without incident. The “old git” had done is homework (as is his way of things) and checked with the Helix Team to be told in an email that: “The way markers on the HArTT Cycle Route are now all in place.” We were also told that “the new and updated map and leaflets are available from reception desk at the visitor centre.”
It sounded too good to be true – and it did not start well when we asked for a copy of the map only to be told that they were “out of stock due to high demand” – which is not brilliant at the height of the busy Summer season. Fortunately the “old git” had a copy of the map which he had downloaded before leaving Matildas Rest, but there was still an element of trepidation as to what we would find along the way.
Before heading off on the route Gillian and Craig kindly agreed to video the “old gal” and the “old git” tandeming around the base of the Kelpies. Fortunately it was quiet being fairly early on a Sunday morning and Team Matilda was easily able to navigate a route round both of the huge sculptures.
It would need to be said that Gillian’s camera work was rather nifty – and the “old git” roped in a work colleague to edit the video and add some captions. The result is somewhat more arty and professional looking than our normal videos and well worth a look! (Remember if you are reading this on email, you need to click on the blog first – via the link at the bottom of the email – to view the video.)
So after the video shoot – which made me feel rather famous, and which gave a few minutes of free entertainment to some visitors – we set off. You can check out the route of our Kelpies adventure on Strava below – and don’t forget to click on the map image to get the full date and statistics!
We easily found the first of the way markers as we headed through the nature-rich Wetland area adjacent to the River Carron. In fact we were most impressed as the new HaRTT signs appeared regularly, clearly pointing the way at every junction, which lulled us into a false sense of security.
Now you know I am a bit of an “old lady” tandem and therefore don’t really like bumpy surfaces – so I was delighted to find that over the first few miles the cycle track was virtually motorway standards of smoothness. This allowed us to move along at a fair pace, with my dynamic duo allowing themselves to think they were in Rio for the Olympics! Yes I know that unfortunately tandem racing is no longer part of the Olympics – although clearly it should be! – and Falkirk is hardly Copacabana Beach (really??!!) – but the “old git” had got some Team GB socks to support the Olympic cycling effort!
So on we headed through Abbotshaugh Woods – admiring a series of spectacular artworks along the way – and past the Carron Works, which was the largest iron works in Europe in its heyday. The route soon joins the path which runs alongside the Forth and Clyde Canal – operated by Scottish Canals. At this point the wind got up, and we were buffeted by quite a few strong gusts of over 50 mph. I have to pay credit to the “old git” here for his steering, as both me and the “old gal” were a bit worried we may get blown into the canal on a couple of occasions!
Onwards we pedalled, past the Rosebank Distillery – which dates from 1817 – we arrived at The Falkirk Wheel. This is another amazing sight. It is described as the world’s only rotating boat lift. It stands to the height of 8 double decker buses stacked on top of each other and weighs 1,200 tonnes.It essentially allows boats to travel from the Forth and Clyde canal to the Union Canal.
The two canals used to be linked by a staircase of 11 locks which took nearly a day to transit. These were dismantled in 1933. Work started on the ambitious £84.5 million Millennium Link projects to rejoin the two canals in 1998 and opened in 2002.
It was good to see so many people out enjoying the area, and we decided a quick pit stop was required in the canal basin. The “old gal” had packed some mini bottles of (guess what?!) prosecco for the four cyclists – which were eagerly consumed along with the picnic. And the bottles were kept nicely chilled by my cycle cool bag – or so they told me!
After lunch we had a quick explore of the canal basin and as always I was getting lots of attention, especially from children who were quite intrigued by what some people called “a double bike!” One of the attractions there is a set of mini Kelpies – known as macquettes – which are 1:10 scale models of the acclaimed structures and offer a great photo opportunity.
Rising to such a height out of the canal basin the actual Falkirk Wheel dominates the skyline – as it should for such a feat of modern Scottish engineering.
So refreshed by the prosecco picnic, we set off again up the hill to take in the magnificent views from the area at the top of the wheel – used by the popular boat trips. Given that the canal extension created for the Falkirk Wheel literally stops in mid air, it offers a great infinity pool-style photograph!
From the Falkirk Wheel the route immediately joins the path at the Union Canal and the “old gal” decided a video of us tandeming through the Roughcastle Tunnel – which actually runs under the Roman Antonine Wall – would be fun. Have a laugh as the video moves into Benny Hill-style up to show us tandeming at speed – and look out for the sudden appearance of one of the passenger boats emerging magically from the bright light at the end of the tunnel! (And don’t forget that if you are reading this on email, that you need to click onto the blog to watch the video.)
The only snag – and it was a big one – along the wonderfully flat Union Canal section was that we kept coming across these zig zag z-gates that Scottish Canals have decided to put on the canal paths at every junction with a main road. This seems to be to stop motorbikes getting through.
Even single bikes – like Gillian and Craig’s – have difficulty in navigating these gates – but as you know I am quite a length and don’t exactly bend in the middle. So there’s no chance of me getting through these gates. Every time the “old gal” and the “old git” have to dismount and lift my front end over. Oh the embarrassment.
My dynamic duo got so frustrated they decided to shoot a video to show the effort involved in progressing through the gates. There has to be an easier solution which would make using the wonderful canal paths less frustrating – and would encourage lots more cyclists to use the network of paths.
Watch the video to see Team Matilda make a heart-felt plea to Scottish Canals to make their z-style gates along the canal paths more bike and tandem friendly. (Again don’t forget that if you are reading my blog posting on email, you need to click on the blog first – via the link at the bottom of the email – to view the video.)
Team Matilda awaits any comment or feedback from Scottish Canals with interest. After we left the Union Canal section we hit problems with the way markers on the HArTT route. Until now they were with us all the way, but for some reason as soon as we were directed into Callander Park there was not a way marker to be seen. This is most unfortunate given the myriad of paths through the wood and parkland. There are lots of other way markers of different colours – marking other walking tracks and the John Muir Way – but not one did we spot for the HArTT route. This had the result of leaving us not only lost, but totally hacked off given the pre cycle promise that they were “all in place.”
Using the paper map we somehow managed to navigate our way through the park – which took well over an hour when it should have taken no more than 20 minutes – and amazingly found a way marker sitting proudly at the exit!
This took us out on to a main artery – New Hallglen Raod – where the next sign was high up on a pole. But it was totally and utterly meaningless and confusing as it pointed and directed us to go over a crash barrier and into rough bush and scrubland. It did provide an amusing photo however!
Eventually – after a wrong turning up a very rough country path, we found the correct way by luck and emerged at a roundabout (linking Old Redding Road and Redding Road) Again there were numerous choices as to which way to go- but no way markers.
We again somehow managed to navigate ourselves back in the direction of Falkirk Stadium – but missed out a section of the route through Westquarter and a new path adjacent to the M9 due to the lack of direction signs.
Then, as if by magic, near the end of the route which runs alongside the A9, the way markers appear again in abundance – almost ridiculously so ion their number – and we were guided back to the Helix Park and the Kelpies Hub.
The continuing problem with directions is such a shame as the HArTT Cycle Route is clearly a fantastic asset – but if experienced cyclists can’t find their way around the route, it certainly defeats the purpose of having it. And all it does is leave cyclists – tandemers and solos alike – feeling frustrated.
You get the feeling that perhaps the way marker project ran out of money, or perhaps there is some other explanation for the missing signs. It would certainly appear that unfortunately the HArTT Cycle Route has not been road tested by independent cyclists – not those involved in marking it out – before being opened to the public. And as for the wayward signs pointing in the wrong direction – is it not regularly checked to see if the signs which do exist are correct?
To summarise, the route is fabulous for 75% of the way – but clearly there is a missing link. The “old git” has been in touch with the owners of the Helix Park by email, and links on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, asking them to sort it out – so watch this space!
Checking up on Strava, it officially recorded the ride as covering a distance of 16.4 miles with a moving time of 2 hours 34 minutes. Due to the umber of stops and starts, and taking the wrong direction, the average speed was just 6.4 mph, while the total time, including picnic, was 4 hours 49 minutes. The plus point was that the elevation covered was a manageable 632 feet. Top speed was 21.3 mph – and we even managed to burn up 1,280 calories and produce an estimated average power output of 124 W.
Now that wasn’t the end of a Grand Day Out for Team Matilda. the “old git” and the “old gal” packed me bcak into Matilda Transport and we hedaed back to Gillian and Craig’s home in nearby Alloa.
They have a fancy hot tub in their garden – and the “old gal” decided this would be good therapy for the muscles after the tandem ride, and the “old git” decided it would be the perfect treatment for the frustrations over the way markers!
And they were both correct! It was a very therapeutic way to relax – enjoying the cold bubbles from a glass of prosecco while enjoying the warm bubbles of the hot tub! Absolute bliss! The last I heard was the “old gal” saying: “I want one!”
So all in all another fabulous tandem ride – despite the frustrations with the way markers and the strong winds – and another day full of fun, laughs, iconic scenery, sunshine, and a fantastic picnic all with great friends! And that is truly the definition of a great tandem day out for Team Matilda!
Finally, I am getting uber excited over the visit of another tandem coming to Perthshire for me to have fun and games with. Its only a few days now till my dynamic duo host two fellow tandemers, Jane and John Taylor who live near Southampton in Hampshire, on Le Tour de Perthshire. They are bringing their Pino semi-recumbent tandem called Bluebird – who has her own mini blog-style ‘Travels with Bluebird’ Facebook page – to stay in Perthshire for a week.
Jane and John certainly seem to have much in common with my crew – such as not enjoying hills and definitely enjoying wine! In fact both Team Bluebird and Team Matilda seem to have the same views on not taking tandeming too seriously, and are therefore founder members of the self-created Nutty Tandemers Club!
The “old git” and the “old gal” have been busy with preparations to make Team Bluebird feel welcome in Perthshire – including a welcome pack full of some local tasty goodies, tour schedule, tour t-shirts, and even some saltire flags. This “old lady” is certainly looking forward to having a tandem pal for some ride outs. I am sure Bluebird and I can get up to mischief while the two tandem crews are indulging in those famous prosecco picnics or when we stop at local hostelries!
So look out for updates on Le Tour de Perthshire du Tandem here and also on Travels with Bluebird!
In response to Team Matildas review of the HArTT Cycle Route – the Helix Team have been in touch thanking us for taking the time to give detailed feedback.
They apologised for the maps being unavailable in the new visitor centre due to “underestimating how popular they would be with our visitors.” The review has also been passed on to the various partners of the Helix Park who look after the route so the issues raised can be addressed.
The response added: “We are pleased to hear there have been improvements since your last attempt last year, but are sorry that it is not yet completely up to scratch. Thank you for the review – as without honest and detailed feedback from those who have attempted the route without already knowing it, we do not know where there are areas for improvement, and therefore struggle to make improvements in the right places to make the HArTT Cycle Route as good as it should be.”
The Helix Team promised to respond in detail once those issues had been investigated. Here is their response:
Callendar Park, and specifically Callendar Woods are managed by the Forestry Commission who required their own type of signage. The signs to be installed are in the possession of the Forestry Commission and were meant to have been installed some time ago, though as highlighted by your experience, they clearly have not been. We will ask them again to install the signage, but we cannot put any direct pressure on them as they have limited resources.
The path at New Hallglen Road does require maintenance, which we are aware of, but we do not manage all the paths on the route directly, and again we are relying on partners using their stretched resources to maintain paths. If the path was more visible, this sign would make more sense, but it is a difficult location as the crash barrier creates a visible and physical block to the direct desire line.
The difficulties at the roundabout linking Old Redding Road and Redding Road have been compounded by the loss of the route further back and due to the removal of the bridge by Network Rail. This section due to be revisited to improve the way marking as we are aware of the problem.
The HArTT Route and its way markers are inspected as often as possible, but again, limited resources mean inspecting the 16 mile route does not fall to one body. We rely heavily on visitor feedback to let us know of problems on the route, and while we do pick up on this and make improvements where we can, we are only one partner in amongst several others, and creating a consistent quality across the route is challenging.
We are aware of the “missing link” and will do our best to see this resolved, as we do want the HArTT Route to be the great assets for the area that it should be.
Scottish Canals have also responded to Team Matilda’s video plea to make their gates on the canal paths more bike friendly:
These gates were originally installed to prevent unauthorised access by motorbikes and other vehicles who were putting themselves and towpath users at risk. We are aware that these type of gates can create problems for unrestricted access and are currently working with Sustrans Scotland and other bodies to review access.
The Scottish Canals team
Sustrans Scotland also responded to the video plea:
As stated by Scottish Canals, we are continuing to work together to improve the towpath for all users. Removing access barriers is part of that process, but as you will understand from riding on it the towpath network is extensive so it’s a work in progress. We will continue to discuss the issues facing tandems and other non-standard bikes with Scottish Canals and look to improve this in the near future.