The Caledonian Canal Canal Walks with Julia Bradbury


The Caledonian Canal

Julia Bradbury walks alongside the Caledonian Canal in the Scottish Highlands and tells the story of Thomas Telford, who created this engineering marvel.


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Navigating Highland glens,

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rolling countryside, river valleys,

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and city sprawl.

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Britain's canals cut a sedate path through some of the country's finest scenery.

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Canals were the transport arteries at the heart of a booming industrial age.

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A network of locks, tunnels and aqueducts

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helped carry goods to every corner of the land and beyond.

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Transforming 19th century Britain into an economic superpower.

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Today, over 2,000 miles of restored canals

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offer a gateway into a different world.

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For me and many others,

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the towpaths alongside them offer the perfect way to explore this heritage on foot.

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Hello, welcome to the Scottish Highlands,

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and look at that for a bonnie view.

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What a way to start a walk.

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This is the West Coast of Scotland where the mountains meet the sea.

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I'm here to discover how Thomas Telford

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created a coast-to-coast canal transforming these remote Highlands by linking east to west.

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Scottish-born Telford was one of the great engineers of his day.

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On the outskirts of Fort William is his most ambitious project,

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the Caledonian Canal.

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At the turn of the 19th century,

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he realised there was a way through the heart of this remote and inhospitable region.

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By following the Great Glen, one of Scotland's most dramatic natural features,

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he saw that he could join it's freshwater lochs with sections of man-made canal.

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But there had never been a canal route on this scale before.

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Telford truly had his work cut out if he was to conquer the Highlands.

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This is more than a simple story of canal building.

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It's a tale of fame, fortune and, ultimately, folly.

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This wasn't just a navigational short cut.

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By the 1800s, canal mania was well underway

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in the industrial heartlands of England.

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But it wasn't until 1801

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that Telford started to survey a new route

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that would change the face of Scotland.

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He saw that the four main locks at the Great Glen,

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including Loch Ness, the biggest and the deepest in the UK,

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lay in near perfect alignment.

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Building an additional 22 miles of man-made canal would link them

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and create a cross-country route between Fort William and Inverness.

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My walk follows the first eight miles of this 60-mile route.

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I'll be starting from the sea at Corpach

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and undoing of the shores of the first freshwater loch at Gairlochy.

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This is Corpach sea lock,

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the start or end point of a journey along the Caledonian Canal.

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Clearly, this is not your average canal

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and that is not your average narrowboat.

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Telford's plan to join two sides of the country via a waterway was definitely bold.

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At the time, there was nothing on its scale anywhere else in the UK.

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He pledged the canal would bring prosperity and employment to the impoverished Highlands

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and help fishing boats shortcut the treacherous route around the top of Scotland.

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The race was on to expand Britain's transport network

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and private speculators rushed forward to fund new schemes.

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But this route was different.

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For the first time ever, the government would provide the money.

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If successful, it would be a triumph of its age

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creating badly-needed jobs and bringing wealth to the Highlands.

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-So, what are you doing here?

-I'm the chief officer on the vessel.

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It's quite a big vessel to have on a lock.

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Yeah, it's the largest that will fit into the lock, just about.

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-Definitely bigger than your average barge or narrowboat.

-Definitely.

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Some of these smaller locks,

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-it sounds very tight when you go in.

-I bet.

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You've got measurements being given to the bridge of one or two feet on either end.

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And there's about 18 inches on either side in the smallest ones.

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-So a real skill?

-Yes.

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-What do you think of Thomas Telford?

-I think he's a brilliant engineer.

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His only problem seemed to be that a lot of the locks he built on bends

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-which makes it difficult for a vessel of this size to get through.

-Yep.

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'A cruise boat certainly isn't what I expect to see on a canal lock.'

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And as this is the beginning of my walk,

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what can I expect see along the canal?

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-Rain.

-Yes, I'm used to that, that's fine!

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Lots of rain, some nice wildlife,

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and, hopefully, at this time of year, maybe not as many of the tourists,

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but I think you'll find quite a number of people going along.

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Lovely, looking forward to it.

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Well, better leave you to it. Don't want anything to go wrong.

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-It's all right, they'll wait for me to get back on board.

-Good!

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This impressive cruise boat, which is going in the opposite direction to me,

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has already carried 54 passengers 60 miles along the entire length of the canal,

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from Inverness to here at Corpach.

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It's now setting off for the open sea and the inner Hebrides.

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What a trip.

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Well, that got things off with a bang, didn't it?

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Telford spent two years surveying the options for this route

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and returned a compelling report to the government.

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He believed the region was in crisis.

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The devastating Highland clearances had shattered traditional clan life.

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At this time, people were being evicted from their homes

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and forced off their land to make way for sheep farming.

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Dispossessed and disillusioned,

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they were leaving Scotland emigrating to the New World and the promise of a better life.

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Telford believed the canal could give his fellow-countrymen a reason to stay.

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He wrote, "A canal would not only create much-needed employment,

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"it would also be hugely beneficial to the fishing industry

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"providing jobs way beyond the canal's completion."

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This was going to be a truly massive canal on an unprecedented scale

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making it capable of carrying ocean-going boats.

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They're proper seafaring tugboats, aren't they?

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He planned a route that sliced through the dramatic faultline of the Great Glen,

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20 ft deep, 30 ft wide with a total of 28 gargantuan locks.

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This is true mountain country.

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Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in Great Britain.

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Imagine being audacious enough, and brave enough to think you could dig a canal through this terrain.

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I mean, even on the Telford scale, this was off the chart.

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Carving a canal through these giant mountains was an astonishing challenge

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that ended up going massively over-budget

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and took much longer than ever planned.

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I'm approaching Banavie, the first village on my walk

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where I've arranged to meet someone who can tell me more about Telford's ambitious plan.

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-Nigel, just the man I needed to see.

-Hello.

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-Hello, how are you doing?

-Fine, thank you.

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'Nigel Ricks is a modern-day engineer overseeing the upkeep of this stretch of waterway.'

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I need you to tell me about Telford. I mean, obviously he was this great man, this ambitious man,

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-but this was an enormous project, wasn't it?

-Absolutely, it was the largest...

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..there was nothing like it in Britain at all, it was massive.

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It was a huge ship canal as opposed to the small canals they had in England.

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So, it was sort of beyond the imagination, really?

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Generally, yes, it was just beyond, certainly in this part the world, there was nothing ever like it.

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So who was going to fund this big idea?

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This was amazing, again, because it wasn't privately funded,

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it was public funded. The government paid, the taxpayer paid.

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-And then that was unheard of?

-Absolutely.

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It was all private enterprise, canals and such like.

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-So this was nationalisation, really?

-Yeah, very much so.

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The impetus was much greater because of the times.

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The times being times of strife, times of trouble?

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Yes, indeed, it was during the Napoleonic wars.

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There was also a mass emigration from this part of the world,

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people were leaving the Highlands in droves.

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The government wanted to stop that and to give employment.

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So, really, was this a huge master plan that covered all bases?

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Oh, very much so. Yes, indeed.

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Initially, and for the long term.

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That was the cunning plan.

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So, Thomas Telford, he was more than just an engineer, wasn't he?

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Well, yes, he was an absolute genius.

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He was a great visionary and he was so enthusiastic

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that when the canal started,

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he actually started about six months before he got the signature on the bit of paper.

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And they to had to rein him back. He was so enthusiastic, so keen.

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And let me show you just an example of his engineering genius. It's just along here. Follow me.

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It's just a couple of hundred yards further on

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to the bottom of Neptune's staircase, a dramatic flight of locks.

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Eight locks, rises 64 ft in 450 yards.

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And again, remember, when it was actually built there was nothing like it.

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Without this, the canal wouldn't have worked

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because we are in the Highlands, we are in the mountains, and water doesn't travel up, does it?

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No, it's an integral part of the whole structure.

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It's the largest flight of locks on this canal.

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-How long does it take to get through Neptune's staircase?

-Approximately an hour and a half.

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It can be slightly quicker coming down because coming down is quicker than going up

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and you've got the water.

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What all this means, of course, is that I do have a bit of a climb

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which I didn't think I would have on a canal walk.

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Yes, it's a good climb, but once you get up there and along,

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-it'll be well worth it.

-Right, I'm going to get on my way, then.

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Before you go, I'd like to give you this small pressie

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which is the Bible of the canal.

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Right, the Caledonian Canal.

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I shall read, take notes and learn.

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-Thank you very much, Nigel.

-Not at all.

-Thanks a lot.

-Bye-bye.

-See you, bye.

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This impressive flight of locks was named after Neptune,

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the Roman god of the seas

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by the navvies, the name given to the men who navigated the route

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and built it.

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Neptune's staircase might be hard work for walkers like me,

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but it also proved to be an obstacle for shipping.

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On 22nd February, 1929,

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the boat Girl Patricia

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crashed through the top lock

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and was swept into the next, damaging its gates before being brought to a stop.

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Disaster was narrowly averted and this lock wall held strong against the increase in water pressure.

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If it had collapsed, all the water in this reach

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would have cascaded down, flooding the village of Banavie.

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Three to go.

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Good thing about this route is you can't get lost,

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just follow the canal.

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Number eight. That's it for the climbing.

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The obstacles don't stop here.

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I'm also going to have to contend with the weather.

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But for the pioneering and patriotic Telford,

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he was determined to overcome all barriers.

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This wasn't just another route,

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it was the country's first social enterprise scheme and a matter of national pride,

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which he described as one of the noblest projects that was ever laid before a nation.

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For most canals built in England,

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securing a constant supply of water was an issue.

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Not here in Scotland.

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In fact, the opposite.

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There could often be too much water.

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Heavy rain meant flooding could easily threaten the banks of the canal.

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And, for me, it means a walk of showers and sunshine.

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By planting an embankment of half a million trees,

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with spruces from Sweden and 20,000 fine thorns,

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Telford strengthened the banks against the potential of devastating rising waters.

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Planting trees wasn't enough to secure the canal, though.

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Telford needed to implement some of the tricks of the trade he'd been developing elsewhere.

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After just over two miles, the canal is carried across

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a rather inconspicuous aqueduct which lies hidden below the towpath.

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I read about this in the book.

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And, you know me, I love a good snoop.

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Its purpose is to allow the rainwater from the hills

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to drain away under the aqueduct

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and therefore prevent the canal flooding.

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And it's where I am meeting Ian McLaren, the man who looks after the Seangan aqueduct.

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-Hi there, Ian.

-Hello.

-Drain problems?

-Yes, drain problems.

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-We all have drain problems.

-Oh, yes.

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-This is a really dinky little aqueduct, isn't it?

-It is, it is.

-How old is she?

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-She's coming up for 200 years old.

-Can we go in?

-Yes, certainly, yeah.

-Come on.

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Ah, yeah, the torch. We might need that.

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-It kind of gets wet in the Highlands.

-Yes, I've noticed that.

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So, because there's so much water, that was the problem for the canals,

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-because they would have flooded.

-Yes, aye.

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It's a way of getting rid of the water, not going into the canal.

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And right now, how much water's on top of us

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-because the canal is on top of us, isn't it?

-Yes, there's tons of water.

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There's nearly 20 ft of water above you.

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And this little structure is protecting us from that?

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-Yes.

-And acting as a drainage system as well?

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-As a drainage system, yes.

-It really was one of Telford's master strokes.

-Oh, it sure was.

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Absolutely fantastic for a structure nearly 200 years old

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and still to be in the condition it's in.

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-And you've been working here for how long?

-I've been here coming up for 25 years.

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-I'm actually the fourth generation.

-Really?

-From this canal, yes.

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So if we do the maths, So your grandfather, your father, your grandfather...

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-My grandmother's father worked on the canal.

-So, well over 100 years?

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-Oh, nearly 120 years.

-That's incredible.

-Yes, yes.

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-Do you have children?

-No, I will be the last.

-This is it?

-Yes.

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It stops here?

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I'm afraid British Waterways have had the whole of our family, that'll do us, I think.

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-Well, look, you know what, you've given your time, haven't you? 120-odd years.

-Yes.

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Back up on the towpath, this lovely tree-lined corridor continues,

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making for some easy-going and scenic walking.

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Eventually, the trees give way to an altogether more Highland scene.

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This is where you get a real sense of the truly mountainous terrain

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Telford had to pioneer a route through.

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That little hut over there in the distance represents skiing in this part of Scotland.

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That's the back of Ben Nevis, that's Aonach Mor,

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and the great thing about this walk is that you don't have mountains at the start,

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they're with you every step of the way.

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In this mountainous landscape,

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Telford had to be prepared for just how much rain could pour off these slopes.

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Building aqueducts and strengthening the banks weren't his only precautions.

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He also needed to have a way of letting water out of the canal

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should it simply get to full.

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I've read about this in my book.

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This was Telford's answer, the Loy Sluices.

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An overflow system that would allow water to be drained from the canal.

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So, that lovely boat would be over my shoulder along with the handsome man on a horse

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which means I must be standing just about here.

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I'm having a look over there, not a lot of water

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so the sluice gate is shut.

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The plug's in today.

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Telford might have had the answers to some of the engineering problems which the route posed,

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but he knew these would amount to nothing without a strong and dedicated workforce.

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To cut the canal line alone

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required the removal of 5.25 million cubic yards of soil.

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This would have been such incredibly arduous work.

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A wheelbarrow, pickaxe, and not much else.

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It says here, the navvies, the workers, had "a pernicious habit of drinking whisky".

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I'm not surprised.

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You'd need something, wouldn't you, to help you through a day like that.

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These Highland labourers were more used to working in isolation as subsistence crofters

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than in teams of hundreds.

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Many proved unreliable, returning to their crofts during certain seasons

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to take part in peat cutting and harvesting.

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Telford's grand plan started to falter.

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His survey hadn't accurately estimated the costs of cutting locks through rock

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and the seven-year deadline proved unrealistic.

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Instead, it was to take a total of 19 years.

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But Telford's route through the Great Glen

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has paved the way for one of the country's most popular long-distance walking trails.

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Aye up, we've got company. And they're bigger than me. Hello, hello.

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-Where are you off to?

-Fort William.

-So what have you done?

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-Have you done the whole thing, the Great Glen Way?

-Correct.

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-How many days have you been going?

-Six.

-Who's got sore feet?

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-He does.

-Blisters?

-No blisters.

-Has it been good, a good experience?

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-Yes, it's lovely.

-Even in the rain, it was good.

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Of course even in the rain!

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This part is particularly pretty.

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It's gorgeous, isn't it? It's lovely.

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Well, I'm on my way to Gairlochy, so I'm doing a mini walk.

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You've done the full thing, I'll do it next year.

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-All right, guys, lovely to meet you. Bye.

-Bye, thanks.

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'With well over two-thirds of my walk now complete,

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'I'm planning to meet Ivor McKay,

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'a man who quite literally winds his way along this canal.'

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-Hello, how are you today?

-I'm fine thank you, how are you?

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-I'm good, thank you. What are you up to?

-I'm opening the swing bridge here.

-So this is a swing bridge?

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This is a swing bridge, this is one of the...

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-..this is the only original swing bridge left in the canal.

-Right.

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-And it's near enough 200 years old.

-Can I have a go?

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-You certainly can.

-Thank you.

-If you'd like to stand over here.

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Tell me, why is it here anyway?

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Just get the momentum going and you'll be fine. That's it.

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-Here we go.

-Nice and easy.

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You don't really need to...

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-that's it.

-Here we go.

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The reason the bridge is here was to give access to the farmland on this side

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-to the farmers on the other side.

-Right.

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And to this day, it still stands that the farmer gets right of access

0:21:490:21:52

when he comes down the path on his tractor.

0:21:520:21:55

-How often do you have to do this?

-Just depends how many boats we get a day.

0:21:550:21:59

In the summertime, it's very busy, you know.

0:21:590:22:02

-Can maybe do it 20 times a day sometimes.

-Keeps you fit!

0:22:020:22:06

It certainly does, aye, it's very enjoyable doing it.

0:22:060:22:09

Is that...do you live there?

0:22:090:22:11

No, this is an original lock keeper's house

0:22:110:22:13

but it's rented out now to private tenants.

0:22:130:22:16

But this house has been here since 1836.

0:22:160:22:20

And on each gable end of the house,

0:22:200:22:22

-there's small windows where the lock keeper used to...

-Keep an eye out for the boats.

-East to West for boats.

0:22:220:22:28

But now people come on holiday, they can watch you doing all the hard work.

0:22:280:22:32

That's right, aye, yes. I get lots of people here taking photographs

0:22:320:22:35

and asking about the bridge, you know.

0:22:350:22:38

-It's a lovely job.

-It's a great job.

0:22:380:22:40

I always say it's the best job in Scotland to people.

0:22:400:22:43

We all enjoy our job on the canal, you know.

0:22:430:22:45

-And we're quite proud of it, it's our heritage.

-I'm sure.

0:22:450:22:50

-And...you're nearly there.

-There we go.

0:22:500:22:55

-OK, we'll just take the handle out as well.

-Right.

-That's it.

0:22:550:23:00

So you've to cross to the other side now?

0:23:000:23:02

-Yes, open up this side over here.

-OK. Well, you know what?

0:23:020:23:05

-I'm going to leave you to it. Do you need that?

-Just leave it down there, please.

0:23:050:23:09

-Thank you.

-Lovely. Nice to meet you.

0:23:090:23:11

-Thank you.

-Enjoy yourself.

-I will do.

0:23:110:23:14

-Do you paint the boulders as well?

-Yes, we pay until the boulders we cut the grass,

0:23:160:23:20

-and we do all the maintenance about here.

-Lovely.

-Cheerio!

-See you.

0:23:200:23:23

Seeing Ivor's bridge in full swing is a great reminder

0:23:240:23:27

of just how much care goes into the canal's upkeep,

0:23:270:23:30

which today has the impressive title of being a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

0:23:300:23:35

It's also set to be enjoyed by another generation of boaters

0:23:350:23:39

as the country's first ever designated canoe trail.

0:23:390:23:42

In just a short distance, you get your clearest view

0:23:460:23:49

of the River Loy, which has been burbling alongside throughout.

0:23:490:23:53

It's been a walk brimming with impressive mountain landscapes

0:24:000:24:03

and engineering prowess,

0:24:030:24:05

but sadly it's now time for the last stretch to the Double Locks at Gairlochy.

0:24:050:24:11

Originally, there was only one lock here,

0:24:130:24:16

but in 1834, heavy rains flooded three feet above its gates,

0:24:160:24:19

threatening the entire western section.

0:24:190:24:21

For two days and two nights,

0:24:240:24:26

the lock keepers worked around the clock to stem this growing tide.

0:24:260:24:29

They built emergency turf dams and all the sluices were opened wide.

0:24:290:24:34

It was a telling warning.

0:24:370:24:39

One lock was not enough.

0:24:390:24:41

A second was added in 1844,

0:24:440:24:46

the only lock on the canal which doesn't date from the original construction.

0:24:460:24:51

The canal finally opened in 1822, 12 years later than planned,

0:25:050:25:09

and costing £905,000 rather than the £350,000 he had predicted.

0:25:090:25:15

By the time it was finished,

0:25:150:25:17

advances in shipping had made the north coast more navigable

0:25:170:25:21

and boats didn't need the canal short cut.

0:25:210:25:23

The much hoped-for commercial activity never really took off on the canal.

0:25:250:25:29

Its late completion also meant the emerging railways soon stole its advantage.

0:25:290:25:34

This canal has a new life now, people enjoying it on boats,

0:25:450:25:50

on bikes, in boots.

0:25:500:25:52

All sorts.

0:25:520:25:54

Today, it's tourism that takes up the story.

0:25:580:26:02

And the canal attracts over half a million visitors every year.

0:26:020:26:05

So, just as Telford intended, the Highlands are prospering,

0:26:080:26:12

all thanks to his canal which connects these locks

0:26:120:26:15

and has created a gateway into the magnificent scenery of the Great Glen.

0:26:150:26:20

That is a great glen. With a rainbow to boot.

0:26:490:26:53

What a journey.

0:26:530:26:55

From salt water, to a freshwater loch.

0:26:550:26:59

I'm now drawing close to the shores of Loch Lochy,

0:27:090:27:12

which Telford so cleverly realised could be part of a connecting chain,

0:27:120:27:16

forging a route through this wild cross-country valley.

0:27:160:27:20

There's my marker.

0:27:250:27:27

Look at that.

0:27:350:27:38

Telford created something on a scale that had never been seen before

0:27:460:27:50

and you can't fail to be impressed by that.

0:27:500:27:52

And yet it became a bit of a white elephant.

0:27:520:27:55

It took three times as long to build as planned. It went over budget.

0:27:550:27:59

And it was never fully utilised.

0:27:590:28:01

But he did realise a dream, an enormous dream.

0:28:010:28:04

He changed the local economy.

0:28:040:28:07

And what an exquisite walk.

0:28:070:28:10

What a legacy.

0:28:100:28:12

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:170:28:20

Seasoned stomper Julia Bradbury dons her walking boots once again and this time she is exploring her own British backyard, travelling along the country's network of canals and their accompanying towpath trails. This sees her navigating Highland glens, rolling countryside and river valleys, as well as our industrial heartlands, following these magical waterways as they cut a sedate path through some of the country's finest scenery.

Julia kicks off her tour with a visit to the Scottish Highlands. Against the stunning backdrop of Ben Nevis, her walk starts near Fort William where she embarks on her eight-mile trip along the Caledonian Canal, the majestic waterway that cuts through beautiful mountain country and is regarded as one of the most ambitious canals of its time. Julia's journey tells the story of one of the greatest canal engineers, Thomas Telford, whose ambition was to create not only an engineering marvel, but also badly needed jobs and wealth for the Highlands. Two hundred years on, it is now one of the most popular walking trails in the country.


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