The Wheel before the Horses.

Yesterday I made a sketching journey along the Forth and Clyde canal from the Falkirk Wheel on the west side of the city to the Kelpies and Helix Park on the east side. I had seen a similar, though much shorter, documented journey that I made in one of my sketchbooks in 2015 on a workshop day with Art North Wales at the Trigonos Centre in Nantlle. It’s an approach I don’t use much, though I do a lot of sketching overall, and when I do I find it very useful in forming a narrative link between the studies and finishing with an enhanced sense of having made a journey, not just a random set of sketches; perhaps I feel a greater sense of completion, though they are not in themselves ‘finished’ pictures.

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I drew with a pen, the UniPin pigment pens from Mitsubishi Pencil Co, which I like for its combination of strength of line, lack of ‘bleed’ through the paper, waterproof nature that allows me to paint a wash over shortly afterwards. I tried a different, more compact, set of watercolours, in a well-designed metal case that doubles as a water bottle and pot. It’s a gift from a friend whose father worked for Windsor & Newton for many years and I don’t think they make anything as good any more. With a piece of old cotton cloth and a water-brush, I was ready.

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I travelled by bike, by far the most pleasant way to move around on such a trip, no parking issues, always the chance to stop whenever something catches my eye and the clean, fresh air, sociability of it and the opportunity for exercise at the same time. The paths along the canal are very good and a tribute to the bodies who refurbished and reopened the canals after the shameful abandonment of them from the 1960s. It’s such pleasant cycling that I feel almost in the Netherlands.

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The access to the canal is not far from where I live at present, from there it was a quick ride to reach the upper canal, the Union, that links to Edinburgh, where it emerges into the top of the Falkirk Wheel. As I’d started a little later than intended, I made this a coffee and lunch stop and found a spot for my first study.
There are usually lots of people at the visitor centre, cafe and watching the Wheel as it turns with its cargoes of boats of all sizes, bringing them between the upper and lower canals, an elegant solution to avoid what used to be many more locks.

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Further along, near Lock 16, I spotted an intriguing boat that I thought at first was a Thames Barge but turned out to be a sailing Dutch barge, with large leeboards on each side (they can be lowered to provide a side-mounted ‘keel’ as the boat is flat-bottomed). Het Leven, from Westzaan. She is a long work in progress for him but a worthwhile, if considerable, project. After talking about the details of rig and how she handles at sea, I set off.
Past the old Rosebank distillery, which, unaware, I pass most days on the way to work and which apparently used to produce a fine whisky. It seems there may be plans to restore the distillery, which would be a good addition to Falkirk. Later, swans grazing by the path while a man on his phone was watched patiently by his dog; he was still there in the same position (definitely alive!) when I passed again later.
A threat of rain began to hang in the air and I pedalled on more quickly to the end of the trail, by the Kelpies, where I celebrated with cake and coffee.

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Notes from the sketchbook:
“There is something about these magnificent sculptures that is more than their form or scale alone, I feel drawn here by a sense of living presence.
Yet it is really created by us, the people who are transforming a place not just by our [own] presence, activity and artefacts but by the meanings we make in our own minds, the relationships we perceive and form from our senses and emotions. It’s more than just the literal history and allusions to the important role the great draught horses played in the growth and prosperity of Falkirk and [the Central Belt]; the horse has a deeper, more emotional, meaning for us, even in this age of distracted mechanisation… most people have become separated from … close experience of the energy and power of horses and other domesticated animals who serve, endure and die for our own well-being.”

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