What's in a name? The sign at the entrance says "Welcome to Bowling Basin", and others around the site, including on the lock that gives access to the River Clyde, also use that name. On the other hand most online sources, including the Scottish Canals website, calls this place "Bowling Harbour", so that's the name we've used here.
We suspect that originally the area of water separated by a wall of degraded wooden piles from the main river out beyond Lock 40 was called Bowling Harbour. Meanwhile the area of water on the canal side of the lock was known as the lower basin and that on the inland side of the large railway bridge was the upper basin: together forming Bowling Basin. It seems that the name "Bowling Harbour" has been given to the entire area as part of wider efforts to regenerate the river frontage.
The linear village of Bowling can be found some three miles east along the north bank of the River Clyde from Dumbarton and is accessed from the A82. Bowling Harbour is reached using a signposted access road close to the east end of the village. What you find is a fascinating place that has been shaped by the development of central Scotland's transport infrastructure, firstly though canals, and later through railways.
In recent years a lot of work has been done to turn the harbour into an attractive place to visit in its own right, in our view very successfully. Some of the arches under the disused railway line that dominates the scene have been converted into a cafe and an activity hub. The harbour is also popular with cyclists and walkers wanting to make use of the canal towpath or visitors simply enjoy the views across and along the River Clyde. (Continues below image...)
The story of Bowling Harbour began in 1790, when the Forth and Clyde Canal opened to traffic. This provided a link between the River Clyde at Bowling with the River Forth at Grangemouth across the narrowest part of central Scotland. The result was to provide an easy passage across the country for the seagoing vessels of the day as well as a vital transport link for the rapidly-growing industries in the areas it passed through. By 1800 the canal had prompted the establishment of a thriving shipbuilding industry on the Clyde at Bowling.
The railway arrived in Bowling in 1850, when the Caledonian and Dumbartonshire Junction Railway provided a link from a terminus at Bowling through Dumbarton to Balloch. The aim had been to complete the route east to Glasgow, but funding had been hard to find. It took until 1858 before the line became part of the much more successful Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway. Many changes of name and ownership later, the line now forms part of the North Clyde line and is still operational, taking trains along the north side of Bowling Harbour.
But that's not the most spectacular part of the story of Bowling Harbour's railway heritage. This arrived in 1896, when the Lanarkshire and Dumbartonshire Railway built their line right through the area. This was at a higher level than the existing railway line, and crossed the canal by means of a railway swing bridge that could open to allow clearance for vessels with masts to pass between the lower and upper basins. The approach to the bridge was raised on a series of brick arches. The Lanarkshire and Dumbartonshire Railway closed in 1964 and the trackbed now serves as a footpath. The swing bridge no longer opens.
Ironically, the redundant railway line survived longer than the canal it crossed. Parts of the Forth and Clyde Canal had been filled in, built over or redeveloped as roads since as early as the 1930s, and it closed altogether in 1963. And that is where the story could all-too easily have finished. Remarkably, as anyone who visits Bowling Harbour can see for themselves, it didn't. Despite what must have seemed a desperate situation, some visionaries refused to give up and the tide finally began to turn in the 1990s. Restoring the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals, a project jointly known as the Millennium Link, cost some £84.5m. This included funding from the EU and the Millennium Commission; but with a lot of the investment based on projections of higher land values likely to be caused by the restored canals themselves.
The most significant single element, the Falkirk Wheel, opened in 2002, and since then it has been possible to cross Scotland by canal once more using the Forth and Clyde Canal, and to connect between it and the Union Canal, linking Falkirk and Edinburgh.
This story of decline and renaissance is largely invisible to the modern visitor to Bowling Harbour. Boats are moored in the upper and lower basins, and above Lock 38 at the end of the canal itself. The lock-keepers' houses overlooking the lock above the upper basin were built in 1896, while the Custom House (sometimes also called Canal House) overlooking the lower basis dates from 1800. But the most impressive structure remains the railway swing bridge. This is so massive that it's difficult to believe it as designed to move, and part of the enjoyment is trying to work out how that might have been achieved.