Tales of the Bonny Clyde: 1 – Dunoon & Benmore

June’s contribution of our ‘year of short breaks by train’ is likely to be the longest one of all, fittingly as it coincided with Jude’s birthday. Late afternoon we were drawing into Gourock in unsettled weather, a mix of sun, showers and cool northerly wind, pretty much par for the whole trip and indeed the whole of this Spring! The half-hour foot-ferry crossing to Dunoon made light of the choppy conditions, as we steamed past Gannets and Arctic Terns.

Quick check-in, and the sun was out, so a leg-stretch along West Bay was very much in order. The tide was out, providing feeding for Oystercatchers and Hooded Crows (really in Scotland now!), together with a few motley Carrion/Hoodie hybrids.

Eiders were swimming and loafing beyond the tideline, while the stony upper beach had flowering Sea Radish and Danish Scurvy-grass.

Around the pier, there were Rock Pipits feeding and singing, and patches of Orange-dot Lichen Protoblastenia rupestris (with its distinctive raised, rounded, orange fruiting bodies) on the pavements and walls.

And the tinkling whisper of ‘Goldcrest song’… but seaward?! It was persistent, but it took some time to realise that it was the courtship song of Black Guillemots, the most un-auk-like sound imaginable. And interestingly, the otherwise wonderful Merlin birdsong app either couldn’t hear it or didn’t recognise it.

In the churchyard, lichens on gravestones are always worth a look, especially in less-polluted westerly areas …

… and indeed older walls throughout the town provided botanical interest from Ivy-leaved Toadflax, to Maidenhair Spleenwort and Wall-rue, to Fairy Foxglove and New Zealand Willowherb.

Most of our one full day in the area was taken up with a visit to the outstanding Benmore Botanic Garden, an outpost of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In theory it was easily accessed by bus, although Argyll & Bute Council/West Coast Motors had changed the timetable a couple of days earlier – without changing the timetables at the bus-stops or online. We turned up at the bus-stop ‘ahead of time’ only to see the bus departing  into the distance., with the next one due in two hours. Clyde Taxis to the rescue, but a pretty poor show from the providers of public transport we thought.

Situated in the mountains, and indeed running up some pretty steep slopes, Benmore Garden has lots to interest any gardener or naturalist.

First the birdsong: Chaffinches everywhere and several Willow Warblers, respectively ‘going’ and ‘gone’ from our south-eastern haunts. A female Red Deer watched us watching it, and a fleeting Red Squirrel skittered along a trackside trying to avoid unleashed dogs.

From avenues of Giant Redwoods to mature plantings of numerous Rhododendron species and cultivars, together with numerous Southern Hemisphere shrubs and trees, the garden pays testament to the plant hunters of the past and its relatively mild situation encompassed by the Gulf Stream warmed waters of the Firth of Clyde.

Exotic perennial plantings too, the like of which we can only dream of in the (normally)  arid plains of Essex:

All of the cultivated delights are alongside a wonderful array of native mosses and liverworts, ferns, lichens and flowering plants:

As always we focused upon the tiny creatures, which included nymphal Forest Bugs, a range of planthoppers and mirid bugs, barklice and snipe-flies. And while there were some, fortunately not too many midges for comfort…

Benmore really exceeded our expectations, and throughout the day, we managed to avoid the showers wholly either in the garden café or the pubs back in Dunoon! A final word must go to food (always a focus of our trips). We ate outstanding evening meals at both the Lorne and Tryst, the former having perhaps better atmosphere and service. Cullen Skink at the Lorne was actually bettered by smoked haddock chowder at Tryst, but salmon pate, mushroom and leek gnocchi and black-pudding and haggis bonbons (Lorne) and lamb shoulder and vegetable lasagne (Tryst) also scored highly. And the Lorne’s uplifting pairing of mashed turnip and peppercorn sauce was simply inspired.

It was good to return to Dunoon, despite the cool weather, but after a couple of nights it was away, back across the Firth, to uncharted lands for us around the upper reaches of the Clyde …