ARDKINGLAS Estate’s Gruffalo Trail delights all the family, finds Catriona Thomson
WE survived the drive to Ardkinglas gardens, Cairndow, more or less intact. Some 50 miles north west of Glasgow we experienced the stunning Rest and Be Thankful, so striking that even bickering travelling companions daughters, Eve (13) and Hope (10) ceased hostilities for a moment to be impressed with the view. I confess it was my own nostalgic fondness for Julia Donaldson’s tale The Gruffalo, which I read and reread to my daughters, which had brought us here. I was unsure as to what the girls would make of a jaunt to a garden and its newly installed toddler friendly woodland trail devoted to the lovable monster. However they were happy to join me and promptly pulled on their wellies.
We paid, and collected a map before setting off along the path to the deep dark wood. Luckily for us it didn’t rain, but we soaked up the wilderness atmosphere. There were magical views at each turn, causing me to be in danger of dawdling at the back.
The Callander family established the mature conifer collection around 1875, before the Noble family took over in 1905, with Sir John Noble establishing the much admired rhododendron collection in the 1920s. Lord and Lady Glenkinglas added to this until the 1980s. It is a botanist’s dream with unusual leaves and bark at every turn. It’s even home to the grand fir, Abies grandis which is the tallest tree in Britain and a gnarled magnificent silver fir, Abies alba. Hope sniffs the air and recognises the distinctive aroma of the skunk cabbage plant.
We spot our first wild animal, the native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) gorging itself on a feeder. This trail has transported us to the pages of the book, and Axel Scheffler’s illustrations. It seems right that actual pages of James Robertson’s Scots translation are placed as way markers at intervals along the route. We head along the path “to the deep mirk widd.”
My youngsters were eager to find the mouse statue marking the beginning of the walk. No matter what age your young companions are, do not underestimate the pulling power of the tiny mouse, the feisty main character who manages to hoodwink everyone he meets.
We soon located the galvanized steel mouse sculpture which was created by the craftsmen at Ratho Byres Forge, Edinburgh, as well as a hidden statue of the Gruffalo himself. Both were commissioned by the current owner of Ardkinglas estate, David Sumsion who realised that this corner of the Woodland Garden could provide the perfect setting for the book’s characters.
A wee rest is in order at the gazebo before heading off in search of the fox’s lair, and the owl’s tree. We are all soon reciting our favourite rhymes from the book. Sadly the fox’s den is empty but you feel sure he could be back within a few minutes. No one is at home at snake’s pad either, but his logpile house is identical to the illustration in the book.
So far the only monster we have spotted so far is a cheeky pine marten, caught in the act of robbing the squirrel feeder.
At the lochan pier, we all take a moment to search for owl, as this is his habitat. With no sign from above, we content ourselves with relaxing views of flowering waterlilies. However, we mustn’t be distracted from the main task at hand, which is to track down the elusive Gruffalo. He should be easy to spot with his “terrible claws and terrible teeth, in his terrible jaws”. We won’t reveal his exact location but the sculpture is well hidden, waiting to surprise and delight visiting children.
The trail is short, and we could easily turn back and retrace our steps to the car park, but the girls are still full of energy and are keen to explore more of the woodland beyond the trail. The Ardkinglas garden covers some 25 acres of hillside near the head of Loch Fyne, so we can enjoy lots more walking. We make it as far as the ruined mill near the river before turning back. Far too soon we are back at the start of the walk. My little monsters insist that you can never be too old for The Gruffalo Trail. It’s a timeless classic.
• Admission to the Woodland Gardens including The Gruffalo Trail is by donation, £5pp, £15 per family, annual season ticket, £20. Open year round, dawn to dusk. Dogs on leads are welcome, www.ardkinglas.com