Travel-Lake District: A wonder called fish

For a watery insight into Windermere - fish, pond skaters and all - Sarah Collins and her two sons visited the Lakeside Aquatarium in Cumbria.
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The Independent Online
There ought to be a sign saying "please do not tickle the trout" when you step into the Lakeside Aquatarium in Cumbria. Entertaining as it may seem to dangle your digits in the fish-filled pool just inside the entrance, it'll always be the resident trout that have the last laugh when they greedily snatch your fingers.

Any trauma suffered through this first encounter with the aquatic life of the Lake District will dissolve with a quick geography lesson, explaining when and how the landscape of the lakes formed, before you arrive at the mountain top. This aquarium is most unlike the exotic sea life centres, complete with sharks and stingrays, that have been popping up around the country. Here, your journey springs to life among gills, becks and bogland, a saturated land of spongy sphagnum moss and emerging rivulets. With the sound of a trickling stream in your ears you can peer into this easily- overlooked miniature water world, inhabited by the stickleback, minnow and common toad.

A little farther downstream, there are more hands-on exhibits, and an aquatic laboratory equipped with microscopes and magnifying glasses. Helpful staff are usually on hand to answer questions and help you marvel in close-up at the watery ways of the whirligig beetle and pond skater.

As gravity gains the upper hand, the streams and rivers running off the mountain top collect in deep scars that were cut into the landscape by retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. Today we know these as the Lakes, and your journey first takes you to the centre-piece Windermere tank, before continuing back along the bed of the lake through a transparent tunnel.

Viewed inside out, the lake is fascinating, and it's here in the tunnel under the lake that you meet the stars of the show. At the surface they may look like plain old ducks, but seen from below their skilled diving forays to the bottom of the 3-metre tank make a memorable sight.

"This year we want to get inside the tank with scuba gear and point out the different species to visitors in the tunnel using a waterproof pad and pen," explained a keeper. "We're also going to start hand-feeding him," he enthused, pointing to a 3-ft catfish waving gently in the flow. "He's only young at the moment, but when he matures he should reach around 10ft - and, better still, the bigger he grows, the uglier he is going to get. He'll spend most of the time wallowing out of sight at the bottom when he does get quite big, so the plan is to wait until the tunnel is full of visitors and then lure him up to feed face to face with everyone."

Leaving the lake's still waters, you rejoin the flow as it wanders on through lowland Cumbria to where river merges into estuary and grey mullets, flounders and sea anemones appear in the tanks. It's here that you leave the tranquil, delicate world of the lakeland river as fresh water disappears out to sea. When I visited, one section was being refurbished to accommodate a pair of otters. No doubt the frolicking of these furry creatures will steal the limelight from the diving ducks when they arrive at Easter.

The visitors

Sandra Collins, from Humberside, took her two sons, Benjamin, 13, and Matthew, nine.

Sandra: We had a great time. I thought the boys would enjoy it more than me, but I surprised myself. There is quite a variety and I particularly liked the way that you follow the story of a river - and aren't the ducks great? If it stops raining we are going out with the field book to see what we can recognise down by the real lake.

If I was disappointed with anything, it was the video presentation. We thought it was going to be a nature documentary or something, but it seemed to be more about tourism in the Lake District. Also, the visit is maybe a bit expensive. Together with the field book we paid about pounds 13, and it didn't even take an hour to go round.

Benjamin: I liked it. I have seen the big rays in that last tank before, at the Sealife Centre in Scarborough. But there weren't many big fish here, except for the catfish; he was good. I think my favourite was the iguana [an overseas visitor in the aquaquest lab]. The man let it out of its tank for a walk and we were watching it watch the fish through the glass.

Matthew: I thought the best bit was seeing Ben underwater in the tunnel when I was on the bridge.

The deal

Getting there: The Aquatarium is located at Lakeside, near Newby Bridge at the southern tip of Windermere (015395 30153). By car it is a 25-minute drive along the A590 from junction 36 on the M6. The nearest station is Windermere, which has direct connections with Oxenholme, Preston and Wigan, all of which are on the main rail network. From Windermere you can take the steamer across the lake to Lakeside.

Opening times: daily from 9am to 5pm (last entry 4pm).

Admission: adults pounds 4.95, children pounds 3.45, family ticket (two adults with up to three children) pounds 15.50, children under four free of charge.

Facilities: full access for the disabled. A well stocked shop has all manner of watery souvenirs and toys. There is no cafe or toilet inside the Aquatarium; visitors are directed towards a coffee shop and toilets nearby.