All parents of young children have experienced the anxiety of visiting a National Trust or English Heritage house guarded by one of those dragons cleverly disguised as a benign elderly volunteer. Invariably they swoop the instant a small hand reaches out to touch a fabric or a pot. Will this really compromise our national heritage?
But stately homes need not be like this. Mirehouse near Keswick in the Lake District offers a paradigm of how they could be.
The minute you step through the door, the children are welcomed by a Mrs Doubtfire type who wonders if they would like to see the desk with the secret compartments. When the desk's inner sanctum is revealed it turns out to contain a stash of sweets. (On a subsequent visit, my children thought that they could remember the sequence of drawer-opening and inadvertently uncovered some other comestible not meant for public consumption.)
While the children are attempting to find the stuffed bird which every room contains, the adults can reflect on the role that Mirehouse played in the lives of the 19th century's greatest literary figures. Pictures of Tennyson writing at a table are displayed in the drawing-room next to the same table. Wordsworth, Tennyson's great friend Arthur Hallam and Thomas Carlyle were all frequent visitors. The children move on to a mahogany box and can't decide whether it contains tobacco or tea; though the pipes on display indicate that the literary giants of the 19th century found pleasure in the more bracing of the two.
On to the library, where a proprietorial-looking gentleman asks the visiting children where they are from, and whether they would like to see their county in a 300-year-old atlas much bigger than they are. Have they noticed the portrait whose eyes seem to follow them as they walk past? And have they found the hidden stuffed bird yet? No? Well, here's a clue...
Meanwhile the parents are chortling at the "Interesting Book of the Month", a Victorian phrasebook open at the Spanish translation of that essential traveller's question, "If I am sent to prison, will I be allowed a mattress?"
Fragments of Schubert drift along the corridor, punctuated by the experimental banging of the inner gong by an inquisitive child. The grand piano in the music room is being played by a friendly looking lady, another cousin or friend of the family, one can't help wondering. In the study, some old coins have been cleverly hidden behind the collection of stuffed animals so small eyes are forced to roam over the display and incidentally identify shrews and kestrels.
The best room is saved for last: the nursery. Mrs D sets in action a beautifully made mechanical doll and brings some painted toy soldiers nearer to the children's view. You can write your name on an old school slate. You may be invited to smell the castor oil with which children were dosed daily in times past. Mr Spedding (for it was indeed the owner we met earlier in the library) wonders if the children would like to sit on the rocking-horse and would they be interested in brandishing an old sword at the same time?
And then you are back in the entrance hall. In many ways Mirehouse is an ordinary English manor house with literary associations. But in other ways it is far more memorable than much grander but less welcoming houses. The pleasures of the day have just begun, for an enjoyable hour or two can be spent in the imaginative adventure playground incorporating rope bridges and pulleys hidden away in the woods. And a pleasant ramble down to the shores of Bassenthwaite past St Bega's Chapel allows an interlude of stone-skimming and possibly even a dip in the lake.
Mirehouse (017687 72287, www.mirehouse.com) is open until the end of October on Sundays and Wednesdays between 2pm and 5pm, though the adventure playground and bee garden are open daily from 10am to 5.30pm. A family ticket (two adults and up to four children) costs £12.50. Mirehouse will re-open on 1 April 2004Reuse content