Lake District: Water world

You don't need to be a family of fell-walkers to enjoy the Lake District, as Matt Tench discovers

Modest, lovingly crafted and at least mildly educational – you can only wonder what a theme-park executive would make of the World of Beatrix Potter Attraction. In the unlikely event that he was enticed in, he might want to know "Where are the rides?" "Where are the hamburgers?" "And what, for goodness' sake, is the big sell?"

All of these are missing. Instead, there is a series of beautifully well-made recreations of Beatrix Potter scenes, with not a single employee in animal costume in sight. So we find Peter Rabbit poised to make mischief in Mr McGregor's garden, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle in her kitchen and Jemima Puddle-Duck in a woodland glade in a series of scenes splendidly tucked into the Attraction's cosy indoor location in the middle of Bowness-on-Windermere (that theme-park executive would have bought half an adjacent hillside and done something about the unpredictable weather).

All 23 of Potter's tales are brought to life and the prevailing atmosphere, in keeping with the stories it celebrates, is quaint in the best sense of the word. Which is not to suggest that it feels dated. Considerable use is made of modern techniques, notably in the virtual walks display in the room devoted to retelling the author's own fascinating life story.

Beatrix was the shy, lonely daughter of a privileged London household of the late 19th century, whose life was changed when she began drawing the animals she loved and making up stories about them. Family holidays to the Lake District proved a major inspiration and the virtual display recreates the walks that Beatrix enjoyed, while the room is devoted to explaining how the Lake District and its weather and, of course, its wildlife played such a pivotal role in capturing her imagination.

You might expect the Attraction (the only bad thing about it is its name; what, generically speaking, is an attraction?) to take a somewhat po-faced attitude to Miss Potter, the American film of Potter's life that came out a couple of years ago.

The reviews were generally positive, but there were complaints of historical inaccuracies from some purists. In fact, the film is embraced with just about the right degree of enthusiasm, to such an extent that its star Renée Zellweger was persuaded to unveil the sculpture on the outdoor terrace, which can now be viewed as you sip your afternoon tea.

Talking of refreshments, there is also a genuinely impressive restaurant here, the Tailor of Gloucester Tea Room, with a thoughtful and occasionally inspiring menu for kids, plus the odd treat for their exhausted parents.

Those seeking yet more insight into Beatrix Potter's relationship with the area can do so by visiting Hill Top, a small 17th-century farmhouse in Sawrey a short drive away. The first house Potter bought in the area, it was purchased in 1905 with the royalties from her first books (which were produced in her parents' home back in London). She left the property to the National Trust when she died in 1943 on condition that it be kept exactly as she left it, complete with her furniture and china.

Exploring the Potter legend offers a splendid starting point for parents, such as ourselves, who are keen to enjoy the splendours of the Lake District but are rather less convinced that their children (in our case Kitty, eight, and Anna, six) would be enthusiastic participants in a week of glorious fell-walking.

The Lake District is, of course, utterly overwhelming in its unspoilt beauty. Its combination of rugged hillsides and vast expanses of inland water bringing to mind Canada rather than England. It's not difficult to share in the sense of wonder felt by Beatrix Potter when she first came upon the area more than a century ago. However, senses of wonder do not play particularly well with the under-10s. What they want is something to do. And the Lake District is pretty well stocked in that regard too, even after the Beatrix Potter angle has been well and truly mined.

Boats, for instance, go down pretty well. As you'd expect, there are plenty of them: big and small. There have been boats trips going up and down Windermere since Victorian times, and as you chug gently up the shore it is easy to see how the popularity of the experience has endured, for grown-ups at least. In fact, the whole thing retains a certain whiff of the 19th century, with the essential serenity and beauty of the trip only interrupted by baser, more modern, thoughts, such as wondering whether the plusher Lakeside properties are owned by anyone famous and how much they paid for them (though, who knows, maybe the Victorians asked just the same questions).

Our trip took us to the southern shore of Windermere and a visit to the Lakes Aquarium, one of Britain's few freshwater aquariums. I wasn't quite sure whether otters and dormice belonged in an aquarium, but the kids loved it, from the chillingly still piranhas to the recreation of the seaside. Their enjoyment was undoubtedly increased by the aquarium's child-friendly nature, and in particular the quiz sheets featuring Oscar the Otter they were given on reception (Oscar has his own set of games on the Lakes Aquarium website if you want to get a flavour of things).

Later, we hired a small speedboat in Bowness and made our own way up the lake. Windermere is huge but its layout is straightforward (long and thin), so you don't need Captain Cook's navigational skills to get yourself around. By having our own craft we could stop off at some staging posts along the way. This provided the opportunity for all sorts of excitement – not least docking on small wooden jetties – and opened up a variety of beauty spots along the lakeside that were either inaccessible by road or known only to the cognoscenti.

We stayed in an apartment at the Windermere Marina, just outside Bowness-on-Windermere. Primarily, one might assume, for those who either own or have access to a craft in the marina, it retained considerable appeal to those of us still saving for our first boat, not least the splendid views across the marina and the endless comings and goings of the boats themselves.

As a final treat we went horse-riding, which proved almost as popular as the boating. It took a little bit of finding and arranging, but was certainly worth it for two city-based girls who loved horses, who watched their DVD of Black Beauty at least a hundred times throughout the holiday, but who had rarely experienced horses in the flesh.

The ponies were suitably docile, the local instructors unfailingly patient and the backdrop impressive. For those who could actually ride already the whole experience would, I imagine, prove even more rewarding.

www.golakes.co.uk

Traveller's Guide

Staying there

The writer stayed at Windermere Marina Village (015394 46551; www.wmv.co.uk), Bowness-On-Windermere, Windermere, Cumbria LA23 3JQ. Three-night cottage breaks from £410 (sleeping three to five people).

The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction (015394 88444; www.hop-skip-jump.com)

Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria, The Lake District, LA23 3BX. Open daily 10am-5.30pm (10am-4.30pm in winter). Admission £6 for adults, £3 for children.

Windermere Lake Cruises (015394 43360; www.windermere-lakecruises.co.uk). Prices from £6.20 for adults, £3.10 for children.

The Lakes Aquarium (015395 30153; www.lakesaquarium.co.uk) Lakeside, Newby Bridge, Cumbria, UK, LA12 8AS. Open daily 9am-6pm. Admission £8.50 for adults, £5.50 for children.

Holmescales Riding Centre (01539 729388; www.holmescalesridingcentre.co.uk) near Kendal. Open daily, 9.30am-5.30pm

Messing about in the Lakes

Muncaster Castle

(01229 717614; www.muncaster.co.uk) Ravenglass, Cumbria CA18 1RQ

The castle has been in possession of the Pennington family since 1208. A medieval maze, world owl centre, walks, café and plant centre are now also on site. Tours of the supposedly haunted castle are run every day except Saturday.

Open 10.30am-6pm daily; Castle open noon-4.30pm Sunday to Friday. Admission £10 for adults, £7 for children and £29 for a family ticket

Keswick Climbing Wall

(01768 772000; www.keswickclimbingwall.co.uk) Southey Hill, Keswick, Cumbria CA12 5NR

Keswick Climbing Wall is an activity centre in the Northern Lakes that offers 400 square metres of climbing surface. Groups of six to 100 can be catered for and climbing lessons are available for people of all ages and abilities. Families are welcome.

Open 10am-9pm Tues-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat-Mon. Group rates start at £9.00 per person



Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway

(01229 717171; www.ravenglass-railway.co.uk) Ravenglass, Cumbria CA18 1SW

A journey by steam engine is a great way to enjoy a family day out on the lakes. You can board the train either at the main terminals at Ravenglass and Eskdale or at stops along the way. There are special trips available such as the Steam and Romans trip which involves an interactive tour of the area's Roman history.

Unlimited travel for the day costs £10.20 for an adult, (£5.10 for a child) and £26 for a family ticket. Steam and Romans trip, including travel and lunch is £19.90 per head

Dove Cottage

(015394 35544; www.wordsworth.org.uk), The Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery, Grasmere LA22 9SH

Home to William Wordsworth between 1799 and 1808, Dove Cottage affords visitors a look the poet's inner sanctum. Ticket prices include guided tours of the cottage and access to the Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery.

Open 9.30am-5.30pm daily. Admission £7.50 for adults, £4.50 for children, £17.20 for a family ticket

Blackwell House

(015394 46139; www.blackwell.org.uk) Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria LA23 3JT

Blackwell House (pictured) has permanent and rotating exhibits, including artisan stained glass, oak and iron works, as well as a specialist art and craft library. for the rest of this year, visitors can also enjoy the work of Gustav Klimt in the "Spirit of Klimt at Blackwell".

Open 10.30am to 5pm daily.

Admission £6 for adults, £3.50 for children, £16 for a family ticket

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