Everyone has a favourite family-holiday memory from the Lake District. Here’s mine: seven years old and in short trousers, I’m skimming stones on the shore of Lake Windermere, dreaming of my next ice cream and dreading the day we have to go home. I remember it even today thanks to a set of grainy, Seventies photos my mother still keeps in a draw.
And now here I am on the edge of Derwentwater, a spring breeze blowing around candyfloss blossoms and arcs of the sunshine picking out wild flowers on the fells. I returned with Maya, my four-year-old daughter, for the kind of family break the Lakes does so well. Think cosy B&Bs, bracing walks, home-cooked suppers and lots of family-fun attractions. No wonder England’s largest national park remains one of Britain’s perennially popular short-break destinations, with around one in eight of the local population employed in tourism.
But there’s another reason to love the Lakes – its capacity for reinvention. On my return I found it both reassuringly familiar and exotically different to the place I knew as a seven-year-old schoolboy. Maybe that’s the key to its enduring success. The Lake District moves with the times, winning over new generations each year, yet the natural beauty of the landscape remains drop-your-ice-cream spectacular.
Our journey starts in the South Lakes around Kirkby Lonsdale, a sturdy market town, where the local brass band can often be found warming up on the historic market square in smart maroon blazers. The town’s historic Royal Hotel is set to reopen for business later this year after a five-year hiatus; in the interim Plato’s, a smart new restaurant with bedrooms, would be our base for the night.
But first we drive a few miles out of town along flower-strewn country roads to the newly opened Greenlands Farm Village. The 15-acre site comprises an open farm, a café, farm shop and indoor play centre, and offers a more educational spin on the traditional pet-the-animals approach. As Maya gets to know a new-born lamb – just a few hours old – farmer Roger Mason walks me round the farm park, introducing me to Irish Dexter cattle and South American alpacas.
There’s a cacophony of animal noises at the 2pm feeding time, but Maya’s mind is on other things. She’s tearing it up on a model tractor, Roger’s puppy Smudge chasing excitedly after her.
A few miles further north-west we find Edwin Maher busily overseeing final preparations for the opening, on 20 May, of the newly expanded Lakeland Motor Museum. The original museum has resided since 1978 in the grounds of stately Holker Hall and Gardens. The new museum is located at Backbarrow near Newby Bridge, just a stone’s throw from hugely popular Aquarium of the Lakes. It will build on the original collection, bringing some 10,000 extra items of memorabilia out of storage and into the public domain for the first time. Some of the treasures from the long-lost archive include a 1936 Flying Flea airplane and an original hot-air balloon, both suspended from the roof of the main hall. The collection is also being redesigned to reflect more of a narrative, telling the story of transport from highway robbery to electric hybrid cars.
That night Plato’s typifies the new face of the Lakes: relaxed and contemporary with an emphasis on great food. While I tuck into a Moroccan tajine take on Lakeland lamb, Maya is getting to grips with her £7.95 child’s set menu. “Peas in a bucket,” she gasps at her nouvelle-cuisine fish and chips, “Fancy that.”
The next day we venture further into the heart of the national park, snow sugar-coating the tops of the fells and sudden bursts of daffodils water-colouring the roadside. We pass the Plough Restaurant, the latest venture from the team behind The Punchbowl at Crosthwaite, the current Michelin Pub of the Year. The Plough may well be this summer’s must-visit gastropub when it opens in June with an all-day menu, three rooms plus three more to come and an emphasis on local produce at affordable prices (mains from £12 to £15).
In Keswick we stop at the Good Taste Café for a hearty sandwich, served on grey-slate plates, and a box of toys to keep Maya occupied, before exploring town. Time for pictures by the record-breaking 25-foot pencil and a spot of colouring-in at the Cumberland Pencil Museum, before dad drags daughter round the new Bond Museum next door and gets all misty eyed about Roger Moore’s Lotus Esprit Turbo from For Your Eyes Only, which he owned a Dinky Car version of as a child.
We catch the Keswick Launch over to Lodore to check into the imposing Lodore Falls Hotel, our accommodation for the night, and end the day skimming stones on the shore of Derwentwater, the third largest of Cumbria’s 16 lakes, tarns and waters. Maya has designs on the kids’ film club at the hotel and I have designs on a sundowner on the terrace, watching dusk over Catbells, the favourite peak for families to climb. But, for one holiday-defining moment, it’s just father and daughter, the gently lapping waters of Derwentwater and the thousand-acre-sky landscape of the Lakes.
It’s a moment Maya can treasure, just as I treasure my first Lakes holidays. Besides, I have the photos to remind her of it until she returns one day with her own children.
David Atkinson is the author of Lake District with Kids (Footprint, £13.99), out now.
* The main line rail gateways to the Lakes are Oxenholme in the south and Penrith to the north. First TransPennine Express (0844 556 5637; tpexpress.co.uk) offers direct services from Manchester and other points to Kendal and Windermere. Virgin Trains (0845 722 2333; virgintrains.com) runs from Glasgow Central and London Euston.
* Plato’s Kirkby Lonsdale (015242 74180; platoskirkbylonsdale.co.uk). Weekend doubles from £100 B&B.
* Cumbria Tourism 01539 822222; golakes.co.uk
* Lakeland Motor Museum Newby Bridge (01539 558509; lakelandmotor museum.co.uk)
* The Plough Inn & Restaurant Lupton (07980 294690; theploughatlupton.co.uk)
* Greenlands Farm Village near Burton, Kendal (01524 784184; greenlandsfarmvillage.co.uk)
* Cumberland Pencil Museum Keswick (01768 773626; pencilmuseum.co.uk)
* The Bond Museum, Keswick (01768 775007; thebondmuseum.com