A trip to the lesser-explored Western Lake District proves an eye-opener for Hector Mackenzie...
"YOU guys just need to bring a sense of adventure!"
Starting to fret about the impending family canoeing session I'd booked as part of a trip to the Western Lake District in Cumbria, I'd asked ahead what we should bring before taking to Derwentwater under the tuition of Keswick Canoe and Bushcraft (www.keswickcanoeandbushcraft.co.uk).
Outdoors activities can be daunting at the best of times when you're not sure what you're doing. Throw two fidgety young children into the equation and all bets are off.
The upbeat response, however, immediately put us at our ease ahead of our morning rendezvous with Mick. He was the man tasked with showing us the basics during our half-day course.
The best adventures come as a complete surprise and so it was with our introduction to the "queen of the lakes". The area we were exploring is sometimes called "The Other Side of the Lakes", lesser explored than the swathe of the Lake District closer to the M6.
I thought we'd be paddling around in the shallows, getting the hang of how to manoeuvre a canoe. Mick had other ideas, pointing to an island about half a mile away as our first destination. "You're having a laugh," I thought, forcing a fixed grin.
Surprise number two was that the four of us would be in a canoe together while Mick paddled nearby, solo. I had visions of paddling aimlessly around in a circle as onlookers gathered to watch.
Under Mick's ultra laid back teaching methods, we were amazed and then delighted to find ourselves heading in the right direction, working as a team. As we cut through the water, St Herbert's Island looming ever closer, I starting to fantasise about the canoe I'd one day own. I was hooked – and the smiles on everyone else's faces told a similar story.
On St Herbert's Island Mick doubled as children's entertainer, hanging upside down from an overhanging branch by his feet. The motivation to get to our next stop was the prospect of hot chocolate and cake at a nearby marina.
This had been a fantastic introduction to an activity which offers a whole new perspective on the world.
We'd been staying in rooms at the Gosforth Hall Inn (www.gosforthhallhotel.co.uk), lured by rumours of a self-catering home from home within minutes of England's favourite view – and some of the best pies in the land.
The narrow road to Wasdale is a corkscrew of 'oohs!' and 'ahs!', the grandeur of England's highest peaks plunging into Wastwater's hidden depths. If you like Applecross, you'll love this. And if hillwalking is your thing, this is possibly as close to paradise as it gets.
A beautiful churchyard found at the bottom of the valley provides the final resting place for some climbers from years gone by, the poignant inscriptions telling of free spirits who died doing what they loved.
Gosforth Hall, near Drigg and Sellafield, is an atmospheric, 350-year-old listed building being run as an inn. The proprietors now offer modern rooms just across the courtyard, offering a self-contained home from home. These are comfortable and very well appointed from luxurious showers to most welcome iPod dock stereos.
It's well worth crossing that courtyard for one of those aforementioned pies, served in front of a roaring log fire. The steak, bacon and mushroom is the house classic. But you can also request a plethora of fillings from feta cheese and sun-dried tomato to venison and haggis (the latter a real tangy treat).
Ravenglass, the only coastal village in the Lake District National Park, is the starting point for a steam rail journey reputed to be legendary walker Alfred Wainwright's favourite trip, crossing seven miles of spectacular scenery to the foot of England's highest mountains, the Scafell Range.
It seems there are two compelling reasons to make the trip on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway (www.ravenglass-railway.co.uk).
Clearly, it's a magnet for rail enthusiasts, dating back as it does to 1875 when it was used to ferry iron ore from workings near Boot to the coast at Ravenglass. It was later re-purposed as a 15 inch gauge miniature train route. Children in love with Thomas the Tank engine will find an affinity, as does a small army of reverential trainspotters. Go along and you can feel the love.
The train will also take you into the heart of some superb walking territory, including another perspective on Wastwater. We spoke to one blind walker, led by his young daughter, who later leapt nimbly from the train before heading for a campsite nearby. As the train trundled along to its destination, that little vignette seemed to sum up the spirit of adventure that pulls people to places like this.
A few minutes from the pretty village of Ravenglass sits Muncaster Castle and Gardens (www.muncaster.co.uk), an attraction which appears to have reinvented itself down the years to appeal to an ever-changing demographic.
Claiming to be one of Britain's most haunted castles, Muncaster – in the same family for 900 years – has brilliantly re-invented itself as a 21st century visitor attraction.
By night there's a niche for ghost hunters hoping to meet mischievous jester, Tom Fool. By day, wedding parties flock to the splendidly set castle which provides a fabulous backdrop for their nuptials. Muncaster is home to the World Owl Centre which does exactly what it says on the tin. If you like owls, you'll love this. Harry Potter fans will be in heaven!
There's an inventive multi-media maze for children, a very decent playpark and an outside courtyard area to get a bite. They've pretty much got it covered at Muncaster, a good template for others to follow.
Trotters World of Animals, found by the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake, near Keswick, also distinguishes itself with a unique selling point. (www.trottersworld.co.uk)
Home to over 100 species of animals, from anaconda to zebra, Trotters – extending to a good 25 acres – is the sort of place you could happily spend the day. As well as a parrot which actually talks back to you (a real delight for children and the young heart!), you'll also find deeply expressive gibbons and even a vulture.
It's the demonstrations and bolt-on wildlife walks that help raise the venue above similar offerings. On the hawk walk, you get up close and personal with some very special birds of prey before going for a wander in the spacious grounds, where you can experience the thrill of an eagle returning to your gloved arm. In terms of getting close to nature and feeling at one with your surroundings – and fellow creatures – this exhilarating experience is pretty hard to beat.
Birds of prey keeper John Foster is great company, a burly, bearded bear of a man who positively radiates passion for his subject. Under his watchful eye I meet Alan the owl, a Harris hawk called George and finally Bill, the bald eagle. Attracted by a morsel of raw chicken, the birds emerge noiselessly from on high, landing with grace to claim their prize. An amazing experience.
Slate dating back 450 million years, an insight into a remarkable way of life and the story of a doggedly determined entrepreneur who made it all happen.
Honister slate mine (www.honister-slate-mine.co.uk), in the stunning Borrowdale valley, is another great example to the visitor industry of what's possible with a little bit of imagination – and some off-the-wall diversification.
The mine tour is a jaw-dropping glimpse at the industry, ingenuity and bravery of men who cut shafts deep in the bowels of the earth to find a slate renowned for its quality around the world. The slate they mined adorns some of the finest buildings in the country.
If you have the head for it, the Via ferrata – a system of metal cables, rungs and bridges that make remarkable climbs accessible to the everyman – is worth trying. Remarkable to think of men making these dangerous trips without any safety equipment back in the early 1700s.
And so to a real niche visitor attraction revealing "the dark spirit of Whitehaven".
The dark spirit in question is rum. The refreshingly candid Rum Story (www.rumstory.co.uk) centres on the exploits of the Jefferson family and shows how a product that starts life in the rainforests of Antigua became inextricably linked with a coastal town in the north of England.
The imaginatively laid out attraction, set out over three floors, lifts the lid on how slave labour was used to set the foundations of the business, the links between rum and the Navy – and smugglers and gangsters – unfurls as you progress. It's that rare thing amongst tourist attractions – a real eye-opener which grabs the attention the moment you walk through the door.
Winder Hall (www.winderhall.co.uk), a country house hotel in Low Lorton, near Cockermouth, takes a bit of finding but really is well worth the effort.
"Welcome to our secret!" declares the sign on arrival, stoking a sense of anticipation which is more than fulfilled.
Now when you get word of mouth rave reviews, naturally the curiosity is piqued. If you check them out on Tripadvisor, you'll see what I mean. It turns out the foundation stone of its success is tip-top, down-to-earth customer service from the moment you arrive. Four-poster beds? Check. Swish rooms? Check. Mouth-watering food? Oh yes. Pleasant, rural setting? Yes, all very much present and correct. Yet it's the genuine warmth of the welcome and a happy knack of making the stranger truly feel at home – no matter how short their stay might be – that deservedly propels Winder Hall into the Five Star category.
The offer of afternoon tea on arrival (you'd be a fool to pass it up!) is a nice touch and sets the tone for what follows. Our children were urged to explore (how often do you hear that in five star hotels? It was obvious our host, Nick, was a parent himself and we were given time and space to relax. Some places try a little too hard but this lot have got the touch.
The three-course evening dinner is well worth the £35 per head and there's a pleasant lounge with honesty bar for post-prandial relaxation.
More information is available at www.westernlake-district.co.uk