Tuesday 26 June 2012

Nature Baby

Last week we took Culturebaby to our favourite place; The Lake District. As William Wordsworth said of their mountains: "in the combinations which they make, towering above each other, or lifting themselves in ridges like the waves of a tumultuous sea, and in the beauty and variety of their surfaces and colours, they are surpassed by none". So true Will.

We go every year at least once if we can. We spend half of the week dreaming about potential career options that could allow us to live there, and then the second part of the week lowering our expectations again for the return trip to our hill-less home. We never learn.

It was rather a tricky visit last summer. With a bump the size of a beach ball it was surprisingly difficult for me to find manageable walks waddles to do. Fortunately I had a friend with me who had a broken ankle (well not fortunate for him really) but the pair of us must have been a rather amusing sight as we hobbled from pub to pub as the rest of our party went rambling. Suffice it to say, we didn't make it very far and I couldn't wait to get up some hills this year and to show the place to our little lady. We did three great walks that I would recommend for a baby, with lots to see and exciting new experiences for little senses.

1. In the first few days of our holiday I have rarely seen so much rain, so we donned our wellies and went for a short wander along the Greater Langdale Beck (map) to see the fast flowing river and the roaring weir, which had more water running over it than normal. This was a really exciting experience for Culturebaby, who loved being carried around in her Baby Bjorn (under a brolly of course), taking in the sights, sounds and smells of nature all around her. The air is different up there and there is so much wildlife that it was a really new sensory experience wandering under the trees in the rain.

 2. A couple of days later the sun (finally) came out in force, it was absolutely stunning and clear, and we made our annual pilgrimage up the Langdale Pikes. The walk is quite hard work, with sections that need to be scrambled up, but Culturedad managed admirably with the Baby Bjorn. We passed a surprising amount of families with young children, sporting a bewildering array of baby backpack carriers (next on our wish list). This walk really has it all and Culturebaby seemed to love it - a river and sections of waterfall, a good climb (ensuring you really feel like you've achieved something), stunning views all the way up, and a tarn half way which transports you right to Middleearth (you half expect to stumble across the the door to the mines of Moria round the corner).We only made it to Stickle Tarn this time (enough...) but it's a fabulous walk if you want to go further. For the pre-history buffs amongst you it is also a hugely important heritage site: the Langdale Axe Factory (see map). In the Neolithic period, the 'new stone age' (from 10,000 years ago), people were beginning to learn to farm and stone tools were needed to exploit the land or clear areas of forest. Early Cumbrians mined the hard greenstone in the remote volcanic rocks of Langdale to produce axes, and the evidence can still be found today (though despite being an archaeologist I have sadly never yet spotted an axe as I've treked the pikes). It is unclear whether these particular axes were used for work or whether they had a more ritual significance (they seem at least to have been exported out of Cumbria), but if the latter, it does make sense to me. You can clearly see as you gaze from the mountains across the panorama of the heart of the Lakes below, that this is truly an extraordinary, even otherworldy place. The climb back down always seems a little longer, but there's the promise of a pint or a cuppa at the bottom. The National Trust has recently taken over The Sticklebarn pub at the base of the pikes. It's friendly and and you know your money goes towards caring for the local environment.


The Potter family at Wray Castle www.vam.ac.uk
3. With sore backs from our climb the day before, we opted for a rather more relaxed (and flat) stroll the following day. We bought the Windermere Cruises Walkers' Ticket and followed a part-cruise and part-walking route from Ambleside. This began with a ferry ride across to the newly opened Wray Castle, run by the National Trust. (NB. You'll need to fold your pram up on the ferry). This Victorian mock-gothic building (complete with fake arrowslits) was recently opened to the public following a decision not to turn it into a hotel at present. We joined one of their friendly tours and learnt that the castle was in fact designed by the original owner's accountant (who incidentally killed himself drinking before the house was furnished). This perhaps explains a number of bizarre features such as drainage systems in the walls and fake ruins. What I found interesting is that one rarely gets to see a National Trust house in a state of undress, so to speak. It still looks like the conference centre it had functioned as in recent years, with strip lighting, dodgy wallpaper and damp in the basement. The Trust is trying to make the best of the temporary space by filling it with lots of family activities and games, including a dressing-up room and giant cardboard fort. They are also asking visitors to record their views on what the castle should become in the future. One of its more interesting connections is that the Potter family stayed there in 1882 when Beatrix was still a teenager. Here she first met Reverend Hardwicke Rawnsley, also a co-founder of The National Trust. I personally think it would be interesting to explore this connection further in any future plans for the building. The Castle also has stunning views over Windermere and a much needed tea shop (on a walk from Ambleside to Ferry House a previous year we realised quite how far one can go on this side of the lake before reaching civilisation, or a toilet!).


We then walked the 4 miles from Wray to the Ferry House. This was a pretty gentle stroll, with the exception of the rough road which was at times tricky with the pram (prams with small wheels need not apply...). It took a couple of hours. At times there were great views of the lake and, at others, a shaded forest walk. We then (just!) caught the last boat from Ferry House, changing at Bowness (enough time to pick up an ice cream) and returned to Ambleside about 5 hours after we began. The openair journey and views from the various ferry routes were wonderful, and Culturebaby loved it all - and for those of us actually walking it was an ideal combination of sights and exercise!

The Lakes was a new experience with a baby (for a start the local pub at night was out), but it was also completely wonderful. We found ourselves thinking about the many fabulous memories we both have of visiting the Lakes from childhood onwards and getting excited about our daughter growing up there each year too. CultureGrandad's favourite childhood book was Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, set around Coniston. I loved the '70's film as a child too. Nothing captures childhood innocence like this adventure book, and I very much hope my daughter experiences something of this too in her trips to the Lakes - and that she too will have the opportunity to have that sort of old-school, dam-building, boat-sailing, hill-climbing, nature-loving, camp-building authentic childhood.

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