Family Vacations to Lake District, England

Lake District, England
Not many can resist the Lake District's postcard-perfect scenery (Getty/David Toase)

Lake District, England Highlights

  • Get out on the lakes and into the hills for England's best outdoor adventures, from climbing to kayaking.
  • Learn about the Lake District's aquatic species and watershed at Lake Windemere's Aquarium of the Lakes.
  • Discover what it's like to be a field vole at Muncaster Castle's MeadowVole Maze.
  • Go on an African safari in northern England at the South Lakes Wild Animal Park.
  • See the world's largest pencil and learn what it takes to make a pencil at the historic Cumberland Pencil Museum.

The saddest thing about England's northwesterly Lake District—the lovelorn poetry notwithstanding—is that so many people only get to enjoy it for a short day or two, or even just hours. To experience this scenic region beyond its teashop-filled gateway towns, Beatrix Potter mania, and busy main lakes, consider bedding down for a week or more to discover what made William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge really sigh: the stunning scenery and plethora of outdoor adventures.

In contrast to the mostly flat expanses of the rest of England, the Lake District is a rolling region of hills, lakes, and valleys, most of which Lake District National Park encompasses with its 500,000 acres. And with 12 of England's largest lakes and the country's tallest peak, 3,210-foot Scafell Pike, it's no surprise that the Lake District offers some of England's best hiking, climbing, biking, and kayaking. Another compelling reason to fully ensconce yourself in all that open countryside? Over ten million visitors hit this region each year, so you should do what you can to put some space between yourself and the legions of tour-bus-bound day-trippers. Base-camp towns including Windemere and Keswick are well-stocked with outfitters offering everything from guided hillwalking tours, rock-climbing lessons, and canoe and kayak rentals. Less independent-minded adventurers might also consider booking one of the many boat tours of the lakes to savor the scenery. The Lake District National Park Authority's website (www.lake-district.gov.uk) includes links for things to do, outfitters, and places to stay.

The pretty town of Windemere is the region's most popular tourist gateway to the east, and is certainly worth a stop, if only to stock up on supplies and to get your bearings. Although not quite on Lake Windemere itself, it is only a short drive to the lakeside, where many of the most popular lake-bound activities take place, including paddleboat rentals and boat tours. A little further north, the smaller village of Ambleside offers much the same ambience with slightly less hubbub. However, if you visit either of these places between May and October, especially on weekends, expect to spend a lot of time chugging along country lanes behind tour buses and caravan-toting cars. For that reason, it's best to arrive on a weekday to at least get a head start on the weekend warriors.

For a bit more breathing room, follow the road southwest from Ambleside toward Coniston Water and the very picturesque village of Coniston. Here you can savor some of the Lake District's most postcard-perfect mountain scenery, plus a stretch of water that's ideal for kayaking, canoeing, or sailing. This lake was also the setting for Arthur Ransome's classic children's series Swallows and Amazons. For more literary inspiration, the little village of Grasmere, north of Ambleside, is Wordsworth Central, although kids will probably get more of a kick from the beautiful hiking loop around the lake than a tour of Wordsworth's favorite haunts.

If you do end up staying in or around Windemere or Coniston, be sure to take the kids to the Aquarium of the Lakes on the south side of Lake Windemere in Lakeside. Here you can discover what lies beneath the waters that tumble from the high peaks into the lakes and onward into the Irish Sea. Native species on display include eels, pike, otters, voles, and crabs. There's also an underwater tunnel that will give you a fish's-eye view of life under Lake Windemere. Another fun activity for families with younger kids in this area is the steam-engine ride on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, which chugs the short distance between the two towns. The journey offers a throwback to a bygone golden era of rail travel, fun for adults and younger kids alike.

For an area so quintessentially English, it can be a little disorienting to discover that some of its best family attractions involve exotic beasts from the far corners of the world. The South Lakes Wild Animal Park, home to the U.K.-based Sumatran Tiger Trust, is a safari-style experience featuring lions, giraffes, white rhinos, cheetahs, and more. The kids will love it, even though the closest approximation you'll get out in the real English countryside is perhaps an aggressive grey squirrel! The park is located on the southern edge of the Lake District proper, near Barrow-in-Furness.

If you'd rather play at being animals, then visit the Go Ape! adventure park, located on the western bank of Lake Windemere, south of Ambleside. Here you can swing through the canopy of Grizedale Forest on a series of hair-raising rope bridges, zip slides, and tarzan swings. There's also a children's adventure playground with some less challenging obstacles for younger kids, plus fairly decent mountain-biking trails weaving through the forest. Grizedale Mountain Bikes rents bikes and equipment.

Muncaster Castle, on the western flank of the Lake District in Ravenglass, promises a full day or even night time adventure for the family. The historic castle, mostly constructed during the 18th century but built on foundations dating back to Roman times, is said to be one of Britain's most haunted places, which makes for a creepy after-dark tour when the building's exterior and surrounding trees are illuminated in an array of haunting colors. By day, kids will love exploring the seven-foot-tall grass corridors of the MeadowVole Maze and the impressive Owl Centre, where you can get close to a wide array of owl species. Muncaster also hosts a variety of family events throughout the year, including a Festival of Fools each May and, unsurprisingly, scary storytelling and haunted-house tours during Halloween.

Another enjoyable wild experience is Trotters World of Animals, featuring such endangered species as a Canadian lynx (lynxes long ago roamed the British Isles), Asian fishing cat, and blue-snubbed mandrill monkey. The park also offers educational tours and demos, including a falconry display, plus there are indoor and outdoor play areas. Trotters is near Cockermouth and Keswick, so the better animalistic alternative if you're based in the north of the Lake District region.

In an area infused with so much literary history, it's hard to avoid the cute pastel creatures of Beatrix Potter's imagination. The ever-popular World of Beatrix Potter is located in Bowness-on-Windemere, and is certainly worth a visit for those traveling with younger kids—or literature-obsessed adults. Older kids, however, might get more of an artistic kick from the Cumberland Pencil Museum near Keswick. A working pencil factory since 1832, the museum takes visitors through a replica of a graphite mine and the history of pencil making. There's also a drawing zone here for kids to get out their inner Picasso, not to mention the world's largest pencil.

Tip: Given the blue-rinsed hair hue of many visitors to the Lake District, some inns and hotels can be surprisingly unwelcoming to kids. A cheap and fun alternative? Stay at a youth hostel, no longer the exclusive enclave of grungy backpackers and hikers, especially in Europe. Many facilities are extremely comfortable and conveniently located, plus come complete with games rooms, bike rentals, and family-sized private rooms. Visit the Youth Hostelling Association's Lake District website (www.yha.org.uk/find-accommodation/the-lake-district/index.aspx) for more.


Published: 8 Apr 2008 | Last Updated: 2 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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