Family fun camping holidays
“Weeeell,” I said. “Yes, it’ll be fun. But let’s do more than camping. Let’s have a properly active weekend, with camping in the middle. We can go mountain biking, walking, canoeing. The best place would be the Lake District… how about it?”
“I’d like to go on a high wire forest course,” said Becky firmly. “Tom can go mountain biking, and I can go to Go Ape!”
So Becky already knew about the award winning ‘high wire forest adventure’ in Grizedale Forest… this sounded like a set-up. But, set-up aside, a family adventure weekend with our friends was a great idea.
A few weeks later, in mid-August, we set off in a van stuffed with camping gear, mountain bikes and climbing kit. We’d chosen Great Langdale as the ideal base: we could cycle on bridleways from there to Ambleside and Windermere for Canadian canoeing; Grizedale Forest and Go Ape! was a short drive away, with a walk-and-scramble on Jack’s Rake, at the head of the valley, to wrap up the weekend.
Choosing the campsite was simple. We have spent too many nights on the National Trust’s Great Langdale site, and were keen to avoid repeating the experience: being close to pubs, accessible and well known, it gets crowded and rowdy. Call me picky, but having to wipe vomit off my tent in the morning, and replace guy lines that were ripped out when drunken idiots tripped over them at 2am, is not the best way to start a Saturday.
A few years ago, we camped at the Bayesbrown Farm site at Chapel Stile, nearer to Ambleside. It was pretty simple: a field (often a bit boggy), with a tap and flush toilet; I can’t remember if it had a shower. We warned the Clements that it would be basic, so when we arrived, I didn’t recognise the place. Acres had been given over to campers; the shower blocks were immaculate and heated, and the site was busy.
Still, we easily found a level pitch and settled in. Becky, aged 12, and Tom, 15, joined other children playing football while we relaxed with a glass of wine. We’d opted to cook at the site, rather than join the crowds at the nearby pub, so the evening was ours to play with. It was one of those perfect camping moments, with good food and wine, company and chat, and a scarlet sunset over the Langdale Pikes.
MOUNTAIN BIKINGApart from Tom and Sue’s airbed springing a leak, the Clements enjoyed their night in a tent. So did Duncan and I: there were no noisy neighbours or midnight revellers. I sound like a real old grump, but people who treat campsites as a cheap base for getting drunk really annoy me. Instead, Bayesbrown seemed to be a site where camping, itself, is the adventure. The novelty of cooking breakfast outdoors, for example, caused great excitement among our neighbours (who had spent hours erecting a tent the night before, then filled the next two hours with their backs to the sunset, playing on their mobile phones…)
But, back to the reason for being here. The first mission for today was mountain biking. We’d chosen a route to Ambleside via Rydal Water, starting from the campsite. With Tom, a keen mountain biker, in the lead, we cruised along quiet roads, puffing uphill away from Chapel Stile and the pretty village of Elterwater. Stopping at the gate onto the Loughrigg Terrace bridleway, Duncan froze: two deer bounced out of the trees and along the road, disappearing in seconds.
The narrow bridleway snaked across the hillside, then dropped to the shore of Rydal Water. Tom strutted his two-wheeled stuff, bunny-hopping over rocks, while the rest of us dabbled our wheels in the lake. It was a gentle glide from here to Ambleside, where we stopped for cakes and coffee at the lakeside. A wedding party boarded the wooden steamer, dogs and children licked ice creams, birds squabbled… it was a glorious Saturday morning.
OPEN-BOAT CANOEINGNext stop was Low Wood Hotel and its watersports centre, a few minutes’ ride from Ambleside. The plan was to introduce the Clements to Canadian canoes, although first we had to tear Tom away from a large fibreglass dinosaur lurking on the lawn. Crocodile Dundee, roll over.
Instructor Steve explained the basics of paddling and steering to a wide-eyed and very attentive family. The wind was picking up, and while Canadians are safe and stable, they are also heavy and high-sided, making them tricky to manoeuvre in blustery conditions. Mike and Becky launched in one boat, with Tom and Sue in another. Mike, a builder by trade, grabbed a paddle and set off like a rocket, Becky in the bow and white water churning behind. “It’s just like shovelling sand,” he said, “but more fun.”
One of the joys of canoeing is seeing the land from the water. With the busy A591 hidden behind trees, we felt insulated from the noise and fumes, and enjoyed the views of graceful houses and gardens sweeping down to the water.
While Mike perfected his jay-stroke, Sue and Tom headed for the jetty. In his eagerness to pull the canoe to shore, Tom leapt out too early and disappeared under water. He emerged laughing but was, of course, soaked. Luckily, the nearby YHA at Ambleside has a coin-operated tumble dryer, which saved the day with a hot spin.
Now the team split up. Duncan and Tom had opted for a mountain bike challenge, a tough ride off-road via Hawkshead, Little Langdale and Blea Tarn. Becky, Sue and Mike came with me, via Elterwater’s pub, back to the campsite, where we ditched the bikes and headed for Go Ape!
HIGH WIRE FOREST ADVENTUREAfter a stop in Coniston to buy the world’s best Cumberland sausage, we reached the forest adventure park. We had booked one of the later slots of the day, and the park was busy. The course takes around three hours, including a briefing, practise and assessment. There is a strong emphasis on safety, with careful instruction on using the safety harnesses and pulleys.
The different sectors are graded in difficulty and anything can be bypassed, but visitors are encouraged to try everything. This kind of activity is experiencing a real boom in popularity as people combine the thrill of adrenaline with the novelty of risk acceptance and self-responsibility. There are limits on height (minimum 1.4m), age (minimum ten-years-old) and weight (maximum 130kg), but otherwise it’s open to all. The visitors’ book showed a remarkable number of people with a fear of heights, who had tackled the course and loved it.
The Clements were apprehensive, but within minutes were swinging through trees, soaring down zip wires, wobbling along logs and scrambling up ladders. The strangest activity was crawling through a slotted wooden barrel swinging high in the trees: “I feel like a hamster in a wheel,” muttered Sue, as she squeezed through.
The zip wires, used to exit each activity, were voted the most fun and for Sue and Becky Go Ape! was the highlight of the weekend. For Mike, though, the best was yet to come.
SCRAMBLING“We’re going… where?” Tom asked, as he stared up at the wall of rock. Duncan pointed to a long scratch, a natural fault in the rock face of Pavey Ark. “See that line?” he said. “It’s steep and rocky, but it’s as safe as walking along a corridor.” Tom smiled nervously…
We were walking along the shore of Stickle Tarn, a small lake high above Langdale valley. Sue and Becky had walked with us, taken one look at Pavey Ark and opted to return to the van for a rest. Mike and Tom had continued, getting in some practise on the big boulders in Stickle Ghyll. Once Tom realised how easy it was to grip onto the rock with hands and feet, there was no stopping him.
We climbed the loose rocks and scree to the foot of the long scratch, the start of Jack’s Rake. This must be the most popular scramble in the Lake District: a grade one route following a rock trough diagonally up the crag. It’s never dangerous or particularly exposed, but there are a couple of places where you need to step out, over thin air, to make the next move. The trick is to be confident and to concentrate.
Tom and Mike went at it like experts. Every time I looked over my shoulder, Tom was there, grinning. At one point he stopped to look down, staring in surprise at Stickle Tarn, now a tiny puddle. That’s the thing about scrambling: because you are concentrating, and climbing vertically, the height gain happens almost without effort.
Anyway, they loved it. Before we knew it, we were on the final chunk of rock and walking to the summit. Flopping onto the ground by the cairn, we could see past the green patchwork of the Lake District to the silver water of Morecambe Bay. Suddenly, Mike pointed: a peregrine falcon was buzzing a kestrel, just in front of us. The falcon dived, spiraled, bombed the other bird – it was like watching a Spitfire attack a helicopter.
AND FINALLY…Back in the valley, we found Becky asleep in the van, wedged against a mountain bike wheel. Camping paraphernalia was stacked around her, and she’d found a sleeping bag for a pillow. She looked tired, but happy: after a weekend of fresh air, exercise and adrenaline, she had surely earned a good, long sleep before school on Monday.
Low Wood Watersports Centre is attached to the Low Wood hotel, on the shore of Windermere near Ambleside. Sit-on kayaks, Canadian canoes, waterskiing, rowboats, plus instruction, are available. Open all year. Tel 015394 39441 Web elh.co.uk/watersports
Go Ape! in Grizedale forest, has easy access for spectators. Minimum age ten, minimum height 1.4m – that’s 4ft7in, maximum weight 130kg/20.5 stone. A degree of strength and fitness is required, as you need to climb rope ladders. Tel 0870 458 9189 Web goape.co.uk
Cycling Hire bikes, equipment and guiding from shops in Ambleside (eg Easy Rider, Bike Treks, Ghyllside Cycles etc), Grizedale Forest (Grizedale Mountain Bikes) and Coniston (Summitreks). More information at lakedistrictoutdoors.co.uk
Walking and scrambling Ambleside has lots of outdoor shops. Guiding, especially for scrambling and hill walking, can be arranged. For more information and a list of activity centres or companies, go to lakedistrictoutdoors.co.uk
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