Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, family travel tales about a weekend in the Lake District feature either a climb up a very high peak or joyful sloshing around in boats (think Swallows and Amazons).
Those were plans A and B. Plan A was discussed with the kids — Hannah, 12, Thomas, 10, and Oscar, 9 — at some length. Hannah was up for it. “I want to climb England’s highest mountain,” said Thomas, before adding as an afterthought, “But I’m not keen on heights.” “I’m not that keen on walking,” chipped in Oscar. “I’m not sure I’m really cut out for it.” “What, a big climb like Scafell Pike? I asked. “No, walking generally,” he replied.
The weather had the final word: a long weekend of incessant rain. This is far from unusual in Cumbria and not in itself a problem provided you have the right kit. There lay the issue: outdoor clothing for children can approach school uniform prices and recent growth spurts meant we saw little point in investing in boots and waterproof trousers that would soon be bursting at the seams. Somehow our children have all managed to converge at the same height, so even hand-me-downs were out of the question.
This may sound heretical but what families need in such circumstances isn’t Alfred Wainwright and his anthologies of walks in the fells but Jean Patefield, author of Rainy Days in the Lake District. What her book recommends is the antithesis of a week cooped up in the overpriced and overcrowded tearooms of Grasmere and Ambleside, with the kids climbing the walls.
Go caving, she suggests; explore the Cathedral Quarries of Little Langdale.
We made for the caves. We knew we were onto a good thing because ours appeared to be the only car heading out of Ambleside rather than into it. Leaving the queues behind, we slip away down an unsigned narrow lane to a wooded brook. Soon we’re walking under the shelter of oaks, alders and beeches, the kids rushing up and down the slopes, through grasses and ferns. The setting is capped off by an exquisite packhorse bridge. Oscar beats his chest and hollers extremely loudly. A howler monkey? I ask. “No, a wild gibbon!” he shouts.
He lollops away, ratcheting up the hollering to a Spinal Tap 11. This was possibly not what Wordsworth, who grew up in the Lake District, had in mind when he wrote about the ‘still, sad music of humanity’, and Oscar soon draws an impressive scowl from a passing couple. “We come here for the peace and quiet,” my wife is primly informed. I walk on ahead, hoping to pass myself off as a lone rambler.
A gentle slope of loose slate rises to entrance of a cave, where a short tunnel opens up dramatically into a huge cavern, 50ft in height, that’s a doppelganger for caves I’ve visited in Borneo and France. The cave is little short of sensational: coned shaped, its walls boast a fine, shiny quality as if made of plasticine. The whole structure appears to be held up, Samson-like, by a central column. A huge opening in the shape of a window in the facade of a cathedral gives the quarries their name. The children — parents too — feel shrunken, like the Borrowers. A few years back, someone had the bright idea of introducing goldfish to a shallow rainwater lake that has formed where the cave slopes. Easy to spot, they appear to be thriving.
Another mild scramble leads to a 100 metre-long tunnel. Initially, it appears daunting but a phone torch is enough to lead us through. Once part of a slate mine, the caverns are owned by the National Trust, which encourages, what it calls, ‘mild peril’ adventures. In this case, the peril is extremely mild and makes the warning notice that you enter at your own risk seem rather nannyish and ludicrous. We emerge, mole-like, to a view down the valley of Little Langdale, the River Brathay slicing through it. The far slopes lead up and over into Great Langdale and a route to Scafell Pike. “Let’s go and climb a mountain,” says Thomas, emboldened.