The Lake District: a giant natural playground for adventurous kids

I grew up going on family holidays to the Lake District. It feels now as it did then: an inspirational place for adventure, a place of Swallows and Amazons with easy access to the water and the promise of the encircling craggy fell-tops. The immediate draw for our family is the exciting outdoor activities. Despite being the most visited of the UK’s national parks, the Lake District is always big enough and wild enough that we can find our own cherished niches in the landscape, where the children can run free and discover a vast natural playground for themselves.

For years, we have based ourselves in the Keswick area of the northern Lakes, where there are thrills for families of all ages and the mountain scenery is more rugged than in the busier southern areas.

Autumn is a great time to go out exploring on the water – although the air temperature has cooled, seasonal lag means the water is still relatively warm. Jump in a canoe or kayak at Keswick and the teardrop-shaped Derwentwater, with its steep-sided guardian fells, is there to discover. With our young captains (aged five and eight) taking the helm, we steered a course to St Herbert’s Island, home in the seventh century to the reclusive saint, whose meagre cell can be found in the wooded undergrowth. It is a favourite for tree-climbing, swimming and generally running amok, pretending to be pirates. Scenes from the 2016 film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons were shot here – and our children got into character by hurling “scurvy dog” and “son of a sea snake” insults at each other.

Climbing to the ridged top of Catbells is something of a rite of passage for youngsters in these parts. The classic approach is by the launch boat from Keswick to Hawes End and up the distinctive curving spine, looking down on Derwentwater. The simple scrambling section of the ascent – which has been cheekily dubbed “the granny-stopper” – is perfect for families; for bigger challenges, the nearby Buttermere Fells are unrelentingly steep, rocky and exhilarating, whereas the Borrowdale Fells are lower but a little tougher and wilder.

We introduced our young family to backpacking at the remote 22-bed Skiddaw House youth hostel. Only accessible on foot or mountain bike, this remote bunkhouse is the highest hostel in Britain, standing in proud isolation on the eastern slopes of its namesake mountain. The 3½-mile uphill hike passes the impressive Whitewater Dash waterfalls and slopes laden with bilberries – distractions which almost made our children forget they were carrying rucksacks packed with all they’d need for a two-night stay. The house itself is delightfully spooky, as well as eco-friendly and pretty much off-grid – flickering solar lighting, stoves fuelled by coppiced wood, spring-fed water and gas-fired showers. There are no plug sockets, no mobile signal and no wifi – but there is a well-stocked bar, homemade cake, battered guitars and board games.

The hostel is a launchpad for tackling the lofty tops of Skiddaw and Blencathra – England’s third and eighth highest mountains – making them impressive but realistic goals for families. Plentiful chocolate and occasional use of a sturdy back carrier got our then three-year-old to the top of Skiddaw a couple of years ago.

A few minutes’ drive from Keswick is Whinlatter Forest, with its purpose-built mountain biking trails that will keep children aged eight-plus literally on the edge of their seats. The setting is reminiscent of Endor, home of the tree-dwelling Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and the technical challenge of the Quercus trail’s snaking duckboards, undulations and switchbacks is at just the right level for keen bikers.

There’s no charge other than parking, and bikes can be hired on site. For younger children there are imaginative adventure playgrounds and – as is increasingly common – there’s a selection of ziplines and treetop nets to play on, too.

South of Keswick is Borrowdale, a craggy valley renowned for rock climbing since the pioneering days of the sport in the 1880s. It was rock climbing that drew me to the area in my 20s and now it’s a big hit with our children. Even the more famous crags here have some easier routes perfect for introducing children to climbing outdoors – a very different experience from indoor walls. Outdoor climbing can involve a fair bit of waiting around, as well as the obvious bursts of adrenaline.

Upper Shepherds Crag is family-friendly and set in a perfect picnic meadow. The slabs at Steel Knotts also make great beginners’ climbing. Families with older children could even try mountaineering at Seathwaite Slabs and Sourmilk Ghyll waterfall. Our family spent an enjoyable day climbing at Church Crag near the sparsely settled St John’s in the Vale. The location feels disproportionately remote (though only five minutes from Keswick in the car) and a trip can be combined with a visit to the ancient Druid stone circle at Castlerigg.
Keswick Climbing Wall is nearby, which offers family outdoor climbing experiences and decent indoor facilities for when inclement weather strikes.

There are plenty of costly and popular “adventure attractions” in the Lakes, but for our family the less-frequented nooks, crannies and wild spaces have often provided the most memorable experiences. Exploring the cave in Borrowdale that was once home of the self-styled professor of adventure, Millican Dalton, is one of these.

The quarried caves are best visited from the village of Grange on a trip to scale the mighty mini-mountain of Castle Crag, with its otherworldly plateau of standing slate shards and its precipitous, knobbly summit. Look out for makeshift riverside rope swings near the cave – and expect your children to wear out the seats of their trousers on the natural slide of the summit stone. Finding a place to play together in the natural landscape has been our real Lakeland adventure story.

Hire a double kayak plus gear at Keswick Water Sports or Nichol End Marine, £15 an hour. Stay at Skiddaw House dorm beds from £20, family rooms from £80. Whinlatter bike hire, £21 half day, £29 full day. Outdoor or indoor climbing at Keswick Climbing Wall, £35pp for a four-hour session

Rachel Crolla is the co-author of Outdoor Adventures with Children: Lake District (£12.95, Cicerone), available for £11.40 at

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