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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Autumn in the Lake District

Driving up the A590 to the south lakes with Maddy, eight, I can't help but be aware that her age has its advantages. "Do you remember when we drove through those floods?" Blank look. "What flood?"

Children have fabulous memories, but also a powerful ability to forget. We had actually been in the Lakes when floods hit in November 2009, and driven through water so deep I had to run in front of the car, testing the depth, while Sophie drove, glancing down frequently to check if water was coming under the door. We were a couple of miles from Seathwaite, which was busy setting a British record for rainfall: 316mm in 24 hours.

Now, we are coming out of season and I'm wondering if this is wise. Canoeing and rock climbing with an eight-year-old in England's most inclement region? A miserable, cold and wet experience, I'm convinced, is going to douse any infant love of the great outdoors for ever. As for Sophie, she is adamant that she will not climb. "It's an unnatural and dangerous activity for adrenaline junkies only."

And the hotel? It's in a beautiful riverside location and has been completely refurbished. But Maddy's idea of what constitutes a decent hotel brooks no compromise – and invites disappointment: "It should have a swimming pool, and the Guinness Book of Records."

Fortunately, the Swan Hotel in Newby Bridge has lavished money in all the right places: within seconds Maddy has located the pool and, after a search of the lounge, the requisite book. They have also done a good job with a smart split-level restaurant with plenty of cosy corners and a decent bar, but that's of no interest to her. Maddy only ever eats pasta when travelling – plain, boiled spaghetti. Occasionally, when in celebratory mood, she will ask for a teaspoon of olive oil on it. The friendly and cheerful staff in the restaurant oblige. We all go to bed happy, but I am wary of the morrow.

If I had expected problems getting Maddy out of bed and into a freezing canoe, I was wrong. We arrive at Coniston on time to meet Jason Slater, our instructor, who has the kind of quietly enthusiastic attitude that defuses any behavioural time bombs. In no time at all, he and Maddy are paddling ahead, discussing the scene. Maddy grills him on the name of his canoe, on why buoys are called buoys, and if the lake is haunted. Jason tells the story of Donald Campbell, whose world water speed record attempt ended here in 1967, when his Bluebird boat somersaulted at over 300mph and crashed into the lake. Some say he haunts the waters, and Maddy, predictably, spots him staring up at her.

It's hard to imagine the loud fury of Campbell's Bluebird in this tranquillity. All around us the fells are burnished with golds and reds like an old oriental rug cast over a counter. We land at a patch of sunlight and have lunch.

"On a good, bright winter's day," says Jason, "there is nowhere better on earth." Few outsiders ever appreciate that, but Jason is on a mission. He takes us to Tilberthwaite Quarry, a couple of miles north of the lake. This little gem is accessed by a narrow gorge-like entrance. It is the perfect climbing venue, being sheltered from any wind and with clean, dry rock. I had always thought of rock climbing as a summer sport, but as we find more and more routes to attempt, I have to admit that Jason is right: canoeing and climbing in winter in the Lakes can be fun. Initially Sophie sits it out, but eventually Jason charms her into a harness and helmet. She starts. She falls off. She gets determined. Maddy and I run up to the top and shout down encouragement. She makes it with great whoops of glee. "Wow – what an adrenaline rush!"

After a couple of hours, though, the cold does begin to creep up and we retreat, this time to the Langdale Hotel, another cosy hideaway, where there is a hot tub, steam room and pool. Maddy asks if we can canoe again tomorrow. Her nascent love of the great outdoors has not only survived undamaged, it appears, but increased.

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