What to do on a summer’s day with two inquisitive boys under the age of four and a baby aged less than one week? With dry weather promised we planned a family day out at the SouthLakesAnimalPark. Unfortunately the park is just about as far as you can travel from our home without emigrating out of the county. And driving seventy miles with two impatient boys sitting in the back seat, boys who hadn’t slept a wink all night because they were ‘so excited’, seemed to triple the length of the journey. Their constant duet of questions, ‘are we there yet?’ and ‘are we there now?’, meant the stop-slow traffic-jam we joined just four miles before reaching our destination nearly caused mutiny, from granddad. By the time we queued to park the car and queued again to pay our entry fee we were beginning to wonder if it had really been worth taking a day off work. But duty called.
My oldest grandson loves nature, in any shape or form. Curiosity drives him to study the many spiders, snails and wood-lice he finds in his own garden. Last week he came home with half a sheep’s skull he’d found (walking on the Fells) which now sits proudly on a shelf in his bedroom. He loves to point out the funny-shaped teeth still set in the jaw bone and remembers the important role they play in a sheep’s lifestyle. Of course pre-historic creatures are his special subject and he dreams of one day visiting that temple of dinosaur bones, the NaturalHistoryMuseum in London – ‘perhaps when I’m six’.
The animal he was most hoping to see at the SLAP (why they don’t use that acronym?) was a leopard. He’d done his homework and recognised the pair of spotted jaguars curled fast asleep in the first major compound were not ‘real leopards’. He admired the tigers, briefly, but was unimpressed by the monkeys’ mischief and didn’t like the smell of the penguins, otters or rhinoceros’s. Although his younger brother was keen to stroke the animals in the ‘close encounters’ compound and was highly entertained when an emu decided to shadow him, despite its hovering like a primeval predator, the need to see a leopard was burning a hole in Oscar’s enjoyment.
It was a beautiful day and we ate our lunch with giraffes peering inquisitively over the railings while a large family of gibbons ran wild between their feet. And we were still sitting on the restaurant’s high boardwalk when four sturdy rhinos marched out below us to eat their mid-day brunch. But still no leopard!
We’d almost given up hope when we discovered a large shed set aside for quarantine animals. Lying in one small room was a soulful snow leopard, flopped against the railings as if he’d given up on the world. Just as Oscar bent to look closer it opened its eyes. Have you ever witnessed the moment when a child’s dream is fulfilled – his face beaming happiness he told everyone within radius, strangers and family, that this was indeed his leopard.
We later learned that the park have only just acquired this beautiful creature, and a huge new compound is currently under construction, a purpose-built paddock where they hope to join international efforts to save this extraordinary breed from extinction. Oscar will certainly do everything he can to help.
The English are defined by their summers. By the time we get to June the first complaints strike everyone’s lips – When will it ever stop raining? We’ve not had much of a summer? We need a bit more sun!
We spend the winter months hoping for the right weather to take part in all the things we love. Things like walking around other people’s gardens, touring around other people’s houses, walking through places we have never been before to discover the things we have never known. And every weekend from June to October there are many private houses, grand and small, which open to the public just one or two days a year to raise money for charity, and although they can be enjoyed in the rain a hot sunny day makes the outing more exciting.
For the last seven years summers have been dull, August particularly dismal, the moment term ends in July the rain comes every single day. And recognising that the weather might follow a similar pattern this year we decided to take every possible advantage to adventure out in June. Last Sunday we made the acquaintance of Kirklinton Hall and the wild surrounding landscape which the guide describes as gardens. Once it was a palace but now the empty shell of this beautiful building sits like a sandstone crater at the side of a meandering river, conjuring up dreams of what might have been. Ruins have such impact, such enigma attached.
We met the owners, distributing the mandatory tea and cake, and talked of their plans to re-build the hall, to re-instate its former glory. And we learned something of its history. Once there was a castle, just beyond the gardens, but being on the fringes of the Debateable Land it met its demise in the fierce Border Wars back in the sixteenth century. Anyone familiar with those lawless times will be interested to know the stronghold then belonged to the Musgrave clan. But when the current building was raised England and Scotland shared a ruler. Its final claim to fame is that it sheltered a more dubious London family, the Kray twins. The house was an unlicensed casino in the fifties and sixties and whenever the ‘twins’ found it necessary to ‘lay low’ they hot-footed it to Kirklinton. If only walls could talk?
Our day was only tested by the Faerie Glen. We set off down to the woods with the map provided and tried to identify the whereabouts of the host of faeries known to inhabit the trees. Reuben (aged 2) and Oscar (aged 4) crawled and climbed through the undergrowth in search of the little ladies but I think they heard them coming. We only managed to find about half the resident population, but what memories! We followed the path by the river until we came to a natural ‘beach’ where the boys paddled and played while we lazed in the sunshine and watched the buzzards wheel overhead. Such stuff as summers are made of.
If you want to learn more about Kirklinton Hall you can go to: www.kirklintonhall.co.uk
I took my grandsons out for the day yesterday. We went to Maryport Aquarium, my plan being to spend the morning looking at the fishy displays then lunch before going on to an indoor play park. We had the aquarium to ourselves and the displays were excellent although I needed to lift the youngest (age 2) to see inside every tank situated at my eyeline but the oldest (age 4) became frightened by the sound of waves splashing in the big-sea pool so we whizzed round the whole place in less than five minutes.
I thought I would pacify him in the café. It’s a good café, not only serving delicious homemade cakes but with an excellent choice of kids meals not based on chips (my boys don’t like chips) and a perfect view of the harbour to keep their interest. I ordered coffee, they wanted ice cream.
Outside it was trying to snow, two swans swam around the harbour and men were working on the deck of a fishing trawler docked on the opposite quay. I thought great, lots of interesting things for the boys to watch and I’ll have ten minutes respite to drink my coffee. But nothing is simple with toddlers! They only like vanilla ice cream. The waitress tried to tempt them with ‘Rocky Horror’, ‘Death by Chocolate’, ‘Sweet Strawberry Dreams’ or ‘Paradise Road’. No, it had to be vanilla! The waitress said they had vanilla ice cream in the gift shop but not in the café so I could go to the gift shop for their ice creams. I looked longingly at my coffee and the two boys sitting at the table waiting. I looked at the long path through the gift shop to the ice cream freezer sitting beside the entrance. The gift-shop was virtually as big as the aquarium except the floor was loaded with baskets containing the sort of bright coloured toys kids of two and four years old think of as treasure. I suggested it would be better if the waitress could get the ice creams. Eventually she obliged.
When we finished in the café the boys wanted to go to the outside play area being it was themed around a pirate ship. It was bitterly cold and trying to snow but they thought it was wonderful having the whole playground to themselves. If only to warm up we raced through the aquarium a second time, with more success. Obviously the ice cream sustained Oscar’s fear of waves. The rays were still fast asleep, the sharks looked hungry and we followed an escapee through the sunken ship. I’m not sure what the crab made of the boys but they loved copying its unique way of walking.
I survived the battle through the gift-shop. We didn’t purchase the fluffy dinosaur or plastic helicopter with fixed blades (daddy can’t fix it). There were no tears either but I wish the people who came up with these money-spinning layouts gave the option to exit without running the gauntlet of toys and sweets placed at toddler level, particularly when the displays we paid to see weren’t.
Photo shows the view from Maryport across the Solway Firth to southern Scotland.