At an aquarium on Lake Windermere visitors find another world in the water, says Jessie Anderson
Did you know that the octopus has three hearts and blue-green coloured blood? That it is the male seahorse which becomes pregnant and gives birth to live young? Or that brown trout often become cannibals as they age?
These are some of the "fishy facts" which delight young visitors to the aquarium at Newby Bridge on the southern end of Lake Windermere in Cumbria. Originally called Lakeside Aquatarium when it opened in May last year, this award-winning attraction has now been renamed the Aquarium of the Lakes.
The Pounds 1.7 million undercover development has already been visited by thousands of schoolchildren, some from as far south as Berkshire. Many of the more distant schools take in a visit to the aquarium as part of a week's outdoor activities holiday at the nearby YMCA National Centre. This summer they'll be able to canoe from the centre on Lakeside to the aquarium as part of their holiday course.
As soon as they enter the aquarium the young people have a close encounter with "the real-life story of a Lakeland river from mountain top to Morecambe Bay".
Beginning with a dramatically cascading waterfall, they progress to standing on a bridge over the lake and then walking "under Lake Windermere" through a clear tunnel with fish of all shapes and sizes darting around and above them. They can even look up through the water to see ducks diving overhead.
The aquarium has the largest collection of freshwater fish in the country and bubble-fronted glass gives an opportunity for eyeball to eyeball confrontation. There are about 30 wildlife displays, with growing plants, beautifully painted backdrops and concise interpretation boards.
You can watch life in a moorland tarn, see the river bank come to surprising life at night, or study the activity in the marsh-land area with its roof open to the elements.
Above the constant sound of running water, recorded bird songs add to the illusion that you are indeed tramping "from mountain top to Morecambe Bay" - yet miraculously remaining dry.
There is lift access for disabled visitors to all parts of the complex; a hearing aid in the multimedia theatre and plenty of hands-on experience for both sighted and blind visitors, including information in Braille.
In the water laboratory, with its close-up view of microscopic life, visitors can pick things up and lift stones to see what lurks beneath. Movable magnifying slides on glass tanks allow a closer look at moving species and, from a magnifying microscope, enlarged pictures of insect larvae and plankton can be displayed on a screen.
Aquarium of the Lakes, Newby Bridge, Cumbria. Tel: 015395 30153
For all school parties an officer is on duty to answer questions and a guide is available for groups of about 15 pupils. Talks can be tailored to suit special fields of study. Worksheets and specific subject sheets are available before a school visit and one teacher is admitted free with every 10 children.
In July the Real Live Leisure Company which operates it will open a similar centre in Bournemouth where there will also be facilities for school visits