Faced with the prospect of an empty day on holiday with children, there's a temptation to fill it. The day, stretching languidly like a bather on a sun-lounger, cannot simply be allowed to happen. It must be stuffed to the brim with activities. At some point, the idea of a trip to a theme park emerges.
Theme parks are, on the whole, ghastly. The commodification of fun on an industrial scale can hardly be expected to create a wholesome experience. Like the junk food peddled in these self-declared wonderlands, the adventure lacks nourishment. A day at a theme park usually involves long stretches of boredom injected with short bursts of excitement.
I try to avoid theme parks at all costs but Astrid, my two-year-old daughter, has recently become susceptible to advertising. She likes to flick through the pages of anything resembling a book and on a recent trip to south west England, she was perusing the various guides, brochures and leaflets picked up from the Cornish Tourist Board. Astrid came across a picture of train chugging through green and pleasant fields with "Lappa Valley Steam Railway" superimposed above it. From that moment, Astrid did not stop talking about going to "ride on trains".
Three days later, finding ourselves within 10 kilometres of the Lappa Valley, we were unable to resist visiting this fabled land of locomotion.
Fortunately the Lappa Valley Steam Railway is unlike most theme parks. Opened in 1974, its steam railway runs on the restored 350mm-gauge track once used by a 19th-century Cornish mine. We arrived in the afternoon and at the ticket office we found an old man dressed in a conductor's uniform who told us about a "discount fare for off-peak travel". The entry fee was already quite reasonable, but this unexpected discount reinforced the feeling that making money was not the sole purpose of this establishment.
Everything about the place was charmingly unpolished, slightly frayed and seemingly untroubled by the usual cordons, barriers, signs and health and safety rules that usually plague such places. The doors of the miniature steam train wobbled and rattled as we set off, children poked their heads and limbs out of open windows as we chugged along, and at the other end, the ruins of the abandoned mine loomed over a crazy golf course, a shin-deep canoeing lake and other miniature railways. Astrid ran from one place to another, playing with other children. People talked to one another, a rarity in these places, and - even rarer - smiled and were having fun.
After playing all afternoon, the call for the last train caught most people by surprise. Was it that time already? Did we really have to leave? If only all theme parks were like the Lappa Valley.