Key Points:

The Ingilby family's greatest claim to fame is to have held on to Ripley Castle, in Yorkshire, for 698 years - 26 generations - in spite of having been on the wrong side of just about every conflict in English history.

"We were foolish enough to be Catholics under Elizabeth I." says the present baronet, Sir Thomas Ingilby, with a smile that suggests he's actually rather proud of his pig-headed ancestors.

"We were strong supporters of the king in the Civil War.

"We spent a lot of money buttering up James I when he gained the throne but then got involved in the Gunpowder Plot.

"I think it reached the stage where if a conflict broke out people would postpone deciding which side to support until they saw which way the Ingilbys were going ... and then they'd pick the other one."

But, for all his satisfaction with this contrary bloodline, Sir Thomas has broken with the tradition by being very much on the winning side in the tourist industry. Under his direction the castle has been transformed from something of an economic albatross round the family's neck into an award-winning tourist attraction and a highly successful tourist business.

It was a rather different scene when he inherited the estate at age 18. "It might have been worth millions but there was very little income and along with the estate I received a huge tax bill which I could see little hope of paying off."

But, as Sir Thomas tells it, that all changed in 1981 when the nearby city of Harrogate opened a conference centre.

"It didn't really register with me at the time but suddenly we started having people knocking on the door saying they were looking for somewhere interesting to take a conference group for dinner and this looked like an interesting place.

"We were skint and ready to do anything for a laugh so we decided to give it a go. I laid the tables, my wife Emma did the cooking and we both did the dishes. And let me tell you that washing up by hand for 500 people after a charity ball is quite an experience. But it made money."

A second breakthrough came in 1995 when the law was changed to allow people to marry outside a church or a registry office.

"Once again we started having people turn up looking for somewhere interesting to get married so we decided to give that a try, too. And again it made money."

The final step came when people attending functions at the castle started bemoaning the need to drive elsewhere for their accommodation.

"There were once three pubs in the village but my great-grandfather, who was a priest in his younger days, was offended by the sight of people rushing across the road for a drink after attending church so he closed the lot."

The less puritanical Sir Thomas re-opened one of those pubs - naming it the Boar's Head Hotel after the family crest - partly as a centre for the expanding population of Ripley village and partly to provide somewhere for people to stay.

And yet again it has been a huge success.

"The Boar's Head is actually a much nicer place to stay than the castle," Sir Thomas says. "In fact we've sometimes found friends staying there hoping desperately we wouldn't find them and invite them up to stay with us."

Today - assisted by a multimillion-dollar rebuilding programme - the estate has an automatic dishwasher, employs 120 staff and an award-winning team of chefs, offers six dining venues and three conference suites, and hosts an endless parade of conferences, including a meeting of the World Trade Organisation, holds 160 weddings and welcomes 32,000 visitors a year.

Last year Ripley Castle won the White Rose Award for best visitor attraction, the grounds won a Gold Award in the Yorkshire in Bloom competition and the the Boar's Head was a finalist in the Hotel of the Year contest.

The combination the estate offers of modern facilities, specialist staff and ancient history - including classic castle features like battlements, a protective river which acts as a moat and a battered stone gatehouse with a heavy door - is certainly very compelling.

Although as castles go it is fairly small - Sir Thomas refers to it lovingly as "a sort of three-bedroomed semi-detached castle" - when you wander around with him it seems as though every corner has a story to tell.

The boar's head in the entrance recalls the fact that the family earned its estate and title back in 1308 when Thomas Ingilsby saved Edward III from death at the tusks of an enraged wild boar and was knighted on the spot.

Behind the oak panelling in the Knight's Chamber is a priest's hole, apparently built in 1586 as a hiding place for Francis Ingilsby who was a Catholic priest.

"It was so well concealed that we didn't even know it was there until some alterations were carried out in 1964," says Sir Thomas, "but it didn't save Francis who was captured and hung, drawn and quartered."

These days the room also holds a remarkable collection of armour, including items worn by both Cavaliers and Roundheads, collected by family members from the battlefields.

The portrait of Oliver Cromwell hanging in the library is a reminder that Cromwell himself chose to spend the night at the castle after smashing the Royalist army - including several Ingilsbys - at Marston Moor some 20km away.

"Jane Ingilby met Cromwell at the door and, having fought at Marston Moor herself, refused to let him in. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby he was allowed to sleep in the library but only under guard by Jane who sat there all night with two pistols to ensure he didn't get up to mischief.

"She was obviously a remarkable woman, and presumably Cromwell admired her spirit ... but," Sir Thomas adds with a grin, "as you can see from her portrait over there she was also extremely ugly, which is presumably why she never married.

"And poor Sir William, her brother, was just as ugly, as you can see from his portrait, and had to use a dating agency to find someone willing to marry him."

In any event Cromwell's admiration only went so far because another of the castle's historical attractions is a series of musketball holes in the stonework of the gatehouse which show where prisoners were lined up and shot.

The floor of the Tower Room was once the deck of an 18th century British man o' war which is, as the host points out, "undoubtedly the reason why guests often feel the room swaying when they get up after a particularly good dinner".

The ornate plaster ceiling of the room, with its Stewart theme, was created to flatter James I when he stayed overnight in 1603 on his journey from Edinburgh to London for his coronation as King of England. "Presumably it didn't have the desired effect because two years later nine of the 11 conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were connected to the Ingilsby family.

"Since then," he adds, "we haven't had many royal visits. We did recently have a function which the Duke of Kent attended and we got a bit excited that we might be back on the list. But then a servant slipped on the carpet and guess who copped the gravy.

"At least he was able to laugh ... but we've noticed that the royals have continued to stay away."

All those stories combine to give, as Sir Thomas puts it, "a fascinating picture of how history has impacted on a single family". But they also beg the question: if the Ingilsbys were so often on the wrong side of the great historical conflicts how have they managed to survive with title and castle intact?

"I think," says Sir Thomas, "it's basically because we were never really important enough to bear the full brunt of any ... reaction. The family's stand on these issues has cost us dearly over the centuries. But we were never the leaders, the figureheads, so it was never thought necessary to make a real example of us."

Maybe. But you'd also have to suspect that the Ingilsbys' self-deprecating humour and obvious gift for making visitors feel at home might have made their enemies reluctant to deprive the world of such charming hosts. Which is good news for anyone wanting to visit a beautiful castle, have a wedding in an ancient family church or stay in a historic inn.

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* Jim Eagles visited the Ripley Castle as a guest of Visit Britain and Emirates.