This story begins 703 years ago.
But first, let’s pop back through the mists of time to the cobwebby year that is 2009.
That was when I first laid my eyes on Sir Thomas Ingilby. Then, he was just one of many portraits in Ripley Castle, a stately home in Yorkshire that is open to the public. He hung alongside dozens of kinsmen, their cool gazes oblivious to the modern world.
In chorus, they told a tale of phenomenal staying power.
When the guide mentioned that this same family had been living in Ripley Castle for 703 years, my mind practically imploded. I’ve moved twenty times. How was this longevity possible?!
I had to know more.
However, it occurred to me that we – a group of cargo pant-wearing travellers – were traipsing through the drawing room. So it begged the question: where were the living, breathing Ingilbys now?
“The family has a flat over the Georgian part of the house,” explained Eric Campbell, a tour guide at the castle.
That was my first inkling that the aristocracy ain’t what it used to be. While Sir Thomas’ forebears enjoyed lives of leisure, he inherited a costly liability. The days of playboys gallivanting around the English countryside with hounds, polo mallets and lace ruffs were all but gone.
It made me even keener to meet Sir Thomas. I’d seen the gatehouse, the manicured lawns, the knickknacks – but, like any woman sucked in to a BBC historical drama, I wanted the emotional side of the story. What was it like to have daily reminders of where you came from? How did he keep Ripley afloat? Was he a stuffy snob?
So I brazenly asked if I could stay overnight in the castle as houseguest the next time I was in the neighbourhood. Rumour had it that Sir Thomas was a very good-humoured chap, and I figured it was worth a try, even though asking was slightly beyond my comfort zone.
Three months later, Sir Thomas picked me up at the nearby train station.
Not to spoil this for any of my six-year-old readers or anything, but this knight wasn’t wearing clunky armour.
How he got the title, in case you want to follow suit: in 1375, one Thomas Ingleby (it was spelled differently then) saved King Edward III from being gored by a boar during a hunting expedition. Ingleby was henceforth a “Sir” and so were his heirs.
We climbed into a Subaru and drove to nearby Ripley, an entire village (population: 120) literally on the castle’s doorstep. Sir Thomas owns two thirds of the town, which includes The Boars Head (where you can stay and dine), store, school, church, post office, stocks for punishing badly behaved children (above) – everything a community needs.
The estate itself is sublime: within the 150 acres lie cheerful gardens, pleasure grounds and a deer park.
“Even in Britain, which is full of these places, it’s very unusual for the same family to be in a house after 700 years,” Sir Thomas told me.
It’s easy to assume he was grossly indulged as a child. But I didn’t detect a hint of arrogance. If anything, he seemed quietly bemused by the whole situation.
Regarding the knighthood, he shrugged it off, saying: “I’m just one step above the common man.”
While other kids fantasized about living in a castle, he envied peers who had modern conveniences like swimming pools and snooker rooms.
Sir Thomas was only 18 when his father died in 1974, leaving him in charge of the estate. Not exactly a small responsibility!
“Everywhere I looked, there were things that needed doing urgently,” he said. “For the first seven years, we were literally selling things off just to pay the tax bill.”
To help cover costs, Sir Thomas and his wife Emma welcomed visitors seven days a week, eventually hosting weddings and incorporating a gift shop and tearoom.
I was surprised by the modest décor in their flat. My bedroom was comfortable, but not palatial. Not sure what I was expecting … more gold, I suppose.
Over fresh scones (made by Lady Ingilby herself), I met Jamie and Jos, the eldest of Sir Thomas’ five children and the boys pictured in the first photo of this blog post.
One of the best things about spending time with the family was getting real with them. It’s so easy to have preconceived notions about the upper class, but nobody’s life is a breeze. Jamie, first in line to inherit the whole darned thing, said he wouldn’t trade places with Princes William and Harry for the world. He’d had a taste of the reverse snobbery that comes with a privileged upbringing.
“I allow people a while to get to know me before they find out where I live. That way it’s about me and not anything else,” he said.
Jos, who happily tends to the castle gardens, said he pretends that he’s not an Ingilby when tourists inquire.
When evening descended on my “night with a knight”, Sir Thomas gathered up both a picnic dinner and his daughter Ellie, and we wandered onto the grounds. Every summer, Ripley Castle hosts a three-week run of a Shakespeare play.
I confess, I have zero tolerance for the bard in dark theatres, but the al fresco setting breathed a freshness into Will, kind of like shaking out a musty old carpet. Experiencing The Tempest as the last fingers of sunlight poked through the trees and birds twitter above was enchanting and memorable.
The following day, Sir Thomas introduced me to 28 generations of Ingilbys, including “William the Ugly”, the uncontested loser in the Ingilby beauty pageant.
“If you can’t laugh at your own ancestors, who can?” he said.
The extensive library lies in the 1555 portion of the castle. Sir Thomas whipped out a 1684 cookbook penned by Ripley’s head cook, and immediately flipped to a remedy to “soften hard brests.” (I think it’s a crowd-pleaser). Apparently all it takes is butter and sheep’s dung.
“Anoint ye brest with this, chafing it in with a warm hand gently a good while,” he chuckled.
Upstairs, there is another point of interest – a priest’s hole (see me in it, above). As royalists, the Ingilbys needed a hiding place for catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I. This one was discovered in 1964, and there is a cute picture of eight-year-old Sir Thomas standing inside.
Thinking of him as a young boy, playing amongst the artifacts, a gang of deceased relatives his ghostly babysitters, I wondered if he ever felt pressure from those prying eyes.
“It’s not their fight anymore. If they don’t like what I’m doing, they can spin in their graves for all I’m concerned,” he said.
And as for the future …
“If Jamie decides that it’s not for him, then I’d have absolutely no problem with him deciding to end it.”
One day is just a blip next to seven centuries of history, but it was enough for a transient like me to get a rare peek at real continuity. My visit to Ripley and its inhabitants remains one of my favourite travel memories.
For information on travelling in Britain, click here.
Can’t fathom driving on “the other side?” Get around Britain the easy-peasy way with a BritRail pass.
And don’t forget to visit my Across the Pond homepage!
Travel arrangements courtesy of Visit Britain.