THE estate office at Ripley is busy and Lady Emma Ingilby is at the centre of operations, as we arrive for our exclusive private tour. The chatelaine, who runs the castle and estate with her husband Sir Thomas, is slim and tall in slacks and white shirt, and barely pauses for breath before ushering us up the back stairs, past the silent servants’ bells. We climb up a couple of flights, through the Tudor part of the castle and push open a door into the 18th century … and the private apartment.

Sunshine floods in from a lightwell above the elegant circular hallway, lined with family portraits in oils, while recent photographs of Sir Thomas and Lady Ingilby, their five children and extended family cover almost every available surface. “We love our photographs and have commissioned a lot of fun ones,” says Lady Ingilby, pointing to a scene where they are striking a pose. "We have more downstairs in the public areas too.

“We are so much in the public gaze here at Ripley and the castle is so busy, so we really value our privacy here in our private quarters and did when our children were at home.” They are Jamie, 34, Jos 33, Eleanor 30, Jack 29 and Richard 24. Grandchildren are Adeline, two, and six-month-old Grace. “It was quite a shock for me when I gained a public life. My grandparents were Quakers in York, friends of the Terry and Rowntrees, so quite a different life,” Lady Ingilby adds.

Any thoughts I might have entertained that private quarters might be “scruffier” than the public areas are instantly dispelled. These quarters are elegant and beautifully furnished, indistinguishable from the rest. Lady Ingilby has arranged hothouse flowers from the gardens in the rooms. As we enter the cream guest bedroom, decorated with columns and plasterwork, botanical prints, an ornate antique mirror and chaise longue, among the antiques, she explains that this was an old nursery room before it was restored. “The Countess of Wessex is one of the guests who has stayed here,” she says.

As the couple entertain the wider family at Christmas, 23 people at the last count, they use the panelled dining room downstairs for their festive meal. The floor is from the deck of a Portuguese man-o-war. “This room had a poltergeist in it when Thomas’s sisters were growing up,” she says. “There have been 28 generations of Ingilbys and you can feel them all here, and some of the people Cromwell shot. Some play naughty tricks like putting toys in cots or a key in a shoe.”

We need a photo of both the Ingilbys ‘at home’ in the apartment, and after Woody the spaniel stands in, we go in search of Sir Thomas. “He’ll be downstairs in the boys’ room,” Lady Ingilby says. He’s in the Knight’s Chamber at a snooker table, looking for all the world as though he is attempting to put together an ancient piece of armour like a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are scattered over the table, along with shoes, boots, pistols, and fake rifles used on the estate by the home guard.

“This Royal Greenwich suit was worn by my ancestor Sir William Ingilby at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644,” says Sir Thomas. “It weighs 95lbs and was the tank of its day, you couldn’t move in it, but you could survive being attacked.”

Did he play with the armour as a child, I wonder? “My sisters found it when they were children on top of an old cupboard in a laundry room. We had it verified by the Royal Armouries, which wanted to add it to its collection – my father said ‘no’. You had to be royalty to get one tailor-made.” The armour was made in Greenwich and supplied the monarchy and court from the time of Henry VIII to the civil war.

When Sir William escaped the battlefield after the Royalist defeat, he hid in the priest hole, or escape room, in the room we are in. His sister “Trooper” Jane, aged 44, held Oliver Cromwell at gunpoint in the library overnight. “She was by all accounts a scary woman,” Sir Thomas says. “Her bible is here along with a lot of civil war memorabilia connected to Ripley. There’s a leather surcoat, which was the Hell’s Angel jacket of its day, Cromwellian cavalry boots worn by an officer and Cromwellian helmets that are so thin you wouldn’t survive a blow from a wooden stave.”

The Knight’s Chamber is part of the public tour of the castle. Portraits watch from the wood-panelled walls. “The children are here too,” says Lady Emma, referring to the spirits of youngsters, who she believes still run around and play, in a benign fashion. Modern young visitors can hear all about the ghosts of the castle on their tour and about some of the eccentric ancestors. There are a lot of family stories to tell.

Ripley Castle has been in the family for 700 years and has a history of political, military, religious and social upheaval, plague and persecution. Henry Ingilby collected taxes for Edward II, an earlier Sir William served the Tudor sovereigns and in 1605 nine of the 11 known conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot were close relations or associates of the Catholic Ingilbys.

In the 18th century a Sir John took down the old castle apart from the Tudor tower and gatehouse and his son created the model estate village with its large Hotel de Ville.

The Ripley castle archive is extensive with the family inheriting in a straight line and means Sir Thomas has a complete inventory and history of what he inherited, at the tender age of 18 when his father had a serious stroke and died. “I had just enlisted in the Scots’ Guards and had to leave almost straight away and return home to look after the family castle and estate,” he says. “Nothing can prepare you for that sort of job – the challenges are so wide.

“We like to entertain our visitors here with some of the family tales on the tour, we don’t take ourselves seriously. We Ingilbys have had a strong ability to survive.”

The estate employs more than 100 people and since 1974, when it only hired 17 staff, it has developed into one of the UK’s top stately home venues for weddings and events. “We’ve done a lot since then,” he says. “We converted several listed buildings to create the 25-bedroom Boar’s Head Hotel and opened the East Wing as a conference and banqueting facility. There’s agricultural land, forestry, we work with Live for Today Adventures company who run activities, and there’s fairs and car rallies. “

As if that weren’t enough Sir Thomas is also a chartered surveyor and land agent, holds positions on several boards and still finds time to volunteer to promote the county as a director of Welcome to Yorkshire, which was going through its own upheaval as we met.

The village of Ripley has a post office, farm shop, gallery and, four years ago, won a title as best village in North Yorkshire. Ripley Castle grounds and parkland: daily public guided castle tours run until September 30 and weekends in October and daily from October 26 to 31. Tours visit six of the castle rooms which include the library, drawing rooms, tower room and Knight’s Chamber. From November to March the castle is open to private tours by appointment only.

Ripley Castle, North Yorkshire HG3 3AY, w: