Meet the California tech dude who’s taking over his family’s 13th century castle in Cumbria

Lying in my four-poster bed in one of Britain’s most haunted houses, the question is not whether I will see a ghost. It is: which one?

Muncaster Castle was built 800 years ago, with granite walls 8ft thick to guard the Cumbrian coast against marauding Scots. And it collects ghosts like other castles collect suits of armour.

There’s Margaret Pennington, the crying child (who died of ‘screaming fits’ right here in the Tapestry Room in 1871). Some guests find it even creepier to hear the sound of her nurse singing to the poor girl.

Muncaster is also the home of the original ‘Tom Fool’, an Elizabethan joker called Tom Skelton, whose portrait hangs just outside my room. A thoroughly unpleasant character, he liked to direct strangers towards the local quicksands and reputedly hacked off the head of a drunk estate carpenter who had been bragging about a dalliance with the daughter of the house. Both men can apparently be heard clomping around these corridors.

Then there is poor Mary Bragg, the housemaid murdered in the woods on the orders of a jealous rival in 1805 …

It is not just hearsay. Regular visitors include university academics and scholars of the paranormal who are still not entirely sure why a compass goes haywire whenever it comes close to the bed in my room (I try it and it is true). At one point, Daily Mail photographer Murray Sanders finds that one of his cameras has suddenly packed up, while another keeps picking up tiny flying objects.

But I am only staying here for one night — more of which later. I am much more interested in why Ewan Frost-Pennington, 32, has turned his back on a prosperous career in sunny California to return to the family home and devote the rest of his life to propping up Muncaster and its ghostly residents.

For Windsor is not the only castle going through a succession right now.

Here, on a stunning promontory, where the Lake District meets the Irish Sea, the ancestral seat of the Penningtons is going through a change of reign, too.

It is also rather reassuring to learn that Ewan used to find the place pretty spooky, too. ‘When we were younger, my siblings and I were so scared that we insisted on sharing a bedroom, even though there’s plenty of rooms to go round,’ he laughs.

Nor did Ewan like to invite his friends from the local school back home to play. ‘I didn’t want to be the “kid from the castle”,’ he tells me. ‘I just wanted to be normal. I don’t even think I had a party here until I was 18.’

Now, though, he is not merely happy and proud to talk about life at Muncaster Castle. He is cheerfully devising fresh ways to lure more people through the door.

Not that there has been any sad event to precipitate this change of reign.

Ewan Frost-Pennington, 32, has turned his back on a prosperous career in sunny California to return to the family home and devote the rest of his life to propping up Muncaster

Ewan used to find the place pretty spooky and did not like to invite his friends from the local school back home to play

Ewan used to find the place pretty spooky and did not like to invite his friends from the local school back home to play

Ewan is cheerfully devising fresh ways to lure more people through the door of Muncaster

Ewan is cheerfully devising fresh ways to lure more people through the door of Muncaster

Ewan’s parents, Iona and Peter Frost-Pennington, both 61, are in rude health and still helping out from their home in the northern end of the castle. They saved the castle 25 years ago when they sold the family silver, quite literally, to fund a new roof (without which, according to the surveyors, Muncaster would have been a ruin within ten years).

Now, they fully understand the need for the next generation to have a go. Which is why Ewan has swapped California for a flat in the Muncaster Castle keep (albeit one with a secret tunnel and something mysterious which makes dogs scratch furiously at his sitting room floor).

After Ewan spent this winter learning the ropes, I have come to meet him ahead of his first season in charge, as he prepares to throw open the family home to the world this weekend.

His primary goal is to generate the £2 million or so needed to keep this place solvent each year. The core business is the 60,000 visitors who flock here for the full haunted castle experience, beautiful woodland gardens and dramatic displays by the resident team of owls, eagles and vultures — plus the first-class scoff in the cafe.

On top of that, Ewan is busy exploring any number of new ways of paying the Muncaster bills — be it a new festival for drag queens (‘Dragcaster’), a rally for bikers, a pop festival called Krankenhaus, or Hobbit-style underground lodges in the hillside. He is already restoring neglected parts of the castle to create more en-suite bedrooms for group bookings.

He must preserve the astonishing collection of family portraits and curios going back to Roman times, not to mention my favourite room in the house — a soaring medieval chamber-turned library, with the night sky painted on its vaulted ceiling.

Beyond the ramparts, there is the responsibility of maintaining an 1,800-acre estate without any of the productive farmland his great-grandparents flogged off many years ago.

‘It’s mainly sand and rock, now,’ he says. There is also a renovated hotel and several houses in the seaside village of Ravenglass.

Robert Hardman visits Muncaster Castle - one of Britain¿s most haunted houses

Robert Hardman visits Muncaster Castle – one of Britain’s most haunted houses

'Lying in my four-poster bed in one of Britain¿s most haunted houses, the question is not whether I will see a ghost'

‘Lying in my four-poster bed in one of Britain’s most haunted houses, the question is not whether I will see a ghost’

'Regular visitors include university academics and scholars of the paranormal who are still not entirely sure why a compass goes haywire whenever it comes close to the bed in my room'

‘Regular visitors include university academics and scholars of the paranormal who are still not entirely sure why a compass goes haywire whenever it comes close to the bed in my room’

Muncaster Castle was built 800 years ago, with granite walls 8ft thick to guard the Cumbrian coast against marauding Scots

Muncaster Castle was built 800 years ago, with granite walls 8ft thick to guard the Cumbrian coast against marauding Scots

Ewan¿s parents, Iona (centre) and Peter Frost-Pennington (right), both 61, are in rude health and still helping out from their home in the northern end of the castle

Ewan’s parents, Iona (centre) and Peter Frost-Pennington (right), both 61, are in rude health and still helping out from their home in the northern end of the castle

The easy (and lucrative) option would be to open these as holiday lets or on Airbnb. Ewan, like his parents, will have none of it, explaining that these are tenanted homes without which there would be no local community. On top of this, he has another ambition: to make this a zero-carbon castle over the next decade.

As a former environmental engineer, Ewan is already some way there. His parents had installed solar panels in the former bearpit. Now, he has added a ground-source heat pump system, which has not only slashed energy bills but led to a very strange experience round here: warmth.

‘Sometimes, I wake up and think: “There is so much to do, I don’t know where to start,” ’ he says. ‘It is like trying to build a plane while you’re flying it. Then I think, what an amazing opportunity.

‘My parents keep telling me not to do much in my first year. But you’ve got to keep trying new things.’

Engagingly upbeat, he jokes about ‘the boy of 32 living at home with his parents’, except that his own rooms are at the other end of a very big house where people communicate by walkie-talkie.

It is clearly a very happy ship.

Transition can sometimes be painful for big estates, as recent history has shown at places like Longleat, home of the Marquess of Bath. There can also be unhappiness among siblings when a family inheritance goes down a single line. Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, is case in point.

Not so here at Muncaster Castle. For though Ewan is the eldest of three children, it was never a foregone conclusion that he would take on the estate.

‘We talked to all the children and said: “If none of you wants this place, then we’ll figure something out. That’s fine,” ’ says Iona. ‘But if one of you does want it — and it can only be one of you — then the others will get very little. And they are all fine with that. I was very determined they should all go off and make their own lives.’

Ewan’s younger brother, Fraser, joined the Royal Marines, then the Royal Navy and is now pursuing a business career in another part of the county. His sister, Isla, has also worked for an international engineering company and is now engaged to a Cumbrian farmer.

Ewan plans to make this a zero-carbon castle over the next decade (Pictured: the dining room at Muncaster)

Ewan plans to make this a zero-carbon castle over the next decade (Pictured: the dining room at Muncaster)

Ewan's primary goal is to generate the £2 million or so needed to keep this place solvent each year (Pictured: Library at Muncaster)

Ewan’s primary goal is to generate the £2 million or so needed to keep this place solvent each year (Pictured: Library at Muncaster)

is already restoring neglected parts of the castle to create more en-suite bedrooms for group bookings (pictured: The Great Hall at Muncaster)

is already restoring neglected parts of the castle to create more en-suite bedrooms for group bookings (pictured: The Great Hall at Muncaster)

Ewan himself had been in two minds about whether to take on a challenge, which comes with a recurring nightmare for any ancient dynasty: being the one who sells up.

After attending local schools, he studied chemistry at Edinburgh University and then went on to get an MPhil in environmental policy from Cambridge.

He joined the engineering giant Arup, and was posted to its operation in San Francisco where he worked on electric vehicle projects. After a few years, he faced a dilemma. Should he stay, obtain a green card and build a life in the U.S.? Or should he come back to run the castle? He opted for the latter, bringing with him his American girlfriend (although the couple have since parted amicably).

Was it a shock for him to swap California for the bracing shores of the River Esk?

‘I did love the “go, go, go” American attitude,’ he admits, adding that most of his childhood friends have left Cumbria for careers elsewhere.

There are, he says, fewer opportunities to meet kindred spirits but he is ever the optimist.

He also loves the ability to innovate and make his own decisions quickly. Having been quoted over £1 million for the new heating system, he managed to do it himself for £75,000 and was recently asked to address the Historic Houses Association on how it was done.

Ewan says he is only following the way his parents took a similar can-do approach to installing those solar panels or building their own online ticketing system —which is now a successful company managing ticketing for tourist attractions all over the UK.

The legend goes that the Penningtons will never leave Muncaster as long as the bowl remains in one piece

The legend goes that the Penningtons will never leave Muncaster as long as the bowl remains in one piece

A soaring medieval chamber-turned library, with the night sky painted on its vaulted ceiling

A soaring medieval chamber-turned library, with the night sky painted on its vaulted ceiling

The Penningtons have lived at Muncaster since King John gave them the land in 1208 (Pictured: Restored main staircase)

The Penningtons have lived at Muncaster since King John gave them the land in 1208 (Pictured: Restored main staircase)

Iona was the chatelaine of Muncaster long before she married Peter, who was then a local vet. They met when he came to attend to the bears, still living in Muncaster’s bearpit at the time. She was the third of four daughters and inherited Muncaster from her mother, herself a younger daughter from an all-girl family.

Indeed, you have to go back to Ewan’s great-grandfather, Sir William Pennington-Ramsden, to find the last male heir. His father had also inherited through the female line, following the death of the last Lord Muncaster, Josslyn, who died childless in 1917.

The Penningtons have lived at Muncaster since King John gave them the land in 1208. There are two preconditions for each heir. The first is that they must take the Pennington name. The second is they must ensure the safekeeping of ‘the Luck of Muncaster’, a sacred glass bowl given to the family by a fugitive Henry VI in 1464.

The legend goes that the Penningtons will never leave Muncaster as long as the bowl remains in one piece. To this day, the whereabouts of ‘the Luck’ is a closely guarded secret. ‘I’ve only seen it twice and I’ve never even been allowed to touch it,’ says Ewan.

A few years ago, the Tower of London asked if they might put it on display alongside the Crown Jewels. The response was a firm but polite ‘no’.

Ewan’s enthusiasm for the place is infectious as he talks me through future plans, from a micro hydro-electric scheme to a souped-up Hallowe’en experience this year.

‘People adore this place at Hallowe’en. While we want it to be family-friendly by day, it could be much more scary at night,’ he explains. Called Scarecaster, the new show will not be for the fainthearted. ‘It’s all about appealing to the younger generation,’ he says, adding that the same philosophy lies behind next month’s Dragcaster festival.

So how are the ghosts feeling about all this change? I can’t say that I am too keen to find out as I climb into my four-poster in the Tapestry Room. Previous guests have been scared silly in here. I can’t imagine the bedside photo of poor crying Margaret Pennington helped much. Ditto the dummy of the headless carpenter.

Muncaster is also the home of the original ¿Tom Fool¿, an Elizabethan joker called Tom Skelton (pictured)

Muncaster is also the home of the original ‘Tom Fool’, an Elizabethan joker called Tom Skelton (pictured)

The ghost of Margaret Pennington, the crying child (who died of ¿screaming fits¿ in the Tapestry Room in 1871 is said to haunt the Castle

The ghost of Margaret Pennington, the crying child (who died of ‘screaming fits’ in the Tapestry Room in 1871 is said to haunt the Castle

Ewan is busy exploring any number of new ways of paying the Muncaster bills ¿ be it a new festival for drag queens (¿Dragcaster¿), a rally for bikers or a pop festival called Krankenhaus

Ewan is busy exploring any number of new ways of paying the Muncaster bills — be it a new festival for drag queens (‘Dragcaster’), a rally for bikers or a pop festival called Krankenhaus

However, Ewan kindly shows me an escape route to one of the newly renovated rooms elsewhere should the spirits get nasty in the night.

As it is, fortified with plenty of red wine and an excellent dinner at the Pennington Inn, I go out like a light and sleep straight through. ‘The ghosts must have approved of you,’ says Ewan at breakfast. I ask him if they ever bother the family. ‘On the whole, they seem to like us,’ he says. ‘But there are those nights when I am walking up the stairs alone and I hear something …’