The spirits of Christmas at Muncaster Castle
PUBLISHED: 22:19 23 November 2012 | UPDATED: 05:22 10 February 2013
The master of this haunted castle suddenly becomes the butler during the festive season. Sue Riley visits a new haunt
Long before Downton Abbey became a UK phenomenon the owners of Muncaster Castle realised that people enjoyed seeing life below stairs just as much as the more formal rooms of a stately home.
And thats exactly what visitors get when they visit the award-winning Lakeland tourist attraction at Christmas. Its a very a traditional affair at the castle with its imposing Great Hall, octagonal library and dining room all beautifully dressed with decorations, Christmas trees and log fires to provide the warmest of welcomes.
The festivities are all inspired by the Victorian period 1885 is the year when the last room in the 800-year-old castle was completed and the family have created the sort of olde-worlde Christmas many people dream of.
Staff and family members dress up in mob caps and aprons and owner Peter Frost-Pennington takes on the role of Craddock the butler to escort people on candlelit tours both above and below stairs.
Visitors get to see hidden parts of the castle as the outspoken Craddock conducts the sort of tour visitors would have received in Victorian times when it was quite common for people to pay money to visit a stately home when the owners were away.
Peter relishes the role and shaves off his beard for the occasion so his moustache looks even more distinguished. After showing everyone the beautiful decorations and sharing a few stories he ends with a glass of mulled wine and mince pies before inviting everyone (particularly children) to entertain with their party pieces. Theres also carol singing and light projections on the outside of the castle to add to the Yuletide magic.
As youre savouring the beauty and warmth of the castle, its worth thinking of the family who own, run and live in it. For Peter and wife Iona (the castle has been the ancestral seat of the Pennington family for eight centuries and for the past two generations has passed down the female line) and Ionas father Patrick, Christmas Day is one of the few times of the year when they use the formal rooms.
Most of their life is spent in the servants quarters in the north west quarter of the castle which they have made their home. Patricks quarters are on the other side of the castle. But at Christmas they have their lunch in the dining hall with Peter and Ionas three adult children who come home from university for the holidays, friends, relatives and perhaps an employee or two. The only time we use the Castle is at Christmas. We can have 30 around the dining table, said Peter.
Its also worth taking a quick peek at the Christmas presents under the tree as they are real gifts which the various family members will be giving to each other on December 25th. The family stop work on the 23rd, attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then hang up stockings, open their presents in the Great Hall, have a substantial lunch on Christmas Day eaten in the impressive surroundings and then perhaps go for a walk before playing games and supper. And then, after a day or two off, they will be back at work again conducting the guided tours.
Peter decided to make Christmas extra special for visitors following a visit to Chatsworth a few years ago. They were inspirational, he said. We did not want to do Christmas in a tacky Father Christmas sort of way.
Peter got so carried away in his role of Craddock the butler though that one year he didnt recognise the Duke of Devonshire (who was on a Christmas staff outing with his team from Chatsworth). I walked up to him saying you look like a practical chap sir. I realised as I was serving the wine that this guy was the Duke of Devonshire!
Hes jester ghost
Muncaster is reputed to be one of Britains most haunted castles and it is regularly visited by paranormal researchers - usually when the spirits have a day off.
Several stories revolve around Tom Fool, a jester from centuries ago who still plays tricks on people. Visitors have said they have been disturbed by mysterious footsteps outside their bedroom, door handles turn and, in some cases, the door actually opens although no one is ever there. A child is frequently heard crying towards the window end of the Tapestry room, and sometimes a lady is heard singing.
See for yourself
To see the castle in all its festive splendour, visit from 1-3pm on December 9th, 16th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 27th, 28th, 29th. Victorian tours which last 30 minutes are also available on those dates from 5pm. Theres also a Taste Cumbria Christmas Fayre being held in the grounds during the first weekend of December. For more details visit www.muncaster.co.uk