Ewan Frost-Pennington, custodian of 13th century Muncaster Castle in Cumbria
Lining the walls of Muncaster Castle’s stately rooms are portraits of its former inhabitants. Unofficially they sit on one of two lists: green or red. The ancestors who in some way benefited the granite fortress, home to the Pennington family for some 800 years, form the greens – while the gamblers and loafers who frittered away the family fortune are its scarlet sinners.
Ewan Frost-Pennington, Muncaster’s 33-year-old current custodian, hopes to go green in more than one way.
A former energy consultant living in San Francisco, he returned to his ancestral home last year with plans to make it the UK’s first carbon-neutral castle.
Standing 6ft 3in tall, bearded with floppy hair, he perfectly fits the model of Californian tech geek.
So his decision to leave his lucrative salary and year-round sunshine for a paltry pay cheque in a rainy west corner of Cumbria is intriguing – especially as Ewan grew up feeling “incredibly insecure about being a castle boy” and spent his twenties “hiding from it at every opportunity possible”.
He’s also no fan of the castle’s notorious ghosts. They include Tom Skelton, aka Tom Fool, the 17th-century jester who directed travellers towards local quicksands, and decapitated a carpenter who had boasted about bedding a Pennington daughter.
In fact, Ewan refuses to stay in the haunted Tapestry Room where I will spend a sleepless night – more of which later. “When we were younger, my siblings and I were so scared that we insisted on sharing a bedroom,” he laughs.
Inside Muncaster castle
Handing him the reins to the £2million family business in the Lake District are his parents Iona and Peter Frost-Pennington, both 61. Iona, Muncaster’s heiress through her maternal line, met Peter, a veterinarian, at a party.
“You’re the new vet in town – can you come and castrate my bears?” was her opening line. The bears left in 1990 as Muncaster was haemorrhaging £50,000 a year and the roof was falling in. Only dry rot in the building’s timber proliferated.
“We could have sold up for a fortune and lived a comfortable life in the South of France,” says Peter.
Instead the couple sold the family silver, including pieces by royal silversmith Paul Storr, and grafted day and night to transform Muncaster into the thriving tourist attraction it has become.
Some 60,000 people now visit annually.
Ewan’s return as operations director has taken some adjustment. “A lot of the staff looked after me as a baby, which is weird now I’m in charge of some of them,” he smiles.
Peter understands his son’s “imposter syndrome” – after all, he’s taken on a business his ancestors built and which his parents restored to health.
He smiles: “His head is on the block now – is he going to be the member of the family who loses it all and mucks up?” He’s only half-joking, I think.
For now, Iona manages the estate, including a refurbished hotel and cottages in the nearby coastal village of Ravenglass, a strategic port during Roman times.
Ewan hopes to build on his parents’ biggest draw, the 10,000-strong Halloween festival, Scarecaster, with quirkier offerings including Muncaster’s forthcoming first drag show, Dragcaster.
He also oversees family favourite Sausage Fest, indie-rock music festival Krankenhaus and Race the Tide, a 10K obstacle course over the tidal River Esk.
Muncaster’s rugged beauty is tied to its remote location in the Esk Valley next to the Irish Sea. The peaks of Scafell Pike, England’s tallest mountain, are visible on sunny days.
There are 77 acres of woodland gardens blooming with rhododendrons and impressive owl and hawk flying displays.
The family have taken in five hooded vultures, aiming to establish a breeding ground
for the critically-endangered species.
Recognising the castle’s exceptional offering, Ewan hopes to entice overseas visitors with sumptuous Downton-esque experiences
costing £1,000 per person for a visit of several days.
The child said to haunt the castle
“Day visitors, which my parents have focused on for the last 20 years, only succeed in summer,” Ewan says.
“With heritage experiences, the weather becomes a far less important variable.”
With no family silver left to flog, he must rely on extraordinary stamina and a constant stream of ideas.
Thankfully, he’s as energised as the lithium-ion batteries he’s just had installed to store excess solar electricity.
The solar panels were installed on top of the former bearpit a year ago, two years after a 0.8-mile trench was built to install ground source pump heating.
Together, they now provide 61 percent of the castle’s zero-carbon energy and better protect the mediaeval valuables from temperature fluctuations that used to occur.
“The heat pump was about conservation of our heritage as we couldn’t afford to put on the gas boilers much in winter,” Ewan explains. “Solar was due to Covid-19 when we lost our revenue overnight.
“Even if the income stops now, we can afford to power the place.”
His dream is for Muncaster to become zero-carbon by 2025.
It’s a majestic place. The centrepiece of the dining room is a 30-seater table carved from a single walnut tree.
Express writer Kat Hopps in the Tapestry Room
The walls are covered in leather embossed with gold leaf. The octagonal library, which holds 6,000 books, has a starry night sky painted onto its vaulted ceiling. King John passed ownership of the land to the Pennington family in 1208.
The castle was built a century later to keep out Scottish invaders. Things could easily be fraught with two generations under one roof but the Frost-Penningtons seem to get along, the occasional eye roll aside.
Ewan lives on the first floor of the 14th-century Pele Tower complete with a secret tunnel. His parents reside below in cosy quarters tucked behind a narrow corridor. It’s a stark contrast to the polished splendour seen by the public.
Ewan will eventually move into one of Ravenglass’s cottages for some breathing space – when he finds the time. Right now his life is like a “whack-a-mole” game.
The night I stay, the weather is stormy. One of the barns that was previously damaged in a fire partially collapses. It will probably be beyond saving.
“At least no one was killed,” Iona sighs the next day after being called out at 4am to investigate. Ewan can rely on his parents during such calamities for now, but Muncaster’s responsibilities will be placed squarely on his shoulders in the future.
His younger siblings have both opted for different careers – his brother in renewable energy and his sister at an engineering company.
“They do not want anything from it,” Isla says. “Everything will go to Ewan. But you cannot split it up, it would be implausible.”
She takes the view that the castle’s custodians shouldn’t mine their heritage for profit.
“It is not our money to spend,” she says. “It belongs to Muncaster… we are its stewards.” Anyhow, all profits must be ploughed back into the castle for repairs.
But surely Ewan occasionally questions his decision to leave sunny California?
“I’m still questioning it – seriously!” he says. “I feel like I’m doing okay but if I start to lose [money] then I will question it more.”
He came home with his American girlfriend but they split for reasons unconnected to Muncaster. “It’s harder dating here – and it’s weird in this area because of the whole castle thing,” Ewan says.
He was embarrassed about Muncaster in his youth, never inviting friends home aside from two sleepovers and one party when he was 18. “I was a bit of a social recluse growing up,” he admits.
“I didn’t hang out with my peers that much. From the ages of 13 to 18, I worked in our cafe every weekend. I have massive regrets; I should have been out there having a wild time.”
Area view of Muncaster castle
One of his most liberating times was escaping to Edinburgh University where he happily studied chemistry. “No one knew I lived in a castle [initially],” he confides. “You can have your own identity.”He told close friends the truth after six months. Their response?
“You’re not who I imagined would live in a castle – you’re a scruff!” Ewan later gained a masters degree in environmental policy from Cambridge University and his passion for energy has mellowed his anxieties.
Next on his to-do list is a scheme for hydroelectricity. And despite an initial rejection, he hopes to convince local bureaucrats to let him introduce woodland glamping.
He also has luxury lodges in hillside Hobbit holes in his sights. In the meantime, he just needs a girlfriend to share his eco dream.
“Maybe I need to see who the local vet is?” he jokes, remembering how his parents met. Clearly, applicants must have a good sense of humour.