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Visiting distant relations often has its share of surprises. And while my husband, Tom Houghton, and I were somewhat stunned by the arrow-straight, kilometre-long driveway and the vast banquet hall lined with 4,000 panes of Flemish glass we found at his family seat, we certainly didn't expect apparitions. Yet Hoghton Tower, the manor my spouse's forebears left more than 350 years ago, is ranked the "Third Most Haunted Building in Britain."

"Once when the guides were telling ghost stories, I couldn't resist hiding and opening and closing the doors," recalls Lady Rosanna de Hoghton, who with her husband, Sir Bernard, runs the estate owned by the de Hoghton family since the Norman Conquest. "They were so terrified they locked up everything behind them - and locked me out! I had to climb over a hedge to get back in."

The main buildings were rebuilt in Tudor times, and we soon learned that it takes a monumental effort to preserve a 16th-century way of life in the 21st century. Yet while many British estates have been commercialized or lost to taxes, the fiercely independent de Hoghtons still run theirs much as they have for nearly a millennium: as a family affair.

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With imagination and quite a bit of elbow grease, the de Hoghtons support their Grand Dame with symphony and jazz concerts, archery demonstrations, medieval-style puppet shows for children and classic car and motorcycle shows, as well as by leasing land to farmers.

But despite bearing a name that is peppered through the history books - the family tree includes Lady Godiva, Shakespeare apparently worked on the estate as a 16-year-old tutor's assistant, and oral tradition says it was here that King James I dubbed a massive side of beef "Sir Loin" - in many ways the de Hoghtons are a family like our own.

We soon found common ground in the realm of housekeeping. As a homeowner who has weathered his share of boiler and plumbing issues, my husband was as enthralled with the family's sagas of retrofitting modern heating systems into foot-thick stone walls and preventive measures such as "resting" the tapestries - a task absent from the spring cleaning ritual at our house - as with ancient yarns of battling Roundheads in the courtyard.

"Of course, this house has its share of problems," grants Lady Rosanna, an Italian-born physician. "But that's because it's not a museum; it's a living thing."

Take the drapes, a wall of fabric cascading from ceiling to floor. They "can never be touched," she says, "or they'd fall apart. All we can do is dust them lightly.

"And the carpets have to be rolled up for cleaning. It's a heavy job, and for some reason no one wants to help us. So Bernard and I end up hauling them outside and draping them over the garden wall," Lady Rosanna says with a laugh, recalling some of their more inglorious domestic episodes.

"People have the misconception that we have battalions of people doing everything for us," observes another Thomas de Hoghton, their 29-year-old son, a fine-arts photographer who appears this morning in work boots and jeans preparing to hunt down a particularly venal dry rot that has invaded the rafters. "It's really quite the opposite: You end up doing a lot of it yourself."

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Among the events the de Hoghtons stage for the public to support their manse, the most popular may be the monthly Merchant of Hoghton Farmers Market, where dozens of artisan food purveyors riding the crest of England's locavore movement spill across meadows around the Great Barn.

Many have regional roots to rival the de Hoghtons, such as fourth-generation farmer Clive Waring, who maintains that his purple carrots predate the eponymous variety bred by William of Orange, and cattle breeders at Savin Hill, whose heritage British Whites are related to a herd kept at Hoghton Tower in centuries past.

If Hoghton Tower is now better known to epicures seeking world-class smoked kippers and freshly baked Fidget Pie than to tourists, few realize that it was one of the first stately homes opened to the public, in 1946.

"Before that, the only way to visit a place like this was to be quietly sneaked in by a footman when the family was away, or perhaps at a charitable event arranged by the vicar," Sir Bernard observes. "But my parents felt people needed some diversion during that period of privation after World War II, and I think a lot of people are interested in how others live. Including me -I often take a Busman's Holiday to see grand homes."

The de Hoghtons' efforts made us keen to see how other venerable homes were preserved, and we were pleased to learn that we could rent our own historic digs from the National Trust.

Beyond restoring culturally important properties such as Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Winston Churchill's Chartwell and the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this organization also preserves lighthouses, dovecotes, pubs, even entire villages such as the wistful Lacock, where parts of Harry Potter were filmed.

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From a list that includes mills, thatched cottages - even the wireless station in Cornwall where Marconi developed the precursor to radio and Agatha Christie's holiday home in Devon - we chose a 14th-century manse 90 minutes east of Heathrow so true to period we had trouble finding the bedroom along a warren of hallways.

From here, we drove south just past Gatwick to East Sussex, arriving at a gamekeeper's cottage so deep in the woods the trust deems it "not recommended for those of a nervous disposition."

Our next dwelling, a few hours north in Yorkshire, felt even more isolated: a 19th-century stone barn in the middle of the moors, ingeniously transformed with a breakfast nook tucked between the cow stalls. Our only neighbours were baby lambs pressing their noses against the glass doors. Beyond the reach of the Internet and TV, we were startled when our GPS informed us we were just over the Pennine Mountains from Hoghton Tower, barely 30 minutes' drive.

At Sir Bernard's urging, we also travelled 20 minutes north of Hoghton Tower to the Trough of Bowland, whose mist-shrouded moors with mythic names such as Clougha and Fair Snape inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Recently, this heather-covered region has been dipping a toe into tourism, a move ironically facilitated by the Internet. "We're so deep in the country, there are no 'walk in' guests," says Michael Lawson, who together with his wife, Marie, has transformed 300-year-old Wolfen Mill into self-catering cottages. "We built because on the Internet, people can find us."

A few miles away, the Inn at Whitewell has managed to attract guests without the aid of the Internet for eight centuries. A major draw is its bucolic location above the River Hodder, "where we hope it will stay," owner Charlie Bowman says.

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Bowman's infatuation with country auctions has filled the inn's 23 rooms with canopied beds and "far too many less-than-efficient Victorian bathing machines," and his knowledge of fine vintages sustains a lobby wine shop, Bowland Forest Vintners, which is surprisingly sophisticated for a country hamlet.

While this ravishing agricultural region remains wedded to its past, a number of erudite food and drink outlets are surfacing to meet the trickle of tourism. The most evocative is Bashall Barn, a sprawling "agri-mall" selling local products such as lamb and mint burgers, sticky toffee pudding and freshly brewed beer. Soon, 60,000 bees will take up residence beside the café, whose windows overlook the cow stalls.

Bowland cheese maker Bob Kitching, who is reawakening interest in traditional Lancashire styles by adding ingredients such as ginger and mint, also sells his wares at the Merchant of Hoghton. "We make a real effort to gather the best producers here," Sir Bernard says as we tuck into tea with freshly baked scones and Eccles cakes.

Like their neighbouring farmers, bakers and innkeepers, the de Hoghtons are "constantly sniffing the air for new opportunities. "Our aim is to keep the house standing, so we don't stay static," Lady Rosanna says, considering the logistics of renting the East Wing as a serviced cottage as she spoons out an olive-studded stew of rabbit from the estate.

"Watch out for the buckshot," Thomas warns as he fishes a silver pellet from his dish.

"I studied Classics before I studied medicine," Lady Rosanna reflects, "so my attitude toward the house is a little different from Bernard's. For him, it's his family. I feel we are guardians of a piece of culture that belongs not just to England but to the world.

"I think the greatest achievement of mankind is when we create something, when we build something, like this house."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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If you go

Hoghton Tower Near Preston; 44 (0) 1254 852 986; www.hoghtontower.co.uk. Open July, August and September, Sundays through Thursdays and on all bank holidays. (Also limited hours in winter.) One of the most popular events is the Merchant of Hoghton Farmers Market on the third Sunday of every month, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Artisan suppliers include Savin Hill Farms ( www.savin-hill.co.uk), the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse ( www.polsco.co.uk ), Leagram Cheese ( www.cheese-experience.com), and Pots 'n' Pies ( www.potsnpies.co.uk). Admission for adults is £6.

Where to stay Wolfen Mill Country Retreats 44 (1995) 61574; www.wolfenmill.co.uk. Outside the 1,000-year-old village of Chipping, about a 25-minute drive from Hoghton Tower. These small flats with full kitchens are a pleasant cross between self-catering cottage and hotel, with amenities such as terry robes, shampoos, even chocolates on the pillow. High-season summer rates start at around $190 a night for three-to-seven-night stays.

Inn at Whitewell Near Clitheroe, Lancashire; 44 (1200) 448222; www.innatwhitewell.com. A 40-minute drive from Hoghton Tower. Bed and breakfast doubles from $198.

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The National Trust

Beyond its work restoring historic buildings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the National Trust has transformed more than 350 atmospheric properties into self-catering cottages. Search www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk for hideaways with a fireplace, near a pub or beach, for a family-size estate or a thatched cottage for two. Prices start at $190 for a long weekend or a week. Personal recommendations include:

A 14th-century house in the village where parts of Harry Potter were filmed: www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk/south_west/wiltshire/2_high_street/414 Private quarters behind the 16th-century Hardwick Hall. The weekend farm shop sells the estate's heritage breed meats: www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk/north_of_england/peak_district_and_derbyshire/4_stableyard_cottages/383 A 19th-century barn, a design-savvy transformation in wild Bronte country: www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk/north_of_england/yorkshire/widdop_gate_barn/332 A 19th-century gamekeeper's cottage deep in the woods: www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk/south_east/surrey_and_sussex/woodlands_cottage/357

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Travel tips

Since National Trust Cottages can be surprisingly remote - some are down unpaved, unnamed single-track roads - we recommend using multiple navigation tools. GPS Now available with most rental cars, this helps with orientation, especially when driving on the "wrong" side of the road. While not 100-per-cent reliable - when it points you into a sheep fold, there's probably a glitch in the software - it will bolster your confidence to turn down that intriguing unmarked lane. Maps The Collins Foldout Road Atlas Britain (£12.99 from bookstores at roadside rest stops) has easy-to-manage pages that note even the tiniest hamlets. Walkers and bikers should also buy ordinance survey maps, which detail footpaths and specially regulated Quiet Lanes shared by drivers, cyclists and walkers. Internet printouts When possible, print out routes from a mapping service like Google Maps, MapQuest, Yahoo or the British A.A., even when they appear doubtful. Town names and landmarks can provide handy reference points when you get lost. And you will. National Trust Cottage directions Travel the last few miles using the foot-by-foot directions provided in each cottage's information packet, which use landmarks like "turn left at the big red barn."

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Walking in the Forest of Bowland This part of northeast Lancashire, laced with stone walls and 19th-century farms, is as scenic as the neighbouring Lake District with far fewer tourists. Not a "Hansel and Gretel" type forest, the term reflects its status as a royal hunting preserve, much of it still owned by the Crown. Download more than 40 walking maps at www.visitlancashire.com, Things To Do, Walking. Routes ranging from three-kilometre rambles through the moors to 64-km treks are inspired by the region's association with Tolkien sagas, the 17th-century Pendle Hill Witch Trials, and its food: Culinary routes include the Ribble Valley Food Trail ( www.ribblevalleyfoodtrail.co.uk ) and three different Cheese Walks, guaranteed to hit every pub and dairy along the way. www.forestofbowland.com .

Trampers People with limited mobility can traverse rough ground, mud and grass with these four-wheel-drive electric vehicles. Go to www.visitlancashire.com/site/things-to-do/walking/tramper.

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Finding artisanal food Bashall Barn This expansive farm shop, which sells the products of regional bakers, butchers and ice cream makers, is also home to Bowland Brewery (www.bowlandbrewery.com) whose beers have evocative monikers like Sawley Tempted (for the village of Sawley) and Headless Peg for the serving girl who took a rather debilitating spill. Contact Simon Barnes simon@bashallbarn.co.uk. Bashall Town, Clitheroe, Lancashire, 01200 428 964; www.bashallbarn.co.uk. Backridge Farm In addition to its food offerings, these restored farm buildings a few minutes from Bashall Barn house local artisans and merchants. SWAMP sells moor-tramping attire, for both humans and canines; Jenny Scott creates arresting textile sculptures and assembles wisps of wool and glitter into kits that let you create your own. Baby llamas in the adjoining fields provide ongoing entertainment. www.balmyllamafarm.co.uk; www.backridge.co.uk. Leagram Organic Dairy At these modest farm buildings outside Chipping, just past the massive stone cheese press, Bob and Faye Kitching stir curds for nearly two dozen types of Lancashire cheese imaginatively mated with ingredients like fried onion, bacon, ginger and mint. They also sell at farmers markets including the Merchant of Hoghton. For times and information, contact Bob Kitching at info@cheese-experience.com. Moss Lane, Chipping, Lancashire;. 01995 61532; www.cheese-experience.com. D. Byrne and Co. The shop's rambling underground cellars stock both wines and specialist bottlings of malt whiskeys. "There are all kind of old barrels knocking about; once they're gone, that's it," states fourth generation co-owner Andrew Byrne, who gathers up every prize bottle he can find, including the last Glen Flagler 1973, £399. Victoria Buildings, 12 King St., Clitheroe, Lancashire; 01200 423152; www.dbyrne-finewines.co.uk. The Red Pump Inn This 18th-century Ribble Valley Inn sells homemade biscuits and patés, and serves cask-conditioned ales in the garden overlooking Longridge Fell. Rates for the three atmospheric bed and breakfast rooms vary "with the owner's whim" from $132 to $217 a night. (Loosely translated, this means "Call for the best rates.") Clitheroe Road, Bashall Eaves, Lancashire; 01254 826 227; www.theredpumpinn.co.uk.

Janet Forman

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