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Another bank holiday and it's open house again

By the end of the long weekend, millions of visitors will have trooped around our historic houses. But what's it like for the people who live there? Jill Tunstall talks to two families whose home is their castle
Stroll around the elegant rooms of Dalemain near Penrith in Cumbria and you may hear a child's laugh or the sound of small feet pattering in distant corridors.

Those of a nervous disposition should have no fear. These are not ghosts but the very real children of Dalemain.

Nine-year-old Hermione and five-year-old twins Beatrice and George may be heard but are not seen by visitors to this Elizabethan manor with its splendid pink Georgian facade. Yet it is their very presence which brings the house alive. Their father, Robert Hasell-McCosh, who inherited Dalemain from his grandmother, may have been to the manor born and is still well- heeled but his children have been born to a house that is having to work for its living.

Along with the farm, run by Mr Hasell-McCosh, and the expansive gardens, tended by his wife, Jane, 20,000 visitors each year help to support Dalemain, a member of the Historic Houses Association, through their pounds 4.50 entrance fees.

The children's part in the family business is not to mind that they aren't allowed into half the house before 5pm in the summer, or able to tear around the gardens or play hide and seek in the Chinese drawing room.

The Hasell family had Dalemain exclusively to themselves from 1642, but 20 years ago they opened their gates to the public for the first time, installing a gift shop in the cobbled courtyard and a self-service restaurant in the medieval hall.

"It wasn't difficult to decide to open the house," said Mr Hasell-McCosh, with the resolve of one who has found a solution to holding the tiger by the tail - hard to keep a grip on but too difficult to let go of. "We knew it was impossible to go on unless we made a business of it." Whereas his ancestors fought for the Royalist cause, he now does battle with theme parks and white-knuckle rides for the attention of families on a day out.

"I do think it's been more difficult since we had our children. How do you tell them that after they've had a free run of the house in winter that they can't go in the living room in summer?"

It is harder for their parents, both in their early forties, because they remember life before visitors. The children, on the other hand, know no other way and do not complain.

Despite the limitations on his family's life, Mr Hasell-McCosh is unwilling to bite the hand that helps keep the ancestral roof over his head and tactfully points out that those who do overstep the line between private and public tend to be foreign and therefore may not understand the signs. "There's always a minority who wants to look behind the doors marked 'private'," he says. "People visit these houses because they are curious and 95 per cent of them want to know about the family rather than the furniture or paintings.

"To begin with it was slightly off-putting to find people in our living room but we are slightly more professional nowadays." At the end of the day his greatest concern is not about having visitors in his home but about not having them.

Visitors to Gwydir Castle in Llanrwst, North Wales could be forgiven for thinking that the slim young woman in jeans and a jumper who lets them in at the gate is simply a helper at this Tudor manor house.

It's not until she gives the short spiel - "You're welcome to look around by yourself, it's under renovation so do tread carefully, and we'd be grateful if you didn't touch things, it is actually our home" - that things become clear.

Judy Corbett and her husband, Peter Welford, met on a house restoration project and are passionate about restoring their own home, a glorious rambling place on the banks of the slow-moving River Conwy.

But Gwydir Castle has suffered mixed fortunes in the past: over-zealous renovations, Hollywood-style alterations and sheer neglect.

The couple had had their eye on it for five years and had seen it deteriorate from a distance. When they finally bought the place they were faced with the twin demands of a 20-year restoration project and an eccentric legacy: a visitor's right to roam. "The house had always been open, officially or unofficially. It would have been difficult to shut everybody out, we'd keep finding people in the garden and they felt a right to roam had been established," says Peter.

"From the very beginning people would just wander in at all times of the day," says Judy, 27, a book conservationist, who admits she has learnt patience over the past year and a half, while Peter was blessed with it already.

"I'd come down in the morning in my pyjamas and there would be a strange person in the house. I'd say, 'Who are you?' and they'd say, 'Who are you?' "They would jump over the gate at the back to get in and because there are so many doors here we didn't bother to lock them. We even woke up to discover tents pitched on the lawn one morning."

People were so keen to look round that the couple decided they would surely have no qualms about paying to do so, despite the scaffold-covered walls, uneven floors and weed-filled knot garden. The couple have not joined a historic house organisation, but now Gwydir Castle is open officially daily all year round to visitors prepared to pay pounds 2. The arrangement has led to a curious mixture of frustration with the way people behave in their home but an iron-willed refusal to install "Do not touch" signs and all the other paraphernalia of stately homes.

Sitting in front of the huge fire in the draughty beamed hall that is their sitting room, visitors drift in and out. "There's a couple of sexy yew trees in the garden," Peter advises one couple.

They recall the highs and lows of life in a goldfish bowl. "It can be quite amusing when we're sitting here, eating Sunday lunch, and people wander around. They never know quite what to make of it," says Judy, who admits that it was embarrassing at first.

"We were almost apologetic, in fact," says Peter, 31, an architectural historian who sports a Panama. "There have been times when we have had guests staying, and despite our warnings they've overslept the opening time and people wander in and find bodies in the beds," says Judy.

The house constantly reverberates to the sound of workmen repairing and restoring the decades of neglect. But it is the public who cause the headaches. "Of all the million things going on here," says Peter, a tad wearily, "the most exhausting is the public asking the same questions: 'Are you open?' (there are three signs saying open), 'Have you still got the peacocks?' "

"But at the top of the top 10 things they say is: 'You've got your work cut out'," Judy cuts in. "Oh, and 'Where's the tea-room?' "

"There is a fast-food, heritage-type person that isn't particularly interested in whether we're late Georgian, Queen Anne or an Inca temple so long as there's a tea-room, which is a little sad," says Peter. "But a lot of people are interested and we do want to share the house with them. I sometimes try to sneak across the house to make a cup of tea without getting spotted. But people pin you down with questions about the ghost or something and the only way out is to feign an angina attack.

"I sometimes feel like evoking the spirit of Meredith [who built the house] and his 20 hand-picked longbowmen when the house is awash with brattish children and picking them off from the solar tower," says Peter, with relish.

"You're getting more like John Cleese every day," observes Judy.