Hoghton Tower is the only true baronial residence in Lancashire. This year it celebrates 450 years since its recreation in 1565 by Thomas Hoghton. Diane Cooke went behind the scenes to see how this piece of heritage survives in a modern world.

SIR Bernard de Hoghton, the 14th baronet, wanders into the tower's office with a query for his staff about the "Shakespeare connection". He is the quintessential English gentleman in his tweed jacket and fawn slacks. He turns, bids me a cheery hello and he's off. I'm left wondering if I should have stood up or curtsied.

Contrary to popular opinion Sir Bernard and his wife Lady Rosanna don't live in Hoghton Tower. Nobody could live in Hoghton Tower. It's too damn cold.

On the freezing March day I visited the wind was howling through the leaded windows of the upper chambers. No wonder the royalty and gentry who stayed there in days gone by needed open fires.

And then there are the ghosts. It's reputed to be the third most haunted house in Britain. Lisa Brice, the campaign manager, says she can feel "a presence".

Only two weeks into the job she had the task of lighting candles in the underground passages.

"My hand was shaking like a leaf. I've been here late at night on my own and you can't let your mind play tricks on you."

Sir Bernard and Lady Rosanna live in apartments, which they fund out of their own pockets, elsewhere on the estate. They've recently stepped down from the charitable trust that manages the house and estate, passing on the responsibility to their daughter Elena, who is chairman.

But as staff will confirm, they're very much involved. "Lady Rosanna is often seen half way up a ladder fixing something or other. She's an amazing woman," says Lisa. True to her Italian roots, she is a lady of exceedingly good taste who takes care of the curation and layout of the house.

The public perception of the de Hoghtons is that, being gentry, they don't have to work because they're sitting on a generous pile. Nothing could be further from the truth. Money raised from the estate is ploughed back to pay for its upkeep and maintenance. Running costs are around £250,000 a year. The roof around the courtyard is currently being repaired at a cost of £180,000. Most would consider it a burden, but such an important legacy can't simply be abandoned.

Sir Bernard, who has three degrees including a Phd, has had a long, successful career in banking – he was also UN Special Ambassador in 1995.

Lady Rosanna, who from Florence, was a practising gynaecologist and endocrinologist until her retirement. Their two children Thomas, heir to Hoghton, is a photographer. Elena, who studied at the London School of Economics, is taking a break from her role as a public sector management consultant, to work as a volunteer for the Hoghton Tower Preservation Trust.

Today I'm here to meet Elena and as I tell her later, she's not what I expected. A designer-dressed Tamara Beckwith with a cut-glass English accent is what I expected.

But this delightful young woman, who speaks Italian as her first language, turns up in jeans, Converse, and a woolly pully. She's clearly the modern face of the aristocracy. She's married to an Italian/American lawyer and they have two children.

She doesn't even call herself de Hoghton. "Why would I?" she says incredulously. "I married Faraoni. It didn't cross my mind to keep it and I'm not into double-barrelled names.

"I had a very normal childhood in London. I didn't go to public school and I lived for a time in Italy. Thanks to my mum I'm bilingual. I had a very balanced upbringing."

Elena takes me on a tour of the house. First stop is the marble-floored Kings Hall which was used as a hotel lobby for the film Last Tango in Halifax.

It was also the scene of a dramatic entrance by James I on his horse in 1617. The story goes that the king was particular about where he slept as several attempts had been made on his life. It was not unknown for very small people to be smuggled into a royal bed-chamber, hidden beneath the bed and emerge in the middle of the night to murder the occupant. James I didn't believe in taking chances so he rode up the staircase along the passageway until he came to the last room on the top floor with only one means of access to be guarded.

The King's Bed Chamber, as it is now known, contains the gown worn by Elena's granny Lady Philomena de Hoghton at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey. She says: "I tried it on once when I was 15, but it was too small even then. They had tiny waists in those days. My grandma didn't even wear a corset.

"She was a force of nature. A local Walton-le-dale girl and somebody who would command loyalty in a way that was incredible. Even though she was quite brusque with people she would get respect. She was a very strong woman."

Downstairs the Banqueting Hall is popular for wedding breakfasts, although a small room above where the ladies were sent after dinner while the men kept drinking, is unlikely to be used for that purpose today.

It was in this room that history was made when during a banquet King James so enjoyed a loin of beef that he knighted it 'Sir Loin'.

Machismo also ruled in the kitchens where all the cooks were men. The menu for the King's visit offered boiled sprod, swan, heron and peacock. Dried hog's cheek and "jiggits of mutton" were rounded off with a "mince pye".

A huge piece of home-made Victoria Sponge served up by Hoghton's Catering and Hospitality Manger Marco Zavagno was far more welcoming than any crusty old "mince pye" for me.

Elena explains that Hoghton has a new general manager in James Dean who completes the small team. Its function, apart from day-to-day running, is to raise capital to develop the site. A visitor centre which will cost up to £4m is being planned. The aim is to raise £7m over the next five years and to create jobs for the locality.

"As a family we want this place to survive for the next generation to enjoy," says Elena.

"It's always been open to the public because the priority has always been to keep this place alive and kicking. When I was younger I would serve in the tea rooms and I always remember being in the gift shop and giving the wrong change to customers. One of our volunteers used to tell me I had to improve my arithmetic.

"I have applied my professional skills to here. It's hard work as we are a very small team and you can't delegate things, but with the manager coming in I want to get back to my own employment because my savings are drying up.

"We have to stay positive. We have to make it work because it has to survive. It would be easy to let the National Trust take it over but that would not be an acceptable outcome.

"Places like this have a role in the county. There are lots of them and they all need looking after. On the one hand you have the historic factories of Lancashire and on the other you have places like this and if we don't protect them we will become like America full of shopping malls and blandness. We have a duty to make sure they survive and give us a sense of where we come from."