The story of one of Yorkshire's great houses is being told by someone who knows all the historical ins and out, reports CHARLES HUTCHINSON.

ON June 17 1751, Richard Sykes "laid the first stone of the new house at Sledmere, in a God-forsaken spot high up on the Yorkshire Wolds, where wolves had roamed freely less than 50 years before".

On August 16 2004, HarperCollins published The Big House, Christopher Simon Sykes's scrupulously researched account of The Story Of A Country House And Its Family: his childhood home, his family.

"It was always a book I had wanted to write," says Christopher, settling into chair in a room overlooking the grounds of Sledmere on a peaceful and sunny East Riding morning.

"I'd always been interested in writing a book about the family, and years ago I remember Ed Victor Christopher's literary agent saying 'You should write a book with the house as the main character', and that always seemed a good idea.

"I thought it was something I would write when I retire, but I'm not in a profession where you retire - I'm a photographer - and two or three years ago I noticed that historical books were back in fashion, so my agent said 'Do a proposal and I'll sell it for you'."

It was not a proposal that required much selling: the biography of one of Yorkshire's great country houses and of the Sykes family, who have lived there for 250 years, is a rich tapestry of social history, colourful and pugnacious characters and changing times in England.

In the Big House, you will encounter, for example, 'Old Tat' Sykes, the author's great, great, great grandfather, who wore 18th century dress to his dying day, aged 91, in 1861.

No less eccentric in his dress code, his obsessively hypochondriac son would wear eight coats, tailored to fit on top of each other, to be discarded throughout the day to keep his body temperature constant. On a walk, the hotter he became, the more coats he would remove, with school children following him at a discreet distance to pick up each coat and return it to the butler in exchange for a small remuneration.

Christopher set to the task of researching the book with the aid of family papers given by his father to the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University in the 1970s and material from the East Riding Archives in Beverley.

"The very first thing I did, having got the commission, was to go round the house with a fine tooth comb. I opened literally every drawer, every desk, every cupboard, and the thing is, in a house like this, when something is put in a drawer you can be pretty sure it will still be there 15 years later - though that's not true now as I have put them in two filing cabinets, filed under themes," he says.

He found letters, loose and all over the place, dating back to the 18th century. "Family letters give you such a wonderful insight into social life because people tell wonderful stories in them," he says. "It's very sad when they get destroyed."

Thankfully, the Sledmere house fire shortly after the First World War did not destroy too much of the family archive.

"It's very difficult to know what was lost but basically 90 per cent of the house contents were saved. Although the building was destroyed, it was a slow-burning fire, and so the entire village, including boys from the school, formed a human chain to save items."

Christopher, the third of six children, had loved hearing family stories as a boy.

"When I was a child, my father's old governess, Mouzelle, lived in the back part of the house, in this marvellous room called The Oak Room. She would have been in her 80s, and with all the dogs congregated around, she loved telling us all the family legends," he recalls.

"So we were brought up on a cocktail of stories, and that's how my interest grew in learning which ones were true or how true they were. I later found that almost all of them were true and have found lots more evidence to substantiate them."

Such as? "There are many stories of Old Tat Sykes, who was a great sportsman and horseman, and several of those stories had him getting involved in fights and always finishing on top. I found his pocket book, and it records that when he was articled to a firm of solicitors at the age of 18 or 19, he used to take boxing lessons with Gentleman John Jackson, a boxing world champion at the time.

"There's a lovely story of his encouraging his father to come to London to see a boxing bill, and his father being horrified to find that his son was one of the contestants."

Christopher picks out one characteristic that runs through the Sykes' generations.

"There's a macabre humour that we all have. My aunt Angela and uncle Christopher do these wonderful caricatures of events in history and they're unbelievably bloodthirsty, and my father and brothers and sisters used to turn the cellars into a pastiche of the French Revolution in tableau form. That's carried on with us all enjoying macabre story telling," he says.

Now he has turned that love of stories to relating the Big House's life story.

Fact file:

Name: Christopher Simon Sykes

Occupation: Journalist, photographer and writer

Lives: North London. Married with two children

Family home: Sledmere, Yorkshire Wolds

Age: 56

Education: Eton College; Ravensbourne College of Art, Bromley

Television series: Upper Crust, on country-house cooking, for BBC2

Books: Written six and photographed 14, including The National Trust Country House Album, The Rolling Stones On Tour and The Garden At Buckingham Palace.

Updated: 09:12 Wednesday, August 18, 2004