US-born viscountess Julie Montagu tells how she has fallen in love with her own estate
The first Julie Montagu knew of her future husband Luke’s distinguished family history was when he took out his credit card and she noticed his title.
She proceeded to pronounce ‘Viscount’ like ‘discount’.
They had first met at a drinks party in 2002, and within a few years Julie, a blonde American yoga teacher, nutrition expert and author, and Luke, the heir to the Earl of Sandwich, were married – she proudly wearing the Montagu tiara – in the pretty croquet pavilion at Mapperton House, the family’s magnificent Jacobean pile in Dorset.
Yet so engaged was Julie, the new Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, in growing her burgeoning wellbeing business that she felt like a chatelaine in name only.
Julie Montagu, 47, Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, pictured, who grew up in Sugar Grove, Illinois, is set to start a new show An American Aristocrat’s Guide To Great Estates
She knew her husband would one day take over the estate from his father, the 11th Earl who’s now 76, but she pushed what she then perceived might be a burden to the back of her mind.
‘I wasn’t focused on Mapperton back then,’ she says. ‘I was building my own career and taking care of my family.
My view was, ‘When it happens it happens, but right now I can’t think about it.’ Even when Luke did take over from his father in 2016, to begin with I wasn’t very involved.’
Fast forward four years and Julie, 47, who grew up in Sugar Grove, Illinois, in the Midwestern USA may now know more about British stately homes than many of the owners themselves, thanks to her new TV series An American Aristocrat’s Guide To Great Estates.
‘I now have a deep interest in these historic houses – so it’s become much more than just a presenting job,’ she says.
‘Had it not been for the show I think my appreciation of Mapperton would have taken much longer because originally the passion just wasn’t there.
Julie with her husband Luke, Earl of Sandwich, and children William, Emma, Nestor and Jack at Mapperton House, the family’s magnificent Jacobean pile in Dorset
‘Prior to the TV series Luke and I didn’t discuss Mapperton very often. It was his to run while I was teaching yoga and doing other projects.
‘But the show has been a wonderful learning curve. I’ve learned so much about these estates and how their owners all work incredibly hard to keep them going.’
THE FIRST SANDWICH – AND FIRST CHOC ICE!
Built in the 1540s with additions in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Montagus’ country pile Mapperton House has been dubbed by Country Life magazine the finest manor house in England.
Set in 2,000 acres and spread over three floors and three wings, the house boasts 16th-century plaster ceilings and 18th-century panelling, as well as the Sandwich collection of pictures and furniture that reflect the family’s contribution to Britain’s naval history.
Most famously of course, the fourth earl is said to have invented the sandwich some 250 years ago when he decided to wrap his food in bread to avoid dirtying his hands as he ate. But it is also said that in the 17th century the first earl invented the choc ice when he chilled down liquid chocolate from Spain with snow and salt.
To bolster their finances, the Montagus let the house out as a film location and it was seen in both the 2015 film Far From The Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan and the 1996 adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Last summer it opened its doors to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, starring Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas, which will be released later this year.
Thanks to her membership of the stately home ‘club’, Julie has been given privileged access to the aristocratic inhabitants, priceless treasures and best-kept secrets of some of Britain’s most impressive piles, from Gloucestershire’s Sudeley Castle to Boughton House in Northamptonshire, known as the English Versailles, and Floors Castle, the largest inhabited castle in Scotland.
Across the eight hour-long episodes she learns how to polish silver, set a grand dinner party table to the exact millimetre and visits Royal Manufacturers De Wit, one of the few places where you can still see tapestries restored.
‘I was actually quite naive because I thought they would all be similar, that everybody was going to be doing weddings,’ she says.
‘Not at all. What really surprised and impressed me was the different ways in which each estate plays to its strengths, and most importantly reflects the interests of its owners.’
To which end she rolls up her sleeves and learns how to drive a steam engine, fly a falcon and even toss a caber as she discovers how the owners have integrated their own passions into traditional country house activities.
‘The owners of these houses are not only thinking outside the box, they’re also including their own interests as a means of supporting their estates,’ she says.
‘For example, James Hervey-Bathurst of Herefordshire’s Eastnor Castle loves steam engines and one of his most successful events is a steam fair.
‘Claire and James Birch are passionate cyclists, and they’ve built an enormous cycling shop at their home Doddington Hall, near Lincoln, as well as new cycle paths around the estate.
Built in the 1540s with additions in the 17th and 18th centuries, Mapperton House, pictured, has been dubbed by Country Life magazine the finest manor house in England
‘Then there’s Rick and Lucinda Compton at Newby Hall in Ripon, Yorkshire, who are avid sculpture collectors, so every year they hold a sculpture exhibition as part of a walk around the estate.’
Not only has Julie looked in detail at the lifestyles of the current owners, staff and craftspeople responsible for maintaining every exquisite detail for future generations, she’s also gained inspiration for Mapperton.
We open the house to the public from March to October to help pay for repairs and running costs. We also host weddings, events and, more recently, yoga retreats
This has led to Luke and her working closely together on new ideas for the estate. ‘We’ve had some really good meetings about possible future projects,’ she says.
‘I’m looking forward to becoming much more involved – and I think the staff are as well.’
The main rooms, including the drawing room, library, great hall and dining room, are open to the public for seven months of the year while the family live in the south wing, but the costs of maintaining the estate are substantial.
‘We open the house to the public from March to October to help pay for repairs and running costs.
‘We also host weddings, events and, more recently, yoga retreats,’ says Julie, who held her first retreat there last year. ‘
Julie practises yoga inside Boughton House, one of the stately homes she visits in the series
‘But there’s a never-ending list of jobs that need to be done – leaking roofs and windows are usually the priority.
‘There are paintings that need cleaning and furniture that needs restoring. In the series I learned how to clean a picture, and helped replace the gilt on a Chippendale chair – but I think I’ll leave these things to the experts.’
Getting more involved at Mapperton has also represented a new freedom for Julie, who for years was unable to spend much time there as she was holding the family together at their south London home (she has four children – Emma, 21, and Jack, 18, from her first marriage, and William, 15, and Nestor, 13, with Luke).
If you’re holding a lot of stress and anxiety, it’s very easy to take it out on the people you love most. I didn’t want to do that, so I would leave the house to cry. The children were young then and I didn’t want to cry in front of them
She supported Luke, now 50, through his recovery from prescription drug dependency following the misprescribing of anti-depressants and sleeping pills after a bad reaction to a sinus operation.
Her husband was unable to work for three years after his medication was wrongly stopped abruptly in 2009, and she became the primary breadwinner until he received a substantial settlement for medical negligence in 2014.
With little income or support, Julie effectively became a single mum and a carer, and was forced to be resourceful.
‘What happened to my husband was awful. But when you’re going through really difficult times you have to look after yourself in order to be able to look after others.
‘I was able to do this thanks to yoga, it’s transformed my life in so many positive ways. In 2009 Luke wasn’t working and I knew I had to do something to make money, but at the same time I needed to be at home with my children.
‘So I decided to learn to teach as well as practise yoga.’
John Montagu, the fourth Early of Sandwich, pictured, was said to have invented the sandwich
There were many times when she used her red Mini, parked outside the house, as a refuge to hide and cry, rather than break down in front of her children.
‘If you’re holding a lot of stress and anxiety, it’s very easy to take it out on the people you love most,’ she says.
‘I didn’t want to do that, so I would leave the house to cry. The children were young then and I didn’t want to cry in front of them.’
Yoga introduced Julie to a new world of health and wellbeing. With Luke’s help, she developed an online nutrition course and later started a blog, The Flexi Foodie, which has since developed an international following and been turned into a best-selling cookbook.
Despite now being immersed in all the country house opulence, Julie couldn’t be more frugal herself. Today she’s dressed stylishly as the lady of the manor, but it’s top-to-toe from charity shops.
However, her social media profile really took off when she appeared in three series of the reality show Ladies Of London, which followed the lives of affluent socialites including the former model Caprice Bourret, businesswoman Sophie Stanbury, fashion entrepreneur Noelle Reno and the late model Annabelle Neilson.
‘I decided to do Ladies Of London because at the time we needed the additional income.
‘It helped us through a difficult phase. But I wasn’t at all disappointed when the series didn’t get recommissioned,’ she says.
‘I did learn a lot from it though, in particular how to perform in front of the camera which is much harder than I imagined.’
Meanwhile Luke, who had studied film at Columbia University in New York and subsequently founded the Met Film School in London, continued to recover with the help of mindfulness and meditation.
He wanted to help others avoid what had happened to him, and founded the Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry, a campaign group that highlights the harm that can be caused by psychiatric drugs.
More recently he has worked with Sir Oliver Letwin on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence, which led to a major government review of the issue.
He is also a trustee of the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion (Joanna Lumley and the Dalai Lama are patrons) which promotes compassion and kindness in schools.
However, as heir to the Earl of Sandwich Luke’s main focus, with Julie’s help, is the survival of Mapperton House.
Yet despite now being immersed in all the country house opulence, Julie couldn’t be more frugal herself. Today she’s dressed stylishly as the lady of the manor, but it’s top-to-toe from charity shops.
‘I got this for £35 at the British Red Cross,’ she says of her elegant tweed Swaine Adeney Brigg jacket.
‘I got my velvet scarf from Cancer Research UK in Chelsea, and my boots are Italian but I found them at the Red Cross too.
‘Like all owners of stately homes it’s important to save money where we can – we’ve got too many leaks to fix!’
An American Aristocrat’s Guide To Great Estates starts on Tuesday at 8pm on Smithsonian Channel. For more information on the Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry, visit cepuk.org.