Nestled in a Dorset valley surrounded by 2,000 acres of rolling hills and woodland with only the sound of birdsong disturbing the quiet, Mapperton House is a sanctuary from modern life.
“It’s a wonderfully peaceful, calming place,” says Luke Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke and owner of the sprawling Jacobean estate once described by Country Life as the finest manor house in England. “We’re incredibly lucky.”
Despite the stately pile and grand ancestry, the heir to the Earl of Sandwich describes his family as thoroughly modern and “not typically aristocratic”. For a start, he is married to Julie Montagu, a glamorous 45-year-old American yoga teacher, blogger, nutrition expert and former star of the television reality series Ladies of London, who grew up in rural Illinois.
The couple have four children – Emma, 19, and Jack, 16, from Julie’s previous marriage, and their two sons William, 12, and Nestor, 10 – and divide their time between their terraced home in South London and estate in Dorset.
“We live a very modest, middle class life,” says Montagu, 48. “We have a small house in Wandsworth and do fairly normal but interesting things. This is part of what I do. It’s not all of what I do.”
In the drawing room at Mapperton, heraldic lions and griffins appear in the original Tudor ceiling CREDIT: JAY WILLIAMS
He took over the running of Mapperton from his parents, the 11th Earl and Countess of Sandwich, who live in the Rectory house on the grounds, last year and now juggles several businesses with family life.
Describing himself as an entrepreneur, Montagu has run internet and post-production companies, established the Met Film School at Ealing Studios, and co-founded a charity, the Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry (CEP), after recovering from a dependency on prescription drugs, which won him a £1.35 million settlement after he sued his doctor for negligence. He is currently developing an education programme with the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion.
But Montagu has big plans for Mapperton, his most personal of projects, with an aim to increase its annual visitors from 15,000 to 20,000, run yoga and shooting weekends and convert one of the stable blocks into a wedding venue and events space. He stays on the estate from Tuesday to Friday every week, and the family spend weekends and holidays there.
The great hall and other formal rooms of the house, including the library and dining room, are open to the public for seven months of the year CREDIT: JAY WILLIAMS
The house featured in the 2015 film Far from the Madding Crowd and the 1996 adaptation of Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Spread over three floors and three wings, the building dates back to the 1540s, with features added during the 17th and 18th centuries. Elegant plaster panelling and fireplaces still survive from the 16th century and in the drawing room, heraldic lions and griffins appear in the original Tudor ceiling. Artwork from the Sandwich collection, including gilt-framed portraits, hang on the walls, telling stories of the family famed for inventing the nation’s favourite lunchtime snack as well as, they claim, the choc ice.
«My family is not typically aristocratic. We live a very modest, middle class life.»
The magnificent valley gardens, planted over three periods of history, are its biggest draw. On the top level is a 17th-century croquet lawn and pavilion, where Luke and Julie married in 2004, which leads down through steep banks to an exquisite Italianate arts and crafts garden created by a former owner in the Twenties; it has grottoes, stone ornamental birds, fountains and an orangery. An area of fish ponds dating back to the 18th century leads into an arboretum, created by Montagu’s grandfather, and to the 300 acres of woodland beyond.
The estate itself is a mix of dairy and arable farms, with Grade II listed farm buildings and cottages. The formal, front part of the manor house, including the drawing room, library, great hall and dining room, is open to the public for seven months of the year, during which the family live in the back of the house.
Mapperton House has its own chapel CREDIT: JAY WILLIAMS
“Mapperton isn’t really a museum, it’s got lots of homely touches and pictures of kids,” says Montagu. “And it’s wonderful in the winter as we have the full run of the house and get to use all the rooms at Christmas.”
The family lived in a much larger stately home, Hinchingbrooke House in Cambridgeshire, for more than 400 years until Montagu’s grandfather, Victor Montagu, who disclaimed his title to become a Conservative MP, decided it was too expensive to maintain and moved the family seat to Mapperton in 1956.
Montagu, who grew up in Battersea and went to school at Westminster, was 15 when his parents took over the running of the house. “I used to really resent getting on a train on a Saturday to go all the way to Dorset, and then get back in the car the next day at lunchtime,” he recalls. “But I enjoyed having friends down and we had some great parties.” His 21st, for example, an Asterix-themed ball in 1992 that had a giant marquee, dance floor, rave tent and live set from Jamiroquai, then newly formed, as Montagu was friends with the keyboard player.
The biggest draw for visitors is a tour of the gardens, complete with an orangery CREDIT: JAY WILLIAMS
What his esteemed ancestors would have made of it is anyone’s guess, although there are a fair number of juicy tales about the most famous of Montagu’s relatives, the first and fourth Earls of Sandwich, which are recounted during daily house tours.
Mapperton isn’t really a museum, it’s got lots of homely touches and pictures of kids
The first, Edward Montagu, born in 1625 and cousin of Samuel Pepys, was an ambassador to Spain and Portugal and may well have introduced the choc ice to Britain, after bringing back a recipe (now displayed at the house) for Charles II from one of the chocolate houses in Madrid or Lisbon. He died at sea fighting the Dutch in 1673, supposedly going down valiantly with the ship but more likely to have been too fat to move, says Montagu.
The fourth Earl was a patron of Captain Cook and a young opera singer, Martha Ray, with whom he fell in love. He was left heartbroken when she was murdered by an obsessed fan outside the Royal Opera House. “We have the letter he wrote to his friend straight after she died, saying, ‘For God’s sake come to me, I’m in need of a good friend. My Martha has been murdered.’”
As well as the orangery, the gardens include grottoes, stone ornamental birds and fountains CREDIT: JAY WILLIAMS
How does it feel to have such a colourful family history? “It’s terribly important to continue telling the stories and understanding how the events of the past have led to where we are today,” Montagu says. “If you have a family like ours, you have an obligation to maintain and communicate that history. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s important to open up the house rather than just live in it.”
«Maintaining the house and its history – he estimates it costs well over £100,000 per year in repairs alone – is a privilege as well as a responsibility.»
“When you live somewhere so beautiful, with such wonderful possessions, you think of yourself as a custodian rather than an owner because it’s part of a shared heritage. But I don’t feel any closer to the first or fourth Earls than anyone else, as it was such a long time ago. Their lives were so different from my own.”
Montagu estimates it costs well over £100,000 per year in repairs alone to maintain Mapperton
His eyes are firmly set on the future, developing Mapperton as a thriving business as well as maintaining its heritage. Most recently, a new boiler has been fitted, all the water pipes replaced, parking and access improved and work begun on refurbishment of the attic bedrooms and new bathrooms to be used during shooting weekends and Julie’s new School of Yoga. They have also been awarded a grant of £140,000, which will pay towards the conversion of the South Stables into an events venue, as well as a three-bedroom cottage into luxury bridal accommodation.
Further down the line, he plans to convert some of the other estate buildings into a dedicated retreat centre, with studio space, accommodation and kitchen. Meanwhile, he hopes the house tours and gardens will continue to attract new visitors every year.
“I like starting projects and nurturing them, and getting them to the point where they’re successful,” he says. And while he’s juggling a lot of balls, he enjoys the autonomy his different roles in life bring. “I’m no longer running a company which requires me to be there every day. I like spending time with my kids and I’m able to balance life pretty well.”