he first Julie Montagu knew of her future husband’s illustrious family was when they boarded a ferry to the Isle of Wight three months after they had first began dating. “Luke took out a bank card to pay for something,” she says, “and I noticed that the name on it read Viscount Hinchingbrooke. I said, ‘Why does your card say vis-count on it?’
“He tried to tell me it was pronounced vycount but I wasn’t having it. ‘It wouldn’t be spelt like vy-count then, would it?’ I told him,” she recalls, laughing at the memory. “I’d only been in the UK a little while and I didn’t know much about the aristocracy.
“When Luke explained his father was the Earl of Sandwich – well, I’d heard of the name, though I thought it was a myth, to be honest.”
Fast forward 14 years and Julie, 45, may be far more knowledgeable about the British upper classes, but she is clearly the same down-to-earth Midwestern girl who grew up in the sweetly named Sugar Grove, Illinois.
–– ADVERTISEMENT ––When Luke explained his father was the Earl of Sandwich – well, I’d heard of the name, but I thought it was a myth
Thank goodness. Because far from marrying into some kind of Downton Abbey fantasy life, Julie has spent her most of her married life keeping her family afloat – physically, emotionally and even at times financially, to an extent.
She has raised four children (Emma, 19, Jack, 16, William, 12, and Nestor, 10) and built a yoga and healthy eating empire which will see her teach the downward dog to thousands as a headline act at the first Wanderlust yoga festival in the UK this weekend in London’s Victoria Park. There has been a popular blog, four books (the latest is published in January) and she gamely took on reality TV to star in three seasons of Ladies of London.
And during this time, Julie has supported 48-year-old Luke through recovery from prescription medication dependency and now champions his subsequent campaign to get other sufferers the proper healthcare they need.
Today, when we meet in the family’s slightly scruffy, south London end-of-terrace home – yes, there is Mapperton, a manor in Dorset, too, but more of that later – Julie, all cheekbones and athleisurewear, is positively bouncing with happiness, green eyes wide with excitement. Luke has called to say that after several years of persistent lobbying through the charity he set up, there have been “constructive” meetings which he hopes will lead to services for people struggling with prescription drugs. She is gleaming with pride.
“We don’t go out to dinner very often,” she says. “For so long, Luke was too ill to go out. But last night we felt we had to celebrate.”
She adds: “I remind the children that you get to choose the legacy you leave – and it’s better that should be about helping others rather than accumulating things.”
Julie’s own childhood was also far from privileged, growing up as one of five children in small town mid-America. “Coca-Cola was a treat. We’d share one bottle between us.” At 16, she started working and went on to support herself through Indiana University where she studied computer science. “My parents passed on their work ethic to me – it was the greatest gift.”When I was introduced to Luke at a party, it was as a single mom. Naturally, I assumed he wouldn’t be interested
She met Luke, who was then in the process of establishing a film school, after moving to London to work for a dotcom company. A first marriage had ended and with two toddlers, she didn’t consider herself a catch.
“When I was introduced to Luke at a party, it was as a single mom. Naturally, I assumed he wouldn’t be interested.”
She was quite wrong. Within a few months, Julie had not only had to get to grips with his title, but also spent a weekend at Mapperton shooting escaped boar in the dark. “It was like something out of a movie. He’d warned me that it was ‘kind of a big house’” – Mapperton was recently voted the Nation’s Finest Manor House – “so I was like, ‘What, this place?’”
A year later, Luke and Julie married in the pretty croquet pavilion at Mapperton, and Julie began life as a modern apprentice chatelaine, learning about the old house and its upkeep, while two more children joined the family.
But lurking in the background of all this new-found joy was a medical time-bomb. Luke had been misprescribed antidepressants, and then strong sleeping tablets, following a bad reaction to a routine sinus operation at 19.
In 2008, Luke decided to wean himself off them. However, a psychiatrist advised him to go to an addictions clinic in January 2009 where the tablets were stopped overnight – a court case much later decided this was negligence and awarded more than £1.3m in compensation – and Luke’s health spiralled downwards at once. He suffered dreadful side-effects – agoraphobia, tinnitus, nerve pain, agitation, insomnia, memory loss and brain fog.
“The doctors kept saying wait three months, six months, he’ll get better. But we were in despair. For about three years, Luke couldn’t function and I had to tell the kids Daddy had bad flu all the time. He was so hyper sensitive, the sound of birdsong hurt his ears.”
With no income coming in, no nannies or practical help, Julie kept the family running. “I became a single mum and a carer,” she says. Her mother-in-law was a stalwart support; the pair spoke three times a day in their shared worries for Luke. “But there were constant moments of despair when the only place I could go for a private cry was in my little red Mini outside the house.”
At the school gate, Julie found herself shunned as parents started rumours about her husband’s drug dependency. “Parents would look at me and turn their backs. I was the mom who watched all the sports matches at the end of the pitch on my own,” she says.
Yet, the need to take charge of their damaged lives seems to have been the making of Julie.
At her lowest, she had found yoga as a way to nurture herself. To earn money Julie started classes in church halls and quickly grew a following. She began studying nutrition and started a blog, the Flexi Foodie, for which Luke took photographs. She wrote a cook book that sold well. And as Luke’s health finally picked up about three years ago, an offer came in to join , a reality show following a tribe of glamorous tempestuous Londoners.Despite everything that has happened to me, I am relatable. I am authentic. I’m not just about getting up into a handstand
“We thought long and hard before accepting as it offered financial support for a while. But it was not fun to do. I was expected to behave in a way I wasn’t, like an It girl or socialite, when I’m not. They edit you…” She has an air of resigned mortification. “You have to go along with things or you get fired. But you know it was a job. I was acting.”
Later, she admits, when she heard that the third series was to be the last: “I bought a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.”
At home, the roles were being reversed. Luke could pick up the parenting slack, cooking suppers and going to matches, as well as getting back into his own work. “He was like Mister Mom,” says Julie.
The financial stability TV brought also meant the couple could concentrate on Mapperton more which Luke took over from his parents in 2015. The estate costs “hundreds of thousands to run” but recently, they have been able to carry out extensive works to improve parking and access, and the Grade I-listed South Stables have been made into a fabulous new wedding venue which is about to open for bookings. The newly re-plumbed house with its refurbished bedrooms will be the base for yoga retreats and training courses for the School of Yoga Julie has just opened.
There is no doubt Julie is grateful for the way her life has evolved. Nothing is taken for granted. “Why do people like my sort of yoga,” she says, analysing herself. “I think it is because – despite everything that has happened to me, I am relatable. I am authentic.
“And during my classes, it’s not just about getting up into a handstand either. I tell stories of real life, stories of never giving up, of how even when you begin in a dark place, you can always see some light and you will get to it in the end.
“There have been so many silver linings to what’s happened to us,” says Julie. “You can’t always see them when you look. Sometimes they have to find you.”
Julie Montagu headlines Wanderlust 108 festival – the world’s only mindful triathlon – at London’s Victoria Park on Saturday 23rd September (wanderlust.com). For information about weddings at Mapperton, see mapperton.com