Balancing being a yogi, cookery writing and working with the Dalai Lama, Adam Lee-Potter meets the dynamic duo taking up the reins of the family business at Mapperton
Luke and Julie Montagu are, without doubt, the least aristocratic aristocrats I have ever met. And I can pay them no greater compliment.
Despite the fact that Luke’s forebears invented the sandwich and, more importantly, the choc ice, Viscount and Viscountess Hinchingbrooke — the future Earl and Countess of Sandwich — are deliciously down to earth.
The family seat at Mapperton — which featured in Thomas Vintner’s 2015’s film Far from the Madding Crowd and is the finest manor house in England, according to Country Life — may be unspeakably grand, but they are not.
Luke is, despite his self-confessed aversion to public transport, very much a normal bloke.ADVERTISING
I especially cherish the fact that his younger brother irreverently runs a chain of fast-food joints in the US, called — naturally — the Earl of Sandwich.
Luke, 47, clearly shares a healthy disregard for titles.
“The world has moved on,” he says. “We live in a completely different world to the one my grandfather grew up in. He had 40 indoor staff and a proper Downton Abbey set-up. We have one housekeeper and do all our own washing up.”
He adds, I suspect only half-joking: “I’m not embarrassed by my title, I am completely comfortable with it, but the only reason for me to use it would be if I, too, invented some new, important piece of food.
“It’s just not my thing. My family has always been quite left-wing. My grandmother was famously the first woman to wear trousers at Cowes. There’s an anti-establishment streak there.
“As a boy, I didn’t hang out in plus fours and a cravat. And I didn’t go to Eton. I went to Winchester, surrounded by north London intelligentsia. That’s much more my speed.”
American Julie, who grew up in Illinois, is no archetypal viscountess, either.
“Everyone’s created equal,” she says. “I don’t like any of that posh stuff. I hate it when people find out I have a title and start treating me differently. I don’t use my title, ever. I’ve seen how some aristocrats act and that just wouldn’t be authentic for me. I hug everybody – I think people think I’m a bit bizarre. But what you see is what you get: yoga leggings, Nikes and a Uniqlo top.”
The uniform is undeniably apt. A reality TV (Bravo’s Ladies of London) star, yogi and cookery writer (Superfoods: The Flexible Approach to Eating More Superfoods & Superfoods Superfast), Julie runs the hugely successful blog, The Flexi Foodie.
Her disgustingly healthy kale, fig and walnut risotto has fast become my 10-year-old daughter’s favourite supper, while her breakfast of avocado and lime yoghurt toast with chilli impressed even my LA-based brother-in-law. No mean feats.
The couple, who have four children, aged from 10 to 18 — two together and two from 44-year-old Julie’s previous marriage — split the week between London and Dorset.
Luke — who last year took over the running of the 2,000-acre estate from his father, the current Lord Sandwich, who now lives in the old Rectory next door — stays at Mapperton from Tuesday to Friday, every other week. Julie, however, only manages one day per fortnight.
“Julie’s job — the yoga, the TV, the books — is still very much London-based so it’s not yet home but the plan is to make that happen over the next few years,” explains Luke, who is busily regenerating Mapperton’s house and gardens.
“We’re trying to build the business,” he says, “by attracting more visitors and more weddings. At the moment we host 12 a year but we are hoping to build that up to 40.”
Money is key to the survival of the 16th Century estate, which costs £200,000 a year to run.
“As with any country estate, there is a huge backlog of repairs. You could spend an almost infinite amount to keep all the buildings going. There is an absolute imperative to generate more income.”
The cafe — which has just been taken over with aplomb by the owners of Beaminster’s award-winning Brassica — is being extended and upgraded. Their menu is continuously evolving.
For now, the speciality and typically unpretentious sausage roll with pickled slaw and salad is a £7 slice of rare beauty.
But there will, of course, be a sandwich – or, perhaps more accurately, the sandwich. As Luke says: “I think it will have to be some very rare roast beef with some fine English mustard.”
Food is inextricably linked to the Montagus.
“The fourth earl invented the sandwich 250 years ago. He was either playing cards late into the night and didn’t want to sully his hands or he was signing admiralty papers and didn’t want to smudge the ink, hence his inspired idea of bread.
“But we’ve just found out that the first earl invented something far more valuable. As Spanish ambassador in the 17th Century, he used to bring back chocolate recipes for Charles II, who was an absolute chocolate fiend. One was an experimental novelty — cacao mixed with snow and shaken up. And so the choc-ice was born.”
Super-healthy Julie — who, presumably, is a stranger to both sandwiches and choc-ices — plans to oversee residential yoga retreats, now made more possible thanks to the installation of a new water system.
“You can now finally drink the water at Mapperton for the first time,” says Luke. Who knew aristocracy had it so tough?
The couple met 14 years ago at a party and married a year later. Even their first date was low key.
Luke had just set up his former business — a London film school — and Julie was working for a digital agency.
“We discovered we were both living round the corner, with a cinema halfway in between,” says Luke.
He adds, bravely: “I don’t think either of us were particularly interested in the other but we thought we might as well go to the movies.”
The choice of first-date film — Secretary — was equally brave: a mildly saucy BDSM romantic drama.
But it was clearly a success, even though Luke kept his title a secret before accidentally letting it slip three months later. “We went to the Isle of Wight for the weekend,” says Julie, “and I saw Luke pay for the ferry tickets with a card that said ‘Viscount Hinchingbrooke’. I was like: ‘Hang on a minute, that’s not yours, you’re Luke Montagu’.”
Outed, Luke took Julie to Mapperton for the first time. And it was an experience that she — a gym-fit vegetarian who alarmingly keeps breaking off to do handstands against the wall — is never likely to forget.
“Some wild boar escaped from a local farm,” recalls Luke. “So I took Julie out with a rifle and managed to shoot three of them. That was her first glimpse of life here: this Asterix-like scene of traipsing through the woods with me, pulling these enormous carcasses back to the house.”
Such carnage can’t have put Julie off, however. Luke — brave man that he is — even bought her a gun, a 20-bore shotgun. This went down less well.
“I thought it was some enormous piece of jewellery,” says Julie. “I was deeply disappointed.”
Luke harrumphs, good-naturedly. They are sparky but sweet together, forever talking benignly over one another. Luke, in particular, is delightfully blunt.
In passing, I ask whether they have any Scandinavian blood: I have never come across such a blond family.
Luke turns to his wife and says: “Well, you weren’t always blonde, you were mousey-dark when I first met you.” I did say he was a brave man.
Happily, Julie doesn’t seem to mind, countering touchingly: “Everybody loves Luke, because he’s so gentle and kind. He lifts people up. And he’s just so normal.”
“I do get a bit grumpy sometimes, though” he says, ever the stiff upper lip.
To be fair, Luke has more reason than most to be occasionally grumpy: he is in constant agony.
After battling long-term benzodiazepine dependence — prescribed the tranquiliser to help him sleep following a teenage sinus operation — he has been left with severe, debilitating nerve pain and tinnitus.
For 19 years he took — on doctor’s orders — a combination of drugs, including the powerful benzodiazepine, clonazepam, until he eventually came off them in a private clinic nine years ago.
“Withdrawal from benzos is the most horrific thing I’ve been through in my life,” he says.
“For the first few years after I came off the drugs, I couldn’t function at all and was stuck at home, unable to work. I suffered from memory loss, pins and needles, extreme agitation and insomnia.”
Luke has since received a £1.35 million out-of-court settlement from his former doctor.
“The pain is pretty dreadful,” he says, grimacing. “But you live with it and I’ve learned to avoid what makes it worse: sugar, caffeine, alcohol, anything stimulatory. I’ve not had so much as a glass of wine for seven years.
“Mindfulness is helpful — it allows you to befriend your pain. You sort of say ‘you’re there, and since you’re going to be there, I might as well shake your hand and get on with it’. That helps you turn the volume down a bit.
“Suffering equals pain plus resistance. The pain is there but the suffering is optional. If I think about the pain in my hand, the pain gets worse. If I think about other things, it goes away. I don’t let it get in the way — I’ve just been skiing, I can play tennis.
“Sure, I don’t have the full social life I used to have and I don’t particularly feel like going out in the evenings.”
He adds, laughing: “Or maybe that’s just middle age?”
Julie joins in: “We don’t get invited anywhere. People tell Luke, ‘Your wife is a vegetarian and you don’t drink’, but we’re fine with that. As a result, we’re up at 6.30am every morning.”
Luke, who had to quit his job as CEO of the Met Film School, the largest in the UK, because of his condition, has thrown himself into a slew of charitable campaigns, prompted largely by his own experience.
As well as working with the Dalai Lama to promote compassion in western society, he helps runs the all-party parliamentary group for prescribed drug dependence.
“There are helplines for people coming off illicit drugs and alcohol but nothing for those trying to come off sleeping pills or antidepressants. How can that be right?”
This is very much a new chapter for the Montagus. While Luke increasingly takes over the reins at Mapperton and plans its future, Julie is busy writing her fourth book — “Recharge, a 12-month guide to health, food, yoga, meditation and love.”
But the TV career that she pursued when Luke had to stop working, is now — to their evident relief — on hold. Ladies of London has just been cancelled after three series.
“We had to hold our noses making those programmes,” admits Luke, frankly, “but it was helpful for school fees. It was pretty grim, housewives’ drama. Julie had a lot of much better to things to do, but for most of the others, it was their lives.”
Julie adds: “I am relieved it’s over, to be honest. It was exhausting, trying to fit filming in alongside books, yoga, four kids and Mapperton.
“And it’s not fun to be on camera, with all that squabbling and fighting, watching people say things behind your back. Now we can get on with our lives.”
The old family motto — post tot naufragia portum — perhaps sums it up best: “After so many shipwrecks, a haven.”
And there is surely no finer haven than Mapperton.
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