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‘I couldn’t get out of inheriting our 1,900-acre country estate – even if I wanted to’

Luke Montagu
Luke Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, says not inheriting Mapperton House 'was never a conversation' - Andrew Crowley

A series of unfortunate events led to Luke Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, the future 12th Earl of Sandwich, inheriting Mapperton House.

Dubbed the “nation’s finest manor house”, Mapperton is where his grandfather Victor “Hinch” Montagu, 10th Earl of Sandwich, downsized to after a tough decade.

He had lost his title, his house and his career.

At the end of July 1964, Hinch Montagu disclaimed the ancient peerage that he had recently inherited from his father.

This promotion had removed him from the House of Commons, where he had spent 21 years as MP for South Dorset, and sent him, rather unhappily, to the Lords.

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Determined to stay in frontline politics a while longer, he shook off his title and stood for election in Accrington three months later.

He lost by 5,500 votes, and never got back into the Commons again.

gardens
The Hinchingbrookes took over running Mapperton in 2016, but Lord Hinchingbrooke's mother, Caroline, still oversees the gardens - Andrew Crowley

He headed home to Dorset, and to Mapperton, following the sale of Hinchingbrooke House in Cambridgeshire, his family’s seat since 1627.

Still, says his grandson Lord Hinchingbrooke, the future 12th Earl of Sandwich, he had a comfortable early retirement at Mapperton, “entertaining friends, mowing the lawn”.

“I don’t know if he would have ever admitted to regretting [disclaiming his title]. Disclaiming is a legal act which he had to do in order to maintain his seat, I’m sure he wouldn’t have otherwise.

“He was quite a grand man, a natural aristocrat – it puzzles me that he was willing to take that risk. He would say things like, ‘there were some very clear advantages to the feudal system’.”

Today, Mapperton has become well known, thanks to the following that Lord Hinchingbrooke, founder of the Metropolitan Film School, and his American wife, Julie, have amassed on their Mapperton YouTube channel, Mapperton Live, and on Julie’s American Viscountess channel, which explores the country’s heritage buildings through her eyes.

“I worked in film for a long time,” says Lord Hinchingbrooke when asked whether he intended to become a social media star. “When I took over Mapperton, it was always my hope that I could combine the two in some way, though I didn’t realise it would be through YouTube.”

The Hinchingbrookes met at a party in 2003 and were married the following year – together they have two children and their blended family includes Julie’s two older children.

They took over running Mapperton in 2016, but it was a soft handover, and Lord Hinchingbrooke’s mother Caroline still oversees the gardens.

“It was the right time for them and I think it was the right time for me,” he says, “though I’m not sure there’s ever a good or bad time. Perhaps for my son I’ll suggest it a bit earlier so we can have more of a run up.”

Lord Hinchingbrooke, the eldest of his parents’ three children, had long known that Mapperton was his destiny.

“At an early age I was conscious that we had already downsized significantly, that there had been sales after the First World War, and after the Second World War we’d had to move from Hinchingbrooke,” he says.

“I knew Mapperton would need propping up, and that’s partly why I became an entrepreneur before taking it on. I didn’t want to go into the City, but it was important to make some money.” He had no choice but to accept his future responsibility, since the estate is entailed.

Lord Hinchingbrooke
The eldest of his parents' three children, Lord Hinchingbrooke had long known that he would end up at Mapperton - Andrew Crowley

Not inheriting “was never a conversation. That doesn’t make it easy for brothers and sisters, but it takes the responsibility out of one’s hands. You have no choice but to inherit – you can’t get out of it even if you want to”.

There is a residual family sadness about the loss of Hinchingbrooke. “We all feel sorry that Hinchingbrooke went because there is a family link with that house that there isn’t with Mapperton,” he says.

“If our responsibility is maintaining our heritage and family stories, and enabling access to the collection, then the place matters. There is a logic to keeping collections in their original houses, and in telling stories from those original houses. We lost some of that by moving to Mapperton.”

The two houses are utterly distinct from one another. While Hinchingbrooke can be seen in detail from the east coast mainline, Mapperton is 45 miles from Exeter and almost 60 to Bristol.

“If you chose a spot in England that is as far away from any large town or city as possible, it’s pretty much Mapperton,” says Lord Hinchingbrooke.

This makes it a difficult estate to make work commercially. “One of our great challenges is attracting enough local people to come and visit,” he says. “We simply don’t have the population density.”

Mapperton House
The Hinchingbrookes have recently introduced overnight stays in Mapperton House for the first time - Andrew Crowley

Hence the digital footprint and the Hinchingbrookes’ myriad commercial ventures: weddings, holiday cottages, a rewilding project, glamping and, just launched, exclusive overnight stays in the house for the first time.

Another of their focuses is on wellbeing, and a nascent social prescribing project will see local primary care networks and surgeries able to refer patients to nature-based programmes at Mapperton. The Hinchingbrookes have called this “social wilding”.

The idea of an old estate being prescribed as a tonic represents a kind of revolution. Once, Mapperton would have had scores of staff reliant upon the estate for food, work and shelter. Now, the estate can support local people in a modern way.

“For these places to be relevant, they need to connect with their communities and they need to be places that communities benefit from,” says Lord Hinchingbrooke. “We all have to think about that in a very different way to the past.”

Nature
Local primary care networks and surgeries are able to refer patients to nature-based programmes at Mapperton Estate - Andrew Crowley

As the travails of the Montagu family show, the 20th century was tough for the country house. Is now a good time to be an estate owner?

“I think reputationally we’re at a high point,” says Lord Hinchingbrooke, “but there are many headwinds, particularly following the pandemic. For many of us, it continues to be an almighty struggle.”

His insurance bill has tripled in the last five years to an almost six-figure sum, while utility costs are “absolutely eye-watering” but non-negotiable, since for conservation the house must be kept at a steady temperature. He is certainly self-aware, caveating this with a line about “small violins”.

In due course, he will become 12th Earl of Sandwich. “It’s a very well-known title, but I have a mixed relationship with it,” he says.

“On one hand it’s a total anachronism that we have this hierarchy in today’s world, but at the same time I appreciate the importance of our shared heritage, and the role that family and stories play when we try to make meaning of our world today. I shall probably take it on, but I will wear it lightly.”