As the world adjusts to a new stay-at-home lifestyle brought on by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many people’s homes have also become their workplace.
But for Ladies of London star Julie Montagu, Viscountess Hinchingbrooke — who manages the historic Mapperton Estate with her husband, Luke Timothy Charles Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke and son of the 11th Earl of Sandwich — her home is her business.
“We open up our home to the public in order to keep that history alive,” the future Countess of Sandwich tells PEOPLE of managing the grounds of her family’s 500-year-old home in Dorset, England. “The visitor income helps to maintain English heritage.”
Montagu says while they’ve lost their main source of income with estate visits indefinitely shut down and weddings and events canceled, the greater threat is that most of the country’s historic homes won’t be in a financial position to reopen until next year — putting them at risk of being sold off or knocked down for the first time since World War II.
“If you look back to after the Second World War — more than 1,000 historic homes in the U.K. were demolished because the homeowners could no longer afford the upkeep. By 1955, one historic home was destroyed every five days in Britain,” she says. Eventually, the owners of historic homes, which unlike royal palaces, don’t receive taxpayer money, “realized that the only way that they could stay afloat was to open to the public.”
Smithsonian Channel Julie Montagu, her husband Luke and their children in front of the Mapperton Estate
Mapperton Mapperton Estate
When Mapperton shuttered for the time being, it also impacted its staff, says Montagu. “We furloughed everybody and we are doing 12 people’s jobs right now.”
Britain’s shutdown amid the pandemic has forced the former reality star to get creative with the estate doors closed. Joining her in-laws, the Earl and Countess of Sandwich, Montagu has begun giving tours of the house on YouTube.
“We’re doing live virtual tours every Tuesday. I go live with my in-laws for 30 minutes,” she explains, adding that while the tour experience is free, donations towards the upkeep of the house and gardens are encouraged.
“The donations go towards the preservation of English heritage here. We have people from all over the world now coming in, every Tuesday at 4:00 U.K. time, 11:00 AM Eastern Standard Time,” she says.
Montagu details the different kinds of tours they give, sharing a bit of the exterior tour as an example: “The home dates back to the Tudor era. Parts of it were built in 1540. We’re going to be looking at the exteriors and when it was built, the different sections. Then we’ll be looking at the 20th-century garden, which was put in in 1920. It’s 15 acres of Italianate gardens.”
In addition to giving tours of her family’s own estate, the American — who wed her husband in 2002 after moving across the pond for work — hopes to further educate people on the history of some of England’s oldest homes with her new series, An American Aristocrat’s Guide to Great Estates.
In the new eight-part Smithsonian Channel show, Montagu will be giving an all-access look into some of Britain’s most magnificent homes, revealing their incredible histories and touring their illustrious grounds, as well as chatting with the families and residents of each estate.
“I’m really passionate about it because this is our home and our business. By watching the show, you are going to see something you have never seen before and you may not be able to visit anytime soon due to this pandemic,” she explains.
SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL Montagu with her husband and two sons in their kitchen
Despite her own business’s uncertain future, Montagu and her family have also found a way to give back in these difficult times.
“We’re making meals here for 50 households in the community who are vulnerable,” she says. “We make the meals and my kids deliver them.”
With both the online tours and the new series, Montagu and her family are hoping that their home, along with other English estates, will be able to survive the COVID-19 outbreak and that the current closures won’t be too impactful.
“Mapperton is what’s called a Grade 1 listed home, which means it is of extraordinary historical value … I don’t mean money-wise, I mean historical importance and preservation,” the mom of four explains.
“My overall worry is the pandemic having a massive effect on this country’s history. I’m just the American novice in something that I’ve never seen before,” Montagu says of managing the estate amid the circumstances. “Of course, none of us have. Will these homes survive? I don’t know.”
An American Aristocrat’s Guide to Great Estates premieres on May 17 at 8 p.m on the Smithsonian Channel.