The Sunday Telegraph

‘Stress of running Beaulieu broke me’

As Britain’s stately homes face the threat of closure, Lady Montagu tells Wendy Leigh about the emotional toll of keeping Beaulieu open

- The Countrysid­e Education Trust is holding a Christmas Farmyard event at Beaulieu on Dec 12: cet.org.uk

‘Ialways used to say that I live in the most visited private home in the world,” says Lady Fiona Montagu ruefully, looking back at her 41 years as chatelaine of Beaulieu. “Being open to the public is 24/7, doing publicity any hour of the day or night, so as not to let your home collapse. It’s a strange life when your home is not your own.”

“Strange” seems something of an understate­ment; “stressful” much nearer the mark.

With the death of her husband, Edward, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu in August, Lady Montagu, now 71, will be leaving the 9,000-acre estate for good in February, when her stepson, Ralph, takes over. But while she’s sad, she’s not sorry.

“Living at Beaulieu has been like being on a rollercoas­ter, constantly,” she explains, serving tea in the drawing room of Palace House. Swathed in a vintage, green trouser suit, she glows, despite her grief, with evident relief at the prospect of finally stepping off the stately ride that has plunged her into three nervous breakdowns over the decades.

Little wonder, given dire warnings last week from the Historic Houses Associatio­n, that astronomic­al (and escalating) repair costs could see up to 70 of Britain’s much-loved stately homes closed to the public in the next five years. All the more poignantly prescient in light of the news, the next day, that the High Sheriff of Cornwall, Anthony Fortescue had been found shot dead on the historic Boconnoc Estate; currently £387,000 in debt.

“I am not surprised,” says Lady Montagu. “I am afraid there will be more such cases if the tax burden on historic homes open to the public is not lifted. “We are so lucky that my late husband had the energy and the vision to create a motor museum as a commercial draw for this estate. He often said he would rather die than sell Beaulieu.”

Speaking four years ago, Mr Fortescue described the decades he and his wife spent lovingly restoring the estate from ruins as “a privilege”, echoing Lord Montagu’s own sentiment that, “we belong to our possession­s, rather than our possession­s belong to us. To us, they are not wealth, but heirlooms, over which we have a sacred trust.”

Faced with his own exorbitant bills for the upkeep of the family seat – built around the gatehouse of a 13thcentur­y Cistercian monastery and sold into the family by Henry VIII in 1538 – Lord Montagu honoured that trust with a pioneering decision to open his home to the public in 1952.

But it was his entreprene­urial imaginatio­n in establishi­ng the National Motor Museum in its grounds, 20 years later, that helped Beaulieu outstrip more naturally endowed rival stately homes such as Longleat, Woburn and Chatsworth – turning it into a magnet for a vast assortment of luminaries from Diana Dors to Michael Jackson and Liberace (the last two of whom made the pilgrimage there together).

Though the Downton effect has since seen Highclere House tip Beaulieu from its perch, the museum, housing one of the world’s greatest car collection­s, remains one of the most popular and lucrative tourist attraction­s in Britain, with a little under 400,000 visitors a year.

But if Beaulieu has managed to buck the trend identified by the HHA – the organisati­on Lord Montagu helped found himself in 1973, before becoming its first chairman – it came with its own costs.

“Lord M (as he was known to his family and friends) was mad about publicity,” his wife says admiringly, “which, of course, is what made Beaulieu the success that it is. That and the vision to understand that people love cars.”

The effort of ensuring the estate’s stratosphe­ric success took a significan­t toll: “I’m strong mentally, though not physically, and in 1990 I had a complete collapse because I was burning the candle at both ends,” she says. “It was awful for Edward. I don’t think he ever understood. But he sent me to a naturopath­ic clinic in Canada, where I recovered – although the pressures of running Beaulieu ended up in me having two more breakdowns, the last in 2006.”

When they married in 1974, the Montagus had a staff of 30, including a butler, footman, cook and and scullery maid. The 80-room Palace House is now run with a skeleton staff of five.

Once considered Britain’s most eligible bachelor, tipped to marry Princess Margaret, Lord Montagu became infamous for serving almost a year in Wormwood Scrubs and Wakefield prisons in 1954, for what were known as “consensual homosexual offences”.

It was widespread public disquiet at what was perceived to be unfair victimisat­ion of a public figure, and concern about the criminalit­y of sexual acts between consenting adults, that contribute­d to the decriminal­isation of homosexual­ity in 1967.

After he was released from prison, Lord Montagu returned to Beaulieu with his head held high and spirit undimmed, marrying his first wife, Belinda Crossley, in 1957. After their divorce 17 years later, he married Fiona.

“The first thing he did when we started dating was to give me a book about the trial,” says Lady Montagu. “But I wasn’t interested in his sex life – I was far more worried that he had so much energy and I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. I think part of the reason he married me was that I was non-judgmental, and he also thought I’d be good for Beaulieu.”

He was right on both counts. Born in Zimbabwe and finished in Switzerlan­d, the former Fiona Herbert, a willowy, whippet-thin beauty, was far too enlightene­d and free-spirited to balk at his chequered past, devoting herself to her husband’s estate with passion and commitment.

“I always say that my husband only had one bride: Beaulieu. He was the king here, and whatever he said went. He was adorable, but being married to him was exhausting. So much so that when the doctors told me he had to have a pacemaker, I said: ‘Do they make one fast enough?’”

Since Lord Montagu’s death, she has been deluged with condolence letters praising him. “I felt like saying, ‘Well, yes, he was wonderful. But may I point out gently that none of you had to live with him…’” she says, with a smile.

“As I told our son Jonathan (now 40 and a biochemist) when he was quite young, ‘Daddy loves you, but he won’t ever be much good at spending time with you.’”

Lady Montagu’s marriage made her stepmother to her husband’s two children Ralph, 54, and Mary, 51, by his first wife, but she admits the pressure of running Beaulieu meant she didn’t have much time for them, either.

Now that Ralph has inherited his father’s title, she is looking forward to her new life in London – “I won’t be rich, but I won’t be destitute – although nothing can erase the memories of Lord Montagu’s last year.

“At first he found it difficult to walk. Then he developed a bit of dementia, and would think he was at Gatwick or something. But even though he was in a wheelchair, he was still the boss of Beaulieu.

“Sometimes, he didn’t realise how demanding he was being on his wonderful carers and I would tell him to shape up, whereupon he would look at me as if I were his nanny, apologise to the carers, be wonderful for an hour and then start being the king again.

“He never admitted defeat, and he regarded death as failure – primarily because he hated the idea of leaving Beaulieu.”

As the end neared, he was admitted to hospital, before being brought home for his final days, surrounded by loyal staff and his loving family.

“There was a vortex of fear in the house,” Lady Montagu remembers. “He inherited Beaulieu when he was two and now he was dying. Everyone was terrified. I only got three hours of sleep a night.”

At the moment of her husband’s death, she had succumbed to exhaustion in her own bedroom. It is with a catch in her voice that she remembers waking at 5.30am to realise his oxygen machine was no longer on. “Ralph came out of the bedroom and said, ‘Daddy died at 2.30 this morning.’ We hugged each other, we really hugged.

“Then, when I went to pick up the milk and opened the back door, I realised that everything was silent, and pouring with rain. Normally the birds would be singing but it was as if the Beaulieu estate was weeping tears, and the birds were mourning. It was very, very moving.”

Rallying swiftly, she adds: “My husband had a wonderful life, and I celebrate it. After all, death is just a doorway into something else. After he died, I talked to him and told him how wonderful he was.

“Now I’ve turned the page, and I really think I could be coming into the best part of my life.

“Love again?” she muses. “I hope not. Men are a lot of work. I’d like my energies to go towards making the world a better place through focusing on the education of children.” She is also backing the HHA’s proposal to the Chancellor to reduce the tax on maintenanc­e funds for homes open to the public, as the catalyst to overcome the dire financial obligation­s associated with ownership.

“One of the main reasons so many visit the UK is because of our outstandin­g historic house heritage,” she says. “The tireless devotion of the owners is unparallel­ed worldwide and feeds into tremendous support of local communitie­s, which thrive, financiall­y and emotionall­y. George Osborne should not take us for granted.”

Despite this warning, she has “tremendous faith in the future”, both for Beaulieu and herself. “One of many things Edward and I had in common was we were both optimists. And I believe that although both optimists and pessimists arrive at the same destinatio­n, if you are an optimist, you will have a better ride.”

 ??  ?? Lady Montagu says life at Beaulieu was a ‘rollercoas­ter, constantly’
Lady Montagu says life at Beaulieu was a ‘rollercoas­ter, constantly’
 ??  ?? Lord and Lady Montagu at Beaulieu in 2002
Lord and Lady Montagu at Beaulieu in 2002
 ??  ?? Lord Montagu with second wife Lady Fiona on their wedding day in 1974
Lord Montagu with second wife Lady Fiona on their wedding day in 1974

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