Interview: Mary Montagu-Scott
PUBLISHED: 14:36 07 August 2020
Beaulieu’s Mary Montagu-Scott discusses the emergence of the New Forest post-lockdown
“I think it will make us all more resilient in the long term and will force change to happen more quickly for many businesses. It will be tough for a few years, we may all have to go through difficult times, but as a result will become stronger.”
Mary Montagu Scott is characteristically upbeat in her assessment of the world we all find ourselves in, now that the reset button has be pressed following the months of lockdown.
“I am very, very fortunate because I live in one of the most beautiful places in the entire world,” she admits, speaking from her home on the Beaulieu estate overlooking the sparkling waters of the Solent. Back in late March it provided a comforting, if slightly surreal, refuge.
“Being near the sea, every day I’d look out and there wouldn’t be a single boat passing my door which was so unusual. A bit like living on a busy road and seeing no-one drive past.
“I am a very keen sailor myself – I’ve a Cornish crabber yawl, plus enjoys dinghy sailing – and we couldn’t access our boats at all. But we [the family] survived it well and I have some very nice memories of during that time.”
This, in spite of the fact that caught-out by the sudden imposition of travel restrictions, Rupert, her husband of more than 20 years was trapped for the next three months in Turkey. Which left Mary holed-up with her two teenage children: Emelia then 17 who, like so many other teenagers, saw A-level exams abandoned, and Ben 19, who should have been away at university.
With normal day-to-day routine suspended, energy was channelled in new directions.
“As we all got to grips with Teams, Zoom and Skype I had a lot of online meetings, and although I found myself quite busy, I took up running every day, and set myself the challenge of reading more. I’m a very keen gardener, so being able to do more gardening was lovely.
“As a family we volunteered at the Lymington food bank. During lockdown I did some trips using the Beaulieu van, helping to collect food, and my son’s been there every week. They’ve really done a fantastic job.”
The local community, she reflects, really pulled together to support each other through the most challenging months.
“Where I live, we set up a WhatsApp group and offered help to some of the more vulnerable with shopping and chores. In the village itself one of the local shopkeepers set up a virtual store, there was a food box scheme and a prescriptions delivery service. I know this community spirit is something that’s been replicated across Hampshire.”
It’s true to say that the daughter of the third Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, and sister of Ralph, the current Lord Montagu, has a far-reaching insight into many different aspects of life in the county. Mary is both a director and vice chairman of Beaulieu Enterprises, which runs the commercial side of the estate, including the National Motor Museum founded by her late father. She’s a former High Sheriff of Hampshire, and remains actively involved with numerous committees and groups.
As a New Forest commoner grazing ponies on the historic heathland, Mary is only too aware of the need to preserve its fragile eco-systems in the face of an “explosion in visitor numbers” post-lockdown. Picking her words carefully, she shares the anxiety that “over-use has created a range of problems” as people enjoy the great outdoors.
The survival of the tourism sector following its enforced closure however, remains particularly close to her heart.
“Until recently, the forest campsites have all been shut. That’s 3,000 pitches, with all the restaurants, pubs and attractions usually relying on a huge volume of trade off the back of this.
“The impact has been very acute both on my family’s business and for the other businesses and museums that I’m a trustee of or affiliated with. It’s been very stressful, as it’s put them all in a very vulnerable position.
“The National Museum of the Royal Navy is facing a huge funding crisis. And I’m on the board of the New Forest Show, which funnily enough I’ve just been thinking about because it would’ve been held this week. The team though have reacted quickly to the need to get income to see them through to 2021 by expanding the Long Meadow Campsite into the showground, and it’s already booked-up.”
In a typical year, Beaulieu attracts over 330,000 visitors and Christmas Day aside, Mary has never known Palace House, her former childhood home, to be closed to the outside world. Now, with front line staff un-furloughed, the estate extends a warm welcome once more with, as she explains, a few modifications introduced.
“We’ve put a new route into the Motor Museum which has proved very successful and has been positively received by visitors; it can lead to a better experience, as you make sure people don’t miss out on seeing things. “At Buckler’s Hard, the Maritime Museum already has a designated route and we’ve reopened the café, although you have to book in advance for a table at the Master Builder’s Hotel. Our village manager is extremely diligent to ensure safety is the number one priority.”
One of the projects that she’s optimistic will surge ahead in these uncertain times, is the redevelopment of Buckler’s Hard Yacht Harbour.
“We were two weeks from completing phase one when the contractors went off-site, but they came back when lockdown was eased and we managed to get the river back up and running within the guidelines.
“Making sure that it’s a safe environment for everyone is key and we’ve had to manage the number of different craft on the water for different leisure purposes, including paddleboards and kayaks. We’re not able to resume racing, yet, but I’ve already been out sailing quite a lot.”
She adds, “Anyone who has a boat at the moment seems to be on it. So the marina and river business is doing extremely well as a result of this bounce back. Unless there’s another lockdown, phase 2 of the harbour redevelopment will start in September. It’s a brilliant project and with very strong demand for bigger berths, by next spring we’ll have completed a major improvement to the facilities. It’s important that we move with the times.”
So, elsewhere, what does Mary predict might be some of the other changes on the horizon? “We shall definitely see more use of online and flexible homeworking. Businesses are going to need to think laterally in how they run things. Sadly, some may not survive due to factors beyond their control so it is a very worrying time, but I’m confident that we’ve very strong communities in Hampshire that will come together and help each other out.
“And if people don’t travel abroad, we all hope there will be a significant increase in rediscovering the beauty of our own country. Just this week, I’ve twice gone across to the Isle of Wight by boat and walked.”
Meanwhile, next on Mary’s agenda this morning is another Zoom meeting with her fellow trustees at Lyndhurst’s New Forest Centre.
“Then I might go outside and do some more gardening.”