Open house at Otley
PUBLISHED: 10:45 23 February 2016 | UPDATED: 10:46 23 February 2016
Catherine Larner meets the (relatively) new owners of Otley Hall, the mellow manor just outside Ipswich, with its historic connections to the founding of America
Glimpsed first as tall, elegant, red brick chimneys among the treetops in a quiet, leafy lane, Otley Hall is believed to be the oldest and “perhaps the loveliest house in Suffolk”, according to the latest Pevsner architectural guide.
“This is the third edition [of the guide] and we are thrilled that we were here when it was chosen,” says owner, Catherine Beaumont.
Catherine and her husband, Ian, speak of Otley as if they are guardians rather than proprietors. Despite its long history, the house has seen relatively few owners, but it is reputed to be where Bartholomew Gosnold planned two voyages that would result in the founding of the United States 400 years ago, and along with owning such a prestigious property comes considerable responsibility.
“As a family we consider ourselves stewards of the house,” Catherine says. “It feels such a privilege to live in this beautiful place and we’ve wanted to share it.”
Catherine, Ian and their two children, Alexandra and Jasper, now teenagers, moved to Otley Hall in 2004, selling a successful legal training business and leaving their North London mid-terrace for life in the country.
“We never intended to get anything so grand,” says Catherine. “I wanted a higgledy piggledy house next to some water with a willow tree. But Ian is 6ft 4ins so a cottage wasn’t an option.”
Otley Hall was the first property they viewed and it’s no wonder they were captivated. Entering through the five-bar gate, the gravel drive sweeps round, giving you first a view of the long lawn, then a momentary distraction of the stable block now converted into meeting rooms, before curving back to deliver you into the open arms of two wings of the house.
“This is a warm, welcoming place,” says Ian. “The basic shape is a cross so there is a real heart to the house.”
Standing in 10 acres, which have been sympathetically planted with a knot garden, croquet lawn, H-canal and labyrinth, the moated hall boasts 10 bedrooms, yards of heavy oak panelling, timber beams and wall painting. A number of rooms are furnished authentically and opened up for public tours, but the house is very much a family home.
“My slippers are usually on the Aga and we have all Jasper’s school notices on the fridge,” says Catherine of the kitchen, which is the hub of the family.
The Beaumonts have immersed themselves in local life – the children have been educated at Woodbridge School, Ian is vice chairman of the board of Orwell Housing Association and Catherine is now ordained and part of a team of clergy looking after eight parishes. But they have also committed fully to opening up the house for others to enjoy.
Weddings provide a welcome source of income for a property which devours money in maintenance and heating costs, but the hall is also part of the Invitation to View scheme, offering house and garden tours throughout the year, and can be hired as a venue for events, conferences, courses and workshops. There is also a summer cafe (open every Wednesday from May to September from 11am to 5pm. Buy a season ticket and visit as many times as you wish. Once in the grounds you can stay for the whole day enjoying the gardens as well as the homemade cakes and lunches).
Otley Hall is also becoming known for its retreat days, Catherine’s particular passion. They are billed as being ‘for people of all faiths and no faith’ and are a welcome opportunity to take time out from the busyness of daily life to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the gardens, while contemplating a theme for the day. The sessions are less intimidating than a full-blown retreat in a religious institution and appeal to people of different ages and backgrounds.
There is now a programme of 35 retreat days, comprising those organised by Otley Hall and open to all, and others arranged for local groups and churches. They range from reflection on the classic story The Secret Garden to the writing of George Herbert.
There’s a day on art inspired by meditation, and sessions exploring the lives of Mother Theresa and Francis of Assisi. Another day focuses on birds, and might draw on mythology, the Bible, folklore and poetry to encourage participants to think about creation.
After a short talk, the visitors are invited to leave the room for solitary walks around the grounds, meditation in the thatched summerhouse, or creative expression with craft materials.
“We’re introducing more retreat days each year and I like to take part in them,” says Catherine. “I often make myself available in the afternoon if people need someone to talk to or pray with them, but it’s a good opportunity for me to stop and take time to enjoy the beautiful house and gardens too.”