Period Property of the Month - October 2007
When Catherine and Ian Beaumont decided to up sticks and move to the country, what they had in mind wasn't quite what they ended up with.
To the manor born
As they dreamed of their eventual move from a north London mid-terrace town house, Ian and Catherine Beaumont listed their criteria for a move to the country. "For me I wanted a higgledy-piggledy house next to some water, with a willow tree," says Catherine. "Ian is 6ft 4, so a cottage wasn't really an option, but we never intended to live in anything so grand!"
The couple began househunting in 2004 when they sold their successful legal training business, and Otley Hall was the first house they viewed. Glimpsed as tall, red brick chimneys through the trees in a quiet, leafy lane, just a few minutes from the main arterial road in Suffolk, Otley Hall is believed to be the oldest house in the county. It is reputed to be where Bartholomew Gosnold planned two voyages that would result in the founding of the United States, 400 years ago this summer.
Despite its long history, the house has seen relatively few owners and the structure of the property has remained largely unaltered. "There were tenant farmers living here in the 1600s until 1910," says Ian. "They took care of it and didn't see the need to change anything so mercifully the hall has remained intact since when it was built. Our job is to keep it that way; to maintain it as it was constructed."
The moated hall stands in ten acres of grounds, which have been planted in keeping with the period. Features include a knot garden, croquet lawn, rose garden, H-canal and viewing mound, and it has been named among the 50 most beautiful gardens in the country by The Independent newspaper.
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 curling 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."
For the first two years, Ian was commuting to London daily and he remembers rushing home to spend time in the grounds.
"I would walk round the garden and remind myself that it was ours. I still catch sight of the house from a different angle and think wow!"
It seems there is a sheer beauty of the building from any perspective you look. And each wing is different. It has a jumble of gables, sloping roofs and leaded windows that are a treat to look at.
"It feels an enormous privilege to live in such a beautiful place," adds Catherine. "As a family, we consider ourselves stewards of the house." Nevertheless, it was quite a culture shock for the family to uproot themselves from the city to this rural sprawl.
"Like anything old, it needs a lot of love and attention," says Ian. "If you are not quite in the mood, it can be an irritation. If the wind is in the east in the winter, the windows might as well not be there and in our first three weeks we used £500 of oil. We realised that we were going to have to live with being colder or not heating vast parts of the house. We rely on thick curtains and wearing two jumpers."
While no immediate work was necessary when the Beaumonts acquired Otley, the hall requires an ongoing maintenance programme. "We are on a clay soil and there is no depth to the foundation. This means the house absorbs a lot of water in the winter and moves. You can feel it breathing in and out," Ian adds.
Some changes have been made to the infrastructure over the years - stair turrets became a spiral staircase, a bathroom and the front door, for example, and a minstrel's gallery was created above the kitchen - but the Beaumonts will not be returning these elements to their original state. They are looking after the property in the configuration it has been presented to them.
"It would have been nice if there had been a manual telling you what to do when things go wrong," says Ian. The modernisation of the house was carried out on an ad hoc basis before the couple moved in, so they had to play detective working out which boiler fed, which radiators and which switchboard referred to which lights. "There was no logic to it," he adds.
Fortunately, the couple have found expertise close at hand. A local builder has worked on various projects at the hall over the years and is familiar with traditional techniques. He is currently engaged in repairing the ceiling centrepiece in the Judge's bathroom, which is made of horsehair and lime-based plaster.
The furniture in the principal rooms of the house is also authentic as it has been handed down from owner to owner. "They felt that the grand oak tables and chairs were consistent with the style of the property and they should carry on in the house," says Ian. "There is one fabulous carved wooden chair which is two to three times the size of an ordinary chair and 200 to 300 years old."
The rooms which are not open to the public retain a less formal, more modern feel but, even so, have swallowed up furniture which dominated the Beaumonts' previous home. "It is a big house, but easy to live in. There are no long corridors leading nowhere," Ian adds.
Catherine is eager to balance the public and private aspects of the house in her choice of furnishings and decor. She is currently engaged in a programme of changing the curtains in various rooms, and a chaise longue and drop-sided sofa are being reupholstered in keeping with their period. The colours have to be rich in tone, bright and reflective as the rooms are dark - the heavy oak panelling is beautiful, but absorbs light.
It is particularly important that the children feel at home here; they can jump on sofas, so long as they keep off the Chesterfields!
It took a while for Alexandra, then eight, and Jasper, five, to adapt to their new home. They had to initially resort to ringing an old ship's bell hanging at the front door in order to locate their parents in the huge house and vast gardens.
"They didn't like being left in one part of the house when we were in another," says Ian. "We could be walking around looking for someone and if they were doing the same, we were unlikely ever to meet!"
Now settled, the children love the space and relish taking visitors on the tours around the house which are arranged by appointment. There are also open days, family fun days, retreat days and the hall hosts weddings and conferences. This year, there are also wine tastings from local brewer, Adnams.
"We are gradually building up the events held here, but we need to make sure we keep them under control or they will intrude too much on our family life and lose the essence of why the place is so special - the timelessness and the tranquillity," Catherine says.
"This house is too wonderful for us to stop people coming to experience the principal rooms," says Ian. "While it works for the family and the fabric of the hall to have guests, we will continue to do so."
Guided quiet days are planned throughout the year at Otley. Lasting from 10am till 4pm, they allow visitors to relax, enjoying peace, space and time in contemplation in the gardens and buildings of Otley.
A leader presents on a specified theme to a group of no more than 25 guests. A day on birds, for example, uses excerpts from mythology, the Bible, folklore and poetry to encourage the participants to think about creation. Visual aids are not needed when white peacocks, swans, rare breed chickens and wild ducks pad past the French doors at regular intervals, while blackbirds and thrushes compete with the CD playing Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.
After the short talk, visitors are invited to leave the room for walks around the ten acre grounds, meditation in the thatched summerhouse, or creative expression with craft materials in Martha's Room in an adjoining building.
The surroundings cannot but lift the spirits. There are places to linger as well as a web of paths to move you to the next vantage point. There are areas for wild flowers and hedgerow as well as formal beds and lawns. Looking at the same sight down different pathways, through arches and swaying grasses, there is something new to see every time.
Tel: 01473 890264 or visit www.otleyhall.co.uk
Albert Lain of Mendlesham Finewood Chairs (commissioning of carved Bartholomew Gosnold commemorative chairs), tel: 01728 663567.
Andrea Kirkham (restoration of wall paintings in Banqueting Room which is now the master bedroom), tel: 01603 764262.
Barry Rose (general building work including restoration of Judges Bathroom ceiling), tel: 01449 780249.
Deborah Pitt of Country House Curtains, tel: 01473 890149.
Robin Barnes of Barnes Upholstery (upholstery in Solar Room, Oak Room and Great Hall), tel: 01728 861100.