'I want to share this beautiful place'

Most of us dream of owning a country pile and retreating from the frantic pace of urban living. For Catherine Beaumont the fantasy came true but, as she explains to Catherine Larner, she is keen to make good use of her privileged setting

Catherine Beaumont had built up a highly successful career in law,  working in the US and in London when she and her husband decided to sell up and move their young family to a 10-bedroom, medieval house in Suffolk.

"We never intended to get anything so grand," she says. "But my husband had always wanted a house in the country and, as he is 6ft 4, a cottage wasn't an option.

"For me, I wanted a higgledy piggeldy house next to some water with a willow tree. This was the first house we saw!"

While husband, Ian, continues to commute to the big smoke, Catherine is building up a business drawing others to the 10-acre property whilst also pursuing a call to the ministry.

Catherine was confirmed at the age of 14, but drifted away from the church three years later. Only in 1997 did she recommit her life to Christ and has since been seeking ways in which she can live out her faith most effectively. "I've been looking at how best I can serve God," she says. "I knew I needed a bit more peace in my life, a bit more beauty, and when I saw this house I thought 'this is it'. It  felt right."

Although she has achieved the means to secure such a wonderful home through many years of struggling to make ends meet, and with vision and sheer hard work, Catherine does acknowledge what a fortunate position she is now in.

"It feels such a privilege to live in such a beautiful place that I want to share it," she says. "I realise that many people in the  church would expect us to buy a modest home and give away the rest of our money, but my husband is not a Christian and we both feel we can use our talents to allow others to enjoy this place."

Otley Hall is considered the oldest house in Suffolk and is reputed to be where Bartholomew Gosnold planned two voyages that would result in the founding of the United States. The grounds, which feature a  knot garden, croquet lawn, rose garden and viewing mound were named among the 50 most beautiful in the country by The Independent newspaper. Yet the property is just a few minutes from the main 
arterial road through Suffolk so can be easily reached.

Since buying the house in 2004, Catherine has been invited to various events to speak about the history of the property, and this also gives her the opportunity to share her faith. She hosts open days twice a year as well as wedding parties, day conferences, Alpha days and parish retreats. She has also initiated a series of Quiet Days which are proving increasingly popular.

"As soon as we moved in God told me to do them, and I wasn't even  sure what a quiet day was!"

A guided retreat which allows individuals to enjoy peace, space and  time in contemplation, a quiet day at Otley lasts from 10 till 4, and  is billed as "for people of all faiths and no faith". It is considered less intimidating than a full blown retreat in a religious institution and so appeals to people of different ages and backgrounds.  Ultimately, Catherine hopes that visitors will find spiritual refreshment.

In setting up the days, Catherine called on local members of the Retreats Association and the Quiet Gardens initiative for help in devising a programme. Now the days fall into a regular pattern and  are so well attended that more dates are being added.

"Eilish Heath, who runs a retreat called Green Blade, told me not to worry about the marketing but to 'leave it to God' and it has been wonderful to see how he has brought people here, both to lead the days and to attend them," says Catherine.

Each day attracts around 25 people who gather in the converted stable block that forms the comfortable and tastefully furnished conference facilities. They enjoy tea or coffee before listening to a presentation by the spiritual leader.

The days follow a theme. Recently, Rev Lindsay Spendlove, who also runs Green Blade, a retreat centre in a converted pub in Norfolk, led a day on birds and used excerpts from mythology, the Bible, folklore and poetry to encourage the participants to think about creation.

Visual aids were not needed on this occasion when white peacocks, swans, rare breed chickens and wild ducks padded past the French  doors at regular intervals, while blackbirds and thrushes competed with the CD playing Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending.

After the short talk, the visitors are invited to leave the room for walks around the grounds, for meditation in the thatched summerhouse, or creative expression with craft materials in Martha's Room in an adjoining building.

Lunch is served outside if the weather is good and guests can decide whether they wish to eat their simple ploughman's in silence, or while talking with other participants. After another short talk to start the afternoon session, there is again the opportunity to seek out a place of solitude and contemplation.

The surroundings cannot but lift the spirits and Catherine has been encouraged by how well received the days have been.

"We are gradually building up the events held here, but we need to make sure we keep it under control or it will intrude too much on our family life and lose the essence of why the place is so special - the timelessness and the tranquility."

Despite its beauty, it was quite a culture shock for the family to uproot themselves from their mid-terrace north London home to this rural sprawl.

The children, then five and eight, had initially to 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! Now settled, they are in their element and Catherine is thrilled at having the time to enjoy being a mum.

A high achiever, Catherine grew up in Oxford where her father was a Classics Fellow at Pembroke College. She read history at Cambridge, trained to be a lawyer and moved to America where she passed her US bar exams. Moving back to the UK, she felt that pure law was too dry  and she ought to be doing something else. At 32 she formed a practice  with another partner and identified a gap in the market training people to present their evidence in court cases. This became Bond  Solon Training and her new husband Ian left his job in research  engineering to  project manage the company.

At the time the business had over-expanded, taking on too many staff, moving into new offices, and almost going bankrupt. But with a last ditch sales campaign with everyone on the phones drumming up new clients, they scraped through.

Money remained tight for some time, and the couple were known to take home the leftovers from lunches they would provide for clients so that they could have supper that evening.

The business took off in 1999 and its sale financed the purchase of Otley Hall. Now Catherine is using her vision, flair and commitment in pursuing a calling to the ministry, currently on the Explorer Year of the Diocesan Ministry Course.

"Soon after I found my faith, I had a vision where I could see myself being ordained. I talked to my vicar about it, but it didn't seem the right time when my daughter was so young. He told me to go on to the PCC, be a Sunday school leader and find out what it meant to be ordained. So I did! The desire to be ordained never went away.

"It was only when I moved to Otley, settled in our local church, and talked to Rev Joy Rapley, who is the priest in charge of this benefice, that, for various reasons, the time seemed right to explore ordination again. I was also encouraged by my prayer partner, Jane  Hall, who, out of the blue, had a calling to ordination. She and I joined the DMC last April to explore our vocations further."

Catherine can see how God has been at work in every aspect of her life, including those years when she had turned away from him. She believes that she is more sensitive to non-Christians and is able,  through using her skills from the business world, such as PR,  marketing and teaching, to further God's kingdom. And in such an 
appealing way.

Take it further (set as box)

* Guided quiet days are planned throughout the year at Otley. A  spiritual leader will present on a specified theme and the sessions are open to anyone, of any faith who is interested in spending time in contemplation and relaxation. Details: 01473 890264
* The vision of the Quiet Gardens movement, founded in 1992, is to provide a network of local opportunities, mainly in private homes and gardens for prayer, silence, reflection and the appreciation of beauty, for learning about Christian life and spirituality and for experiencing creativity and healing in the context of God's love. 
Details: 01753 643050