The Northern Ireland woman who swapped high-powered executive career to open luxury guesthouse near Banbridge
Joyce Brownless worked for Sharp microwaves for 20 years before moving to Vodafone where she was responsible for training 30,000 employees. As Mary O’Sullivan finds out, she then gave it up to go back to her first love, home economics, and now runs a beautiful B&B in Co Down
Brownless may be her surname, but Joyce Brownless will never find herself in that situation - brown bread less, that is. There are many things that strike a person about Blackwell House, Joyce's warm, welcoming home in Banbridge, but once inside, the seductive scent of home baking wafting through the gorgeous reception rooms momentarily overrides all the stunning visual effects. The smells draw all to the kitchen, where drop scones, shortbread and, of course, brown bread fresh out of the oven await.
"I come from a family of great cooks," Joyce recalls. "I remember my grandmother, Lily - she had a big farmhouse and cooked for her family of 13. Nothing was written down, nothing was measured. It was just a wheen of this, a wheen of that.
"A wheen was a handful. I remember standing on a stool when my mother was baking, and learning from her as she went along."
Joyce is even more into baking than either her mother or her grandmother; indeed, baking and cooking in general became such a passion that she decided to change career in her mid-50s. She gave up a high-powered job with Vodafone and opted instead - with the full support of her husband, Steve - to open her stunning six-bedroomed home, Blackwell House, to paying guests and, of course, to ply them with her delicious homemade breads and cakes.
The high-powered job with Vodafone was an unusual position for Joyce, given that she had originally opted to train as a home economics teacher, but home economics did lead her in a roundabout way to Vodafone.
"I studied home economics at Jordanstown, now part of the University of Ulster," says Joyce, "but I discovered when I did my teaching practice that no way could I become a teacher - if the kids were to remain safe," she recalls with a laugh. "I had no patience. So instead I went on to the business side of home economics. I got a job with Sharp Electronics."
Microwaves had just come on the scene and everyone wanted one, but first they had to learn how to use them.
"Sharp were big suppliers of microwaves and I travelled up and down Ireland demonstrating," Joyce says. "I'd arrive in, say, Kinsale. The town hall would be decked out with 200 to 300 chairs, the locals would fill them, and I'd show them how to use a microwave. It was a hectic but lovely life."
Joyce stayed 20 years with Sharp and was promoted to the point where she was managing a team of 80. After eight years, her base changed from Northern Ireland to Manchester, and she commuted for many years from Sunday to Thursday, not an easy task, since by then she had married and had three children.
"I was lucky, I had a wonderful mother and a long-suffering husband, and they looked after the children," she says. "I can remember leaving the clothes laid out on the landing, and I batch-cooked and froze all the meals for when I was away."
With each promotion, Joyce found herself moving further and further away from food, and more and more into training, but she did enjoy her new roles.
After 20 years, she moved to Vodafone and ended up as a talent and development manager there. "I went into soft-skills training, the behavioural skills. I was responsible for the talent and development of about 30,000 people," she says.
"There was a huge appraisal system in a company like Vodafone; out of that appraisal system you would say, 'Right, where's the talent here, what country are they in?' It was spotting someone who could possibly be a leader for the future, and looking at how you could help them develop," she adds.
"I met some wonderful people. I met so many people from so many cultures, and each culture was fascinating."
Joyce's first marriage ended 18 years ago, and she met her second husband, Steve, three years later, after she joined Vodafone. As it happened, Steve had also worked in Sharp in the early days, but they only met two or three times in those early years and it was purely as colleagues. When they next met, it was different.
"We met in the K Club just outside Dublin," she recalls. "There was some conference on. I was standing at the lift and he walked around the corner and we bumped into each other. And we just clicked. Steve is my best friend.
"When we first met, we moved slowly, we didn't push anything; we put the children first. Steve has two boys, and I have two boys and a girl. We married 10 years ago and it's fantastic being married to your best friend.
"And all five children get on famously. My kids even ring him up if they need to know something. Steve is known for being a mine of useless information," she laughs indulgently.
Steve is English, but once Joyce introduced him to Northern Ireland, he fell completely in love with it and, around seven years ago, they decided they would make it their permanent base.
"Then my mum developed Alzheimer's and we decided to move sooner rather than later," Joyce says.
Joyce gave up her high-powered job with Vodafone with not too many regrets - "I enjoyed the people side of it, but it was very stressful; long hours and a long commute" - and set about finding them a home in the Banbridge area. The idea to open their own business also began to take hold.
"Steve and I, we're both total foodies, and we love people and we love to have friends over," she enthuses. "I found this house, and I just thought it would make the most fantastic guesthouse.
"We'd also travelled a lot and had lots of experience of what makes a good place to stay and what doesn't."
Joyce devoted two years to making the house into a luxury home/guesthouse.
"The first thing that attracted me was the dining hall with the inglenook fireplace," she says. "I looked at it with my son and I said, 'I adore this room' and he told me to keep quiet; that you're not supposed to enthuse too loudly when you're looking."
The house was on two acres of ground and had been the holiday home of a Lord and Lady Black from Dorset.
It was only about 20 years old, but the interesting thing was a lot of the materials used in its building were from an old mill nearby.
"This whole area was full of mills, flax mills," Joyce notes, "The house was built with bricks from the old mill and the doors and old beams were also from there. I love that connection to the area. And I like the high ceilings and the deep windows. The builder had an eye for character."
Nonetheless, Joyce and Steve had their work cut out for them, knocking various walls and creating new spaces. They have six bedrooms, five of which are en suite. They use three of the bedrooms for paying guests and all are decorated very luxuriously. Lavish features include 600-thread-count cotton sheets, towelling robes and nice toiletries. Joyce is hoping to build three more bedrooms in the near future.
"And I'm really looking forward to maybe doing a few small weddings," she says, adding: "I get asked if I do cookery courses, so I might do some of them too.
"I do realise that I'm absolutely mad. I've no need to do it, but I can't sit still."
The guests are welcome in all the living spaces, including the kitchen.
"That's very much part of the experience for many of the guests, sitting on the window seat, sipping a glass of wine and chatting to me as I cook," Joyce explains. "I chat to them about the food, I use all local produce. I use a local butcher, who is a farmer, who makes his own sausages, and the beef is second to none."
As well as the breads and other baking, Joyce does an evening meal for her guests and favourites include beef and Guinness, and Irish stew.
Joyce notes: "Seventy percent of our guests are international and they love Ireland and want to try Irish cuisine."
The kitchen is fabulously equipped for catering - she has seven ovens; four in her Aga and three Gaggenau ovens - not surprisingly, as Steve is head of Gaggneau in the UK.
Steve still commutes to England every week, but he hopes to be able to spend more time at home in Scarva in the near future.
"At weekends, Steve takes over the role of front-of-house and he chats away to the guests," Joyce says. "He also does a lot of gardening. Actually, I usually introduce him to them as the gardener," she notes with a laugh.
No wonder Blackwell House is thriving and garnering awards - Joyce and Steve are a winning combination.
- For more information, visit www.blackwellhouse.co.uk