Crossmoor Honey Farm - Lancashire Business Profile
PUBLISHED: 09:50 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013
Craig Hughes from Great Eccleston was a high-flying academic until illness struck. Now, with the support of his wife, he is a hive of industry. Martin Pilkington reports
THE day came when Craig Hughes suddenly realised he never wanted to wear a suit again. As an academic, he relished the chance of changing people's lives. Then, quite suddenly, serious illness forced him to re-evaluate and change his own..
He walked away from a career as head of the law department at Oldham Business Management School. Instead, he became a professional bee-keeper with hives across Lancashire, he started raising rare-breed pigs and he bought something that never fails to make him smile - a big, red fire engine.
Craig, who lives in Crossmoor, near Great Eccleston, says 'I was dealing with students who, perhaps because of their social background, would never have thought about going into higher education, let alone law. It's nice to know that, for example, out there somewhere is an ex-miner hurt in a rock-fall who was living on benefits and is now a solicitor.'
The disaster struck.A fall that caused far more pain than it should have triggered a rapidly accelerating series of events that ended with him being operated on for cancer, and then facing the even more daunting prospect of follow-up treatment.
While undergoing chemotherapy Craig reviewed his life: 'There are days when all you can do is sit and think - you can't turn the pages of a newspaper. I dropped the TV remote once and couldn't bend over to pick it up.' He was stuck watching a shopping channel all day until his wife returned.
'I decided I couldn't go back to doing what I did before. I don't want to race off to Manchester airport at five in the morning. I don't want to wear a suit.'
His consultant told him doing things that made him happy would improve his chances of survival, so with the support of his wife Jackie, deputy principal of Preston College, he changed career. And he bought a 1954 Dennis fire tender - though he waited a month to find the right moment to tell her!
For his new career he went back to the future. As a schoolboy he kept bees, imagining handling them would impress the girls. 'It didn't, but I fell in love with the bees,' he says. And his original career was in food - he trained as a chef, cooking in everything from staff canteens to the Michelin-starred Boulter's Lock Inn in Maidenhead. He only decided to go into the law at 27, disillusioned with surviving on four hours sleep a day.
Craig now runs Crossmoor Honey Farm, tending 147 hives. He is a proud Lancastrian, and was keen to make the most of what the county had to offer. So his honey-jar labels are designed by local artist Eve Astle; he has handmade pots and candlesticks by Wynne Abbot, an award-winning potter from Hornby Castle; and most importantly he harnesses Lancashire's diverse habitats to make a range of floral honeys.
The hives are kept all over Lancashire, taking advantage of the extraordinary variety of landscape and flora across the county. Standish and Out Rawcliffe provide rosemary, thyme and sage for herb honey. Carnforth yields pollen for a summer fruits version. An organic lavender farm in Formby houses several hives. His bees enjoy the sunflowers at Aughton and Ormskirk. His heather honey comes from hives in Bleasdale and Wolfenden Crag.
'East Lancashire has the clover needed for that style. And Balham and Elswick are good for rapeseed. Forest honey comes from near Blackburn. And lastly there is gorse from the Calderdale area: 'A difficult one to get, you need a mild winter if you are going to get the early gorse needed,'
Crop growers are happy to host hives, as productivity soars with bees on site - Craig quotes an expected minimum rise of 18 per cent.
'Last year was probably the worst possible for anybody to start up a bee-keeping business. I took a hit because it rained for ten weeks in 2007. But it has given me a focus and a new career.' Despite the rain he still produced 1,000lbs of honey, sold in farm shops across the county. He is now launching another aspect to the bee concern, 'Bee a beekeeper for a day' courses for would-bee apiarists.
Crossmoor Farmhouse has a pervasive scent of honey, though actually it comes from beeswax being melted down - it is used for candles and for frames in his hives. Craig is a bear of a man over 6 feet with a shock of curly hair. It is difficult to imagine him hardly able to move after his chemotherapy, but when he handles the hives his movements are surprisingly gentle to avoid upsetting the bees.
He is just as calm with his rare breed pigs. Craig keeps five types: Oxford Sandys, Gloucester Old Spots, Tamworth Saddlebacks, and the British Lopp, all happily rootling when we visit them. As a trained chef he is fanatical about food having real taste. Just as he is keen to supply honeys full of character, so he intends offering meat with flavour. 'The idea is to supply say a pack of pork chops from different breeds to let people taste the difference, so it is not just pork but a product of provenance and distinction,' he says.
It's a similar story with his rescued battery hens now laying tasty eggs, their life and diet a million miles from what once they endured. Is it too fanciful to see Craig's changed life reflected in theirs?
It is paradoxical that something as destructive as cancer should prove so life-enhancing.. Whatever the future brings, Craig won't forget his experience and those who helped him, supporting the Rosemere Foundation with a share of his honey sales.