Sometimes the right people drop into your life at just the right time. They often come out of the blue, are people far outside your own orbit and with whom there would never be a chance encounter. Except by chance. Raymond is one of those people.
I first met Raymond in the early '90s. I'd fallen completely in love with a design for a WBC Beehive, which, for those not 'in the know' is one of those sloping slatted white hives with little hats on that look as if they are straight out of Winnie the Pooh. And, thinking there was little more to it than setting it up prettily in a wildflower meadow and going back a little while later to collect jars of true amber nectar (probably neatly packaged and labeled by the bees themselves), I went along to my local Cornish Beekeepers Association meeting. Suddenly I felt very small and very silly: This room was a hive of major enthusiasts and the conversation and argument was completely over my head. There was little room for a struggling beginner, certainly not one with an over-simplistic line of questioning and a sketchy knowledge.
By the end of the meeting I was all set to creep out, tail between my legs, and turn my beehives into compost bins. But then a little old man sitting at the back of the hall, perhaps in his mid eighties by then, in a navy boiler suit, gold earrings and a ponytail, came over and shook my hand and told me that he also lived in the tiny village of Praze-an-Beeble, just a stone's throw from me as it happens.
As it turned out, he lived in the tiniest little cottage- of childlike proportions - down a stony lane and some distance more, beyond the scope of any vehicle...just like Hansel and Gretal's cottage. He had invited me over to meet his wife, Dolly, who was about 4 ft 6 ins and as slight as a child. Sitting in the scaled down living room over a cup of strong Yorkshire tea, Raymond started talking to me about his life with bees. Slowly, slowly it started to dawn on me that I'd struck gold, as it were, in Bee terms. Here was a man who'd spent the last thirty years or more as The County Beekeeper. What he didn't know about bees didn't seem worth knowing. And yet, a true Yorkshire man in every way, he was scathing of all the expensive Beekeeping equipment that most of the other enthusiasts coveted. My budget wasn't quite up to the mark either. Any idea that this was some cheap little hobby had gone right out of the window long ago. But over the next few months Raymond showed me how 'make-do-and-mend' could work for me.
First we went to Cornwall Farmers at the village crossroads and I bought a pair of small man's white overalls, from which I cut about a foot off the legs. Raymond encouraged me to sew up the fly (something I was swift to do) to keep out angry bees, and tuck them into wellingtons as bees don't walk down, only up. He showed me that Marigolds were as good as fancy bee gloves and that many tools could be simply made or adapted.
Then he did what few true Yorkshiremen might have reasonably done - he gave me two of his beautiful wooden hives with dovetail joints that he had made himself nearly forty years previously and kept oiled and preserved, and a wonderful old honey extractor with a crank handle and spinning arms that held the individual frames in place as honey was spun out of them. It was truly humbling to have such precious, well-loved presents from someone who seemed to have little himself and yet was so rich and generous in his time, his teaching and his laughter. I have seen bellows smokers like the ones he gave me in museums, but still they worked as well. His frames, all handmade, were just a fraction different to each other so they all had to fit in the hives in a particular order - but none the worse for that. He came at the end of a phone call when my bees were about to swarm, when I was unsure where the Queen was; whatever the problem, however trivial, he was there to hold my hand.
I am pleased to see him at my table tonight because, like many of us, I felt I never got the chance to really thank him for all the many things he did for me. One winter, like the bees, he was suddenly gone. Dolly gave me one of his books and, so typically him, I see a photo carelessly placed inside the dust jacket of him and Dolly in younger years - not just one of his books, but of His Books. An understated celebrity of the Bee world who could slink unnoticed at the back of halls like part of the furniture, which he probably was, living on the edge of life in a tucked away nook where none would find him.
His face is tan and leather with crinkly eyes and his gypsy earrings swing as he throws back his head and laughs at something I have said. There are hollows under his cheekbones and dark shadows around his eyes as if he doesn't sleep well these days. For a man his age his hair is a darker grey than I might expect. It is held in a bush of ponytail. He rarely wore his hat and veil, and never his gloves. He said his hands were virtually immune to stings as he'd been stung that often over the years he hardly felt it anymore. Of Dolly, he is very protective. She is childlike in every way and there are no children to look after her once he is gone. There is nothing old in the way he moves, though. His long arms and legs swing carelessly when he comes down the path to the cottage. His gait is loose as if he has practised yoga all his life. But it is just 'life' - his life and passion - all still inside him and as fresh as ever. Some people never seem to really age, some in face and some in body and mind. Raymond is of the latter. If I said there was a swarm of bees in a tree close by (unlikely I know at this time of year but bear with me), he'd be up the ladder like a flash with his coiled skep which he'd made himself from straw.
It's a remarkable sound, if you ever get the chance, a swarm brewing. I heard one only a few months ago as I walked back through the village one morning. It starts with a gentle hum which gradually grows both in sound and energy. I looked for the swarm but couldn't see it; probably behind the high kitchen wall of Town farm. The energy is palpable, like a room of chanting yoga students. It raises the hairs on the back of your arm and any dreamy or sleepy feelings leave you instantly. All is expectant. This can go on for many hours before the Queen is ready to move.
Raymond is eating his Yorkshire pudding whole-heartedly. For a lithe old man he has a staunch appetite. Although it is many years since he left his native Yorkshire for the milder Cornish climate he still retains a broad Yorkshire dialect and gentle mocking humour.
'Not bad, lass,' he says, as he polishes it off and goes back for seconds.