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Wokingham furniture designer Pete Hill and his story

PUBLISHED: 11:26 03 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:26 03 July 2018

Pete and Sil: he knew within minutes of meeting that he'’d found his soul mate

Pete and Sil: he knew within minutes of meeting that he'’d found his soul mate

Archant

A Wokingham furniture designer recalls the moment he decided to tell his wife – and mother of their two young children – that his commuting days were coming to an end

It’s mid-December 2017, I’m on the 6.56am train to Waterloo. People packed in like sardines, not a smile to be seen for miles. A lady taps me on the shoulder and gestures to my nose. Thinking it’s running after the brisk 30 minute walk to the station on a bitter day, I reach for a tissue. It’s only then that I realise I’m having a nosebleed. Weeks of sleepless nights, then increasingly debilitating migraines… and now this. It feels like my body has brought me to a crossroads my mind wouldn’t let me reach.

My name is Pete Hill. I’m 36, married, and father to two wonderful sons. I’m also an ex-salesman from the City, living in Wokingham.

My great uncle was a cabinet maker, grandfather a builder, and my father was a serial house renovator. Working with my hands is ‘in my blood’. For my 10th birthday I ask for a brace, a type of hand cranked wood drill – seriously, who asks for that at 10 years old?

At school, following metalwork lessons I spent lunch breaks tapping sheet metal to make jewellery for my mum or a metal bowl for dad. I took product design at GCSE and loved every moment of it. Outside of school I passed a whole summer scavenging at the dump with my mate Adam to find parts for a petrol go-kart we designed and built. I spent a week with a carpenter for my work experience, and loved that too.

Post-GCSE, I panicked and then stayed at school. But my heart wasn’t in academia and in the end I left without a single A-level. Furious parents gave me to the choice of joining the Army or Police, so I rushed to employment agencies and took the first job offered; working in a call centre for a retail bank, before drifting into another job with no prospects.

During this time my parents began what was to become a very messy divorce. It was the first time in almost 20 years I saw my father cry and my mum almost had a breakdown. As divorce proceedings raged on I had an increasing urge to escape. I hatched a plan to go travelling, bought a backpack, booked a ticket, threw a farewell party and was off; first stop South Africa, then Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Forgetting about my home issues and work woes was just what I needed.

When I returned the family home had been sold and I moved in with my mum, who was living in a two bed flat. Friends were working in a call centre selling, amongst other things, PPI. I took a job to start paying back credit card bills and money I’d borrowed from mum while away. For me, it was easy work and I was fairly good at it. Commission rolled in and I was promoted to team manager.

It was whilst interviewing for my team that I met my wife, Sil. I can honestly say I have vivid memories of that first meeting. The interview room was set and I was told the candidate was waiting in reception. I went to collect her and was quite literally stunned by her beauty. Auburn hair, big brown eyes, petite build, and the most incredible smile. I was awestruck and if it hadn’t been for a colleague asking the interview questions we’d have been in trouble. I’d met my soul mate and over the next few months we fell madly in love.

After a year it was announced that the call centre was moving to Scotland in a cost cutting exercise and we were redundant. Buoyed by my apparent knack for sales, I joined an IT recruitment company. Sil was still as university, but we were talking about saving a deposit for a house.

Bread and charcuterie boards, all handmade from single pieces of British ashBread and charcuterie boards, all handmade from single pieces of British ash

We lived in someone’s garage for a whole year, putting up with damp, mould and the bitter cold before buying a two up, two down. It goes without saying that is was a ‘do’er upper’; kitchen, bathroom, garden, the lot. I remember the day we got the keys; we rushed in full of excitement. In the kitchen Sil opened a cupboard, only for the door to fall off in her hand. She instantly burst in to tears.

We kept the ‘wolf from the door’ but several times over the next five years I talked to Sil about my desire to change direction. There was always a reason to chase cash for a few more months. With work on the house we were haemorrhaging money. I changed jobs again, this time to software sales. Longer hours, more money, but a step further from my dream of designing and making furniture for a living.

Every spare moment I was voraciously consuming anything I could get my hands on about furniture design and production. I came to think of it as my version of Open University following YouTube tutorials, reading books about Japanese carpentry, spending time in my garage practising, examining furniture everywhere we went to see how it was made.

In 2013 we moved with a view to starting a family. This time we didn’t just buy a ‘do’er upper’, it was a full renovation project. Walls knocked down, new central heating and flooring throughout, kitchen, bathroom, you name it we pulled it apart and replaced it.

In the front garden there was a huge cedar tree, over 100ft tall and so wide even if I had a twin brother we couldn’t have held hands around the trunk. It was over 130 years old (I know this because I counted the growth rings) and, sadly, dying. Reluctantly, we decided to have it taken down.

Not content with being in the early stages of a massive renovation project, I had the tree milled in to usable timber for a workshop in the garden.

With working 10-12 hour days (on top of my daily commute) and carrying out the house renovation, my garden ‘side project’ would take two years to complete.

Shortly after moving in (and in a Grand Designs style) Sil fell pregnant. We were over the moon and this heightened the urgency to get on with the house. In October 2013 our first son, Morton, arrived three weeks early. It was thrilling and horrifying in almost equal measure. I’d managed to complete the nursery and our bedroom, but the rest of the house was a building site. We would go from bare brickwork, wires hanging out of the ceiling, tools and dust everywhere, into a pristine bedroom with brand new carpets and furniture. It really was a surreal experience.

But whilst pregnant Sil had received a devastating blow, told by doctors she had the early stages of cervical cancer at just 28. Over the next two years we split time between hospital, work and the house while getting to grips with being parents. Sil’s condition progressed and she required more regular and increasingly invasive treatment.

This stool design has a solid British olive ash or oak seat on hot rolled steelThis stool design has a solid British olive ash or oak seat on hot rolled steel

Much to the surprise of the doctors we discovered Sil was pregnant again, with our second son, Winston. Due to her condition he was born in February of 2016, almost two months early and immediately placed in to the special baby care unit. Winston made great progress and was home with us in just over two weeks.

But 10 days after giving birth, Sil suffered a massive haemorrhage, losing three pints of blood. I could only watch on helplessly as Sil crashed. She began fitting on the hospital bed and came within a whisker of death. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. After everything we had been through with the cancer she was going to die of blood loss and I was going to be a widower with two small children? Following a transfusion Sil pulled through and fortunately made a full recovery.

Family life felt great and the house was almost complete. I yearned to spend more time there but work travel led to nights away, often going two or three days without seeing the children. I moved to an ‘up and coming’ software company in the City, but felt more isolated than ever. Travelling became an increasing requirement, for as much as a week at a time in the US and Europe. It was ‘Ground Hog Day’ all over again.

Meanwhile, Sil’s condition failed to improve and in October 2016 she had a full abdominal hysterectomy. Sil pulled through and made a full recovery. She continues to go from strength to strength, but doctors say faces a lifetime of difficulties with her abdomen, unable to pick up the children, for example.

In the summer of 2017 I saw the doctor about a spot on my face that kept scabbing over and bleeding. Sil had been on at me for months to get it looked at, but with all the stuff going on there never seemed time. The doctor referred to me to a specialist who, following a test, confirmed I had a form of skin cancer.

I had an operation to remove the affected skin. I’m still having regular checks, but the prognosis looks good.

You’d think I would have come to the conclusion sooner, but it was sitting on that train, having a nosebleed that finally brought everything into focus. I realised I was allowing myself to become a slave to money.

That’s what it all boiled down to. I was missing precious time with my family and making myself ill because I wanted more holidays, a bigger house and more ‘stuff’. Being honest about it, writing it down like that makes me feel quite embarrassed. Maybe even ashamed.

I called Sil as soon as I got off the train and we agreed things needed to change.

Shelves can be made from oak or ash and feature slings made using British leather that is tanned at what is believed to be the last remaining oak bark tannery in the UKShelves can be made from oak or ash and feature slings made using British leather that is tanned at what is believed to be the last remaining oak bark tannery in the UK

That night we went through our outgoings, and with money we had been saving for our next renovation project and cutting some costs we had a runway into starting something new.

Over the next weeks I wrote a business plan and began talking to suppliers. Taking some of the designs I had already sketched out over the years, I built a plan around what my first collection would include, true to my values. Core to this is the use of British materials where I can work with artisans to bring some of my pieces to life. Everything is either completely handmade by me or made in the UK and finished by me. They are always entirely my designs. I wanted to be a furniture designer and creator; that’s what I am.

It’s now four months since I left my job. I’ve created furniture and lifestyle products I would buy myself and have an e-commerce site where you can go and buy Pete Hill Design pieces. I have been invited to show my work at the Royal County of Berkshire Show, a massive validation of what I am doing. I work from my home workshop, sit and have three meals a day with my family. I’ve lost a stone in weight without even dieting, and couldn’t be happier.

It’s very early days and it going to get very tough at times, I’m sure, but I have so much more energy and enthusiasm for what I am doing. It’s a cliché, but I really do feel like a new man.

My experience has been that the further down the path I’ve travelled the more difficult it became to turn around and travel back to the crossroads. After many years of putting it off I realised you can create your own crossroads anywhere along the path. Put a plan together, win the support of those around you and execute your plan. Be brave, be bold and be courageous. See petehilldesign.com and Pete Hill Design on Facebook.

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