Word of mouth: Sybil Kapoor meets James Hamill, a man with a buzz for honey
Saturday 01 May 1999
Founding the first honey shop in Britain is not the sort of thing most American actors would consider, but Hamill is not your average actor. He was born 40 years ago into a family which kept bees as a hobby in Orange County. A mere 250 hives you understand, but apparently bee-keeping is easier in California than Britain - all that orange, asparagus and pea blossom, mild winters and dry climate. However, feeling that bees were rather mundane, Hamill followed his creative instincts and opted for a theatrical career. Having studied Method acting in New York, he came to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. English repertory followed, along with a few films and some West End productions, but work was intermittent. "I was going nuts with boredom, so I got a beehive for my garden in Battersea," he recalls. His neighbours proved a little prickly initially - after all, bees are hardly a regular urban pet - but Hamill's enthusiasm soon won them over. Honey bees, it seems, like London, with its flower-rich gardens and parks. If the garden flowers run a bit short, they just raid the local cemetery.
One hive led to another and, before long, he had 20 scattered around the Home Counties. Unlike most mass-produced honeys, Hamill's is made by spinning the liquid honey out of their combs. If the honey is of a particularly thick consistency, as with ling heather honey, he wraps it in muslin and cold-presses it. Most mass-produced honey is extracted by heat. This destroys many of its subtle volatile oils and gives it that slightly caramelised taste that catches you at the back of the throat.
As obsession took hold, Hamill transported his bees around the country at night, so that they could collect their nectar from specially chosen flowers. Linden (lime) trees yielded pale golden liquid honey with a delicate fragrance, hawthorn blossom produced a superb aromatic honey and sweet chestnut flowers gave a slightly bitter taste. Honey was taking over his life, and his home.
Inevitably a shop had to be found. Aided by a friendly builder, who was paid in honey, James Hamill opened his first small shop in Battersea in 1991 with his German wife Ute. Despite the dire mutterings of locals, the shop thrived. Last autumn, they moved to new premises. Inside, a specially designed glass-plated hive dominates the shop. The bees fly in and out via a kind of drainpipe. Their constant humming unnerves his more timid visitors.
The Hamills have tried to capitalise on every aspect of honey bees: their shelves are filled with everything from silver honey pots to pollen tablets. You can even attend bee-keeping courses or arrange for his bees to appear in a film, provided he handles them. He now has 150 hives, but with his newly planted Surrey orchard of rare apple trees - Bee Heaven Farm - I suspect that more will follow. "I would love to collect apple blossom honey," he muses. "It should taste wonderful"
The Hive Honey Shop, 93 Northcote Road, London SW11 (0171-924 6233). Mail order is available with pounds 4.94 p&p. The next bee-keeping course (pounds 125) begins on 4 May.
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