Spending a morning with Stuart at his house complete with brimming sheds, storage units and workshops is to see a man who has built a career and a life on good preparation, excellent planning and exacting execution of projects. “I am basically a mad inventor”, he tells me as he shows me some of the fascinating articles he has designed and made for people with disabilities who don’t want their disability to get in the way of their life, their hobby or their career. “Here’s a pool cue rest that I made for a keen pool player who became paralysed down the left side of his body after a stroke. This one won a REMAP prize”, he tells me. “And here’s a picture of an adapted WiiFit board which went into York Hospital so kids on crutches or in wheelchairs could use it”. He goes on to explain that REMAP is the Rehabilitation, Engineering, Movement Advisory Panel, or in the words of its members, “Retired Engineers Making Anything Possible”.
Stuart’s engineering career started at age 15 when he left school to go to Junior Engineering College for a year’s pre-apprenticeship training, followed by an apprenticeship as a fitter with Rowntrees. Forty two years later, following a career that saw him oversee cocoa bean roasting plants in Russia and give technical advice on moulding and wrapping plants across the world (Nestlé, who took over Rowntrees in 1988, are the owners of the Kit Kat chocolate bar), Stuart left the company in 2010, at the age of 58. I asked him why he chose to leave then, and he told me that there were a few reasons that made him realise the time was right. “I wanted to leave the job while I was really enjoying it”, he tells me. “Quite a lot of people get bitter and twisted at the end of their career, and some people don’t go because they are afraid of retirement. At work my successor was in place; I’d spent a few years developing him to take over from me, and I’d have felt guilty if I’d gone on for another 5 years and made him wait. And I had my plan in place.”
Intrigued, I ask Stuart to tell me more about the plan. “Di, my wife, used to work in a bank and every month she does a spreadsheet outlining our income and expenditure, and every year another one with our assets. She worked out that if I left work we could cover all our expenses and have £500-£600 a month left over. And that was enough for us”. “So was it just a Financial Plan?”, I ask him. “Far from it”, he tells me firmly; “I believe you shouldn’t just start new pursuits on retirement, you should start trying out things before you retire to see if you like them. And I knew I’d need to meet new people and find new groups to be part of, so I started looking around for those before I left too. I also worked out how much time I wanted to spend with each one. And also I knew that two other things were really important for me – learning new things and variety, so I started to plan how l was going to have those in my life as well.”
“That all sounds very impressive”, I admit with a little bit of scepticism mixed in with admiration, “But do such well-made plans really come to exact fruition?” In reply, Stuart takes me on a tour of his outhouses. Firstly we look at what to me looks like a bicycle frame and a bin bag full of junk. “This is my latest motorbike project”, he tells me, brimming with enthusiasm. “What you see here now will end up like one of these”. “These” turned out to be 9 classic motorbikes, all which had started in some form of disrepair, and most were now gleaming machines, adorned with chrome, boasting glorious paint jobs and smelling of old leather and new parts. Though Stuart owns a Triumph and a BMW, he now specialises in Italian bikes. There’s a 1960 98cc Gilera (still in bits), a Laverda, the Moto Morini which is built like a Swiss watch and a 750 Ducati Supersport. “Each time I do a new one, I try to learn something new. When I did up this Moto Guzzi Lolola I taught myself how to do electronic ignition and a proper paint job. And I research its history, and for each one I do a circuit diagram to show people the details of how it works.”
This desire to share with others has led Stuart to writing up the progress of his work and sharing it with readers of Real Classic magazine. This in turn has led to correspondence and relationships with people all over the world who seek his advice on doing up their own bikes. Often Stuart will make a part they are missing, or do drawings for them, or write painstaking notes on what they should next in their efforts to get their classic bikes up and running again. And yes, he does ride his own bikes too!
Next Stuart shows me into his tiny woodworking shop where he does wood turning, marquetry and wood carving. He tells me that a REMAP client with Parkinson’s got him into marquetry and he uses all his skills with wood to make presents for friends and family. He shows me fascinating and beautiful boxes with secret drawers, intricate and mathematically ingenious carved objects which require the carving to start “inside out” and generously and spontaneously gives me a gift for my step daughter of a lovely jewellery tree made out of walnut wood. “Creativity is great but it can be lonely, so I belong to all sorts of groups where we learn from each other and have a chance to practise and develop new techniques. But I am strict about when I go, so for example, I go to wood carving group on a Friday in winter only”.
I ask Stuart how much time he gets to spend with his wife, as he’s up and busy on his projects from 7am to 7pm every day. “Well, she is my second pair of hands when I need them on a bike repair”, he tells me grinning; “But she retired before me and she developed her own routines, and so I developed mine to complement hers. And we do spend more time together when we are in France”. During his career, Stuart and Di spent 5 years living in Switzerland and whilst there they fell in love with the Alps. They saved up, they crossed the border and bought a small place in Samoens. When they aren’t there themselves, they let it out cheaply to friends and family, and it looks after itself financially. I ask them about their life out there. It turns out that Stuart is a level 9 skier (about as good as you can get) and he keeps learning by doing different off-piste courses every year. He also cycles, runs and he and Di walk in the hills and valleys and chill out. “It’s the one time I read literature”, he tells me, “and its where I write my articles for Real Classic magazine”.
If you think it sounds as if Stuart does more exercise than most people half is age, you’d be right. He still plays badminton and squash and has completed the ascent of 222 out of the 287 Monroes in Scotland, including the daunting Inaccessible Pinnacle which required Stuart to teach himself abseiling on a friend’s walnut tree.
I ask him whether life is not only full, but also fulfilling. “I can’t think of anything else I want. The three years have flown by and I don’t miss work at all. We don’t have kids, but I suppose you don’t miss what you’ve never had and I like to stay in touch with my nieces and their kids, and my friends’ kids too. We have lots of child contact even without having children of our own”. He’s thoughtful for a moment; “It’s difficult when you retire to have patience, as you recognise you don’t have much time left, and you realise you have to really use the time you do have”.
He finishes our conversation by telling me, “I’ve always been a hands person, whilst Di has been a brains person, and I know I need to keep my brain active too. I do need challenges in my life but I am learning to chill out and I’ve consciously slowed down with my sport as I want my body to go on as long as possible. I know this is just another life phase – a really good one – but there will be another one after this when the squash matches and the motorbikes will have to go. But the sedentary stuff I can do forever.”
“And I bet you’ll plan for that next phase too”, I laugh. “I bet I will”, agrees Stuart chuckling, “and in good time too”.
Stuart’s Prime Time Tips are:
- Plan for the next phase of your life well before you leave work
- Find yourself new groups and new people to spend this next phase of life with
- Variety in life is the key to satisfaction and happiness
- Keep learning and practising new things; really stretch yourself
- Keep your brain and your body active
- Recognise this is a great phase of life with so many opportunities
- And don’t forget to plan for the next phase of your life, when you will be less physically active, too