Face to face: Michael Hill

In her latest Face to Face interview KAREN BETHELL talks to former Holt town council chairman Michael Hill who, after years of spending every waking hour devoted to work and community life, was forced to take a step back 5 years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer.

In her latest Face to Face interview KAREN BETHELL talks to former Holt town council chairman Michael Hill who, after years of spending every waking hour devoted to work and community life, was forced to take a step back 5 years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. Following a series of gruelling chemotherapy sessions, Michael recovered, but his illness has made him look a life in a new light . . .

Michael spent his early years living in a prefabricated, asbestos bungalow on land owned by Holt wine merchant Alfred Lee, for whom his father John worked.

The family found themselves homeless when Mr Lee decided to knock down the bungalow, but were delighted when Michael's mother was offered a job as secretary by the Ancient Order of Foresters Friendly Society in nearby Bull Street.

The position came with a next-door cottage, and Michael, his parents and two sisters carried their possessions across the road and made themselves at home.

After learning that the office's previous incumbent had framed customers' pictures as a sideline, Michael's father saw a business opportunity and, after handing in his notice at A Lee, began framing and selling paintings with the help of local builder Ernie Wright.

Demand grew and, when his mother became ill, Michael, then 15, found himself forced to give up the offer of an apprenticeship with a draughtsman at Rugby to help out.

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He left Fakenham Grammar School the day after sitting his last O Level, and the company became J Hill and Son.

In 1971, Michael's father scraped together the £10,000 he needed to buy Lees Yard from his former employer, and father and son set about turning one of the warehouses on the site into an art gallery.

Michael and his wife Teresa, whom he met as a teenager, took over the company after his parents retired and the couple embarked on an ambitious project to transform Lees Yard into a retail complex.

Michael also threw himself into community life, serving as a town councillor, as president of Holt St John Ambulance, and as a governor of Sheringham High School, where sons Adrian and Simon were students.

Lees Yard went on to win a Nat West Bank gold award for merchandising, but, in the middle of a further improvement scheme in 2003, Michael, who had only recently recovered from a muscle weakening condition, was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Adrian took leave from his job as a manager for Boots to oversee the completion of the project, while Simon, a chartered accountant, helped with the financial side.

Adrian later bought the gallery, with Michael returning to work to run the framing centre and artists' materials shop.

A devoted grandfather of 3 baby girls, Michael still suffers from the after-effects of cancer treatment. But, he says, a positive outlook, and a loving family keep him “99 per cent” well.

What is the best thing about your job?

The diversity - you never know what is going to come through the door next and, in the past, we have framed the jaws of a great white shark, and were even visited by LS Lowry.

And the worst?

Being ill has left me with an overwhelming weariness which can't be cured with sleep. It is a huge problem to fight it when you have been so active and constantly on the go.

What is the one thing you would save if your house was on fire?

When you have been at death's door, it is very hard to look back as you just want to say, “what has gone has gone” and look forward. However, I would save my laptop which has all my photographs on it, including ones of my grandchildren and of two special holidays with Teresa to Austria and Switzerland which were all part of me getting better.

Where do you go to unwind?

For a drive in the car with the top down.

What is your favourite Norfolk building?

I have always been absolutely fascinated by architecture and I love the beauty and symmetry of Blickling Hall.

Have you ever done anything outrageous?

No, I'm the world's most boring man! Although I do think you have to be serious running your own business, I can say that humour is everything to me. I have always seen the lighter side and that is what has got me through some of the darker times.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would like to have more time to spend with my family. Because chemotherapy was so gruelling, it would have been easy to refuse treatment, but it is our closeness that got me through and, if I regret anything, it is that it has always been work, work, work.

What is your proudest moment?

Seeing my sons being born, but it was also an incredible privilege to serve Holt as town council chairman during the millennium year.

And your greatest achievement?

Seeing Lees Yard how I always dreamed it would one day look.

Who do you most admire?

My wife; she has fascinated me from the day I met her and she has been my guardian angel.

Do you have any fears or phobias?

Spiders - they terrify me!

What makes you angry?


Favourite book, film and TV programme?

I don't read and I don't watch films, but I do like The Apprentice with Sir Alan Sugar. I think it is wonderful that someone from such a humble background can achieve so much.

How would you like to be remembered?

Beyond anything else, as being a good dad, husband and granddad.