Former HGV driver Martin Hughes thought he would never walk again after a bad accident. He tells Heather Large how woodwork helped him to start afresh…
Furniture making has become a way of life for Martin Hughes.
When the former HGV driver needed something positive to focus his energy on after a serious accident at work, he turned to woodwork.
Now the 47-year-old spends every day in his workshop in North Shropshire bringing his simple but beautiful designs to life.
Twelve years ago Martin was making a delivery to a farm in Somerset when he was struck by by a falling load from his trailer.
The impact of the two bales of straw, each weighing around 300kg, broke two of the vertebrae in his back and his right leg was broken in three places.
“It was catastrophic bad luck,” says Martin. “But I was also lucky because by some quirk of fate, a paramedic first responder was taking her tea break just a few minutes away from the farm.
“She arrived within seven minutes of the 999 call being made and was able to stop the bleeding from the compound fracture in my right leg.”
Martin was taken by air ambulance to Taunton Hospital where despite the seriousness of his condition, he was to experience more good fortune.
“By another stroke of luck, a spinal surgeon was giving a lecture at the hospital and had brought his tool kit with him. He was able to stabilise my spine.”
There were fears, however, that the severity of the injuries to his leg would mean he would never walk again and amputation may be the only option.
“I don’t remember much about the first two weeks but I know that a lot of the surgeons I saw in those first few weeks didn’t think my leg could be saved.
“But there was one surgeon who believed he could save my leg. I think it was a bit of a vanity project for him, he wanted to see how good his skills were. Turns out, they were very good.
“He was able to rebuild the bone, he fitted a piece of metal from my knee to my ankle and I had a skin graft from my left thigh,” explains Martin, who was living in Ellesmere at the time.
He was transferred to the spinal unit at The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Gobowen, Oswestry.
Despite the successful surgery on his leg, the medical team remained convinced that he was unlikely to ever walk again and began preparing him for using a wheelchair.
“The surgeon feared that I wouldn’t walk again and that I should maybe get used to the idea. Every physio session at hospital was about getting used to being in a wheelchair and lifting myself in and out,” says Martin.
“A visiting surgeon from Poland spoke to me one day. She said that positive thinking would help the outcome, as much as how I recovered from my physical injuries would, because the two things are connected. That really resonated with me and I kept it in mind,” he explains.
He spent four months in hospital and when he left he had one main goal. “I rented a bungalow in Ellesmere and told myself I was going to learn to walk again.”
Martin started building up his strength by using his standing frame which had straps to support his weight. “After a while I could balance without the strap. I thought the next logical move was to try taking a step. I took a step and fell over. I persevered and 18 months later I gave up the wheelchair.”
As part of his attempts to stay positive after leaving hospital, Martin had decided to teach himself woodwork, specifically furniture making.
“I realised I needed something to focus my energy on, other than the challenge of learning to walk again. I had gone from working long, hard hours as a lorry driver and spending days away from home to having nothing to do. There is only so much TV you can watch.
“I had always wanted to make furniture and I’d always had a love of wood. Whilst I was still in a wheelchair I bought a cheap bench and basic tools from B&Q and began to teach myself from books and YouTube videos.
“My first attempts were terrible. The first thing I made was a wine rack from plywood. I no longer have it, it was so awful. But I persevered and I got better and better. After a while I got to the point where I needed professional training,” recalls Martin.
He enrolled at one of Britain’s most respected furniture schools, Williams & Cleal, in Somerset and says it was an invaluable experience.
“I left a much-improved furniture maker,” says Martin. “They are superb furniture makers and teachers. I learned a lot about furniture design and how carcasses go together.”
Now he has his own workshop based at his home near Shrewsbury and is passionate about making it a profitable business.
“It’s a busy market to get into. I know what I make is good so it’s getting the word out there,” says Martin who sells his creations via his website, Instagram account and at a gallery in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
His design influences are largely 20th century, including Art Deco and particularly Scandinavian Mid Century.
“I like design to be functional and beautiful in its simplicity. I like curves in wood. I find taking something that grows straight and making it curvy more interesting than straight lines.”
Martin recently successfully applied to appear on the BBC One programme Make It At Market. It’s hosted by Dom Chinea who works with a team of business and craft experts to help a group of budding entrepreneurs make a living from their crafting hobby.
“Furniture designer Bruce Kenneth was one of the mentors and we share a bit of an affinity. He was born without a right hand so he’s had to learn to do everything around his disability.
“I have a permanent disability as a result of my spinal injury but I’m not letting it stop me from doing this thing I have grown to love,” he explains.
Furniture making has become an important part of Martin’s daily life and he loves bringing new ideas to fruition in his workshop. “I would hesitate to call it a job. I love it, it’s what gets me up in the morning and what keeps me going. It’s important to have something to focus on that makes you happy.”