Oliver James was a coach builder until he was hit by ME, now he makes award-winning wedding cakes. Catherine Scott reports.
With St Valentine’s Day and a Leap Year, February is turning out to be an extra romantic month.
Women across the country will take advantage of the tradition which falls once every four years to pop the question to their partners.
One person who is looking forward to a surge in weddings is Oliver James.
Oliver designs, makes and decorates wedding cakes - and not just any wedding cakes.
His piece de resistance is a four tier upside down hanging wedding cake which comes in at around £850
But what makes Oliver’s story even more remarkable is the fact that until five years ago he was a fabricator and coach builder until he was struck down by illness which was to change his life forever.
“From the age of 16 I was a fabricator and coach builder. Most recently I manufactured and installed roller security shutters,” explains Oliver.
“I loved my job and I was also very fit. I did endurance mountain biking and would always be down the gym.”
But then Oliver started to feel increasingly tired.
“I kept going back to the doctors who just told me I had a virus. One minute I would be fine and the next I would be absolutely shattered and have to sit down. It is really hard to explain how terrible you feel. But I just couldn’t do my job any more. They were understanding and tried to keep it open for me but my condition just got worse and worse.”
Oliver and his wife Katie started to research his symptoms on the internet and so when he was eventually diagnosed with ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome) it didn’t come as a huge surprise.
ME is characterised by a range of neurological symptoms and signs, muscle pain with intense physical or mental exhaustion, relapses, and specific cognitive disabilities.
No one knows what causes it although some believe it could follow a virus or trauma.
Oliver had suffered an accident at work a few years before he started with the symptoms. His right arm was shattered and he under went a series of operations which he thinks could have triggered the ME.
Eventually Oliver was diagnosed with ME but it took many months.
“The only way they diagnose ME is by ruling out everything else. I think by not knowing what was wrong with me I was making it worse.
“There isn’t really any treatment for ME but you learn to recognise when it is coming on and now I know to take a break rather than pushing on like I did in the past.”
But it wasn’t just the physical problems for Oliver.
“I was used to being very active and fit and suddenly I couldn’t do the things I used to be able to do. There was also the money worries and there was one time when I thought we might lose our home.”
It was during this time that Oliver’s consultant said he should get a hobby to try to stop him getting depressed and to get him out of the house.
“I’d always liked baking at school and so I enrolled on a ten week night course. I became obsessed with it.”
Other courses followed including four day business start-up course with the mid Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce and also one in sugar craft skills.
“I walked into the room which was full of women and they thought I was in the wrong place.” There was another man on the course, a retired policeman and the pair have remained friends ever since.
But for Oliver it soon became more than just a hobby.
“It had to really,” he says. “I had to work and with ME it is hard to get or keep a job and so I thought the best idea would be to work for myself. We were also down to our last £20 so I went out and bought some ingredients and started baking.”
At first it was mainly for family and friends and mainly birthday cakes, but then Oliver realised that wedding cakes were the thing he loved doing.
Using social media, word of mouth and attending wedding fairs Oliver’s order book started to grow until he realised that he had outgrown the kitchen at the home he shared with Katie in Holmfirth.
“There were cakes everywhere,” says Katie. “If people called for a consultation we had to clear everything away and then get it all out again when they left.”
They started to look for dedicated premises where they could open a bakery and also have a showroom where Oliver could hold consultations and also sell cake making equipment.
And at the weekend Oliver James Sugar Craft Creations opened its bakery in Denby Dale.
“It is great having somewhere away from home to make my cakes. It also means that if I start to feel tired I can easily take a break.”
Oliver , who can more often be seen in his trademark tweed than chefs whites, is already taking bookings for 2017.
He admits he is a perfectionist and can often be found at wedding venues with his spirit level. And when someone wanted a hanging cake, which are popular in America, he drew on his skills as a fabricator and set about making the structure to allow the cake, which costs £850, to hang upside down.
Oliver insists customers sample his cakes before ordering.
“It can take four hours to set up a cake properly,” he says. “They aren’t cheap but why would you spend a fortune on a wedding and not splash out on an amazing cake?”
Oliver James makes all manner of wedding cakes to suit all tastes. They are all made bespokey so the bride and groom can pretty much have what they want.
“There is a big move away from fruit cake,” says Oliver. “Most people go for sponge these days allthough we do sometimes to one tier of fruit cake.”
Another trend at the moment is a ‘naked’ cake which has no icing on it and it mainly decorated with fresh fruit.
“A lot of people are also asking for dessert tables. The wedding cake will be the centre piece but there will be other desserts as well such as cupcakes.” When Oliver and Karen got married a few years ago after being together for 18 years Oliver said there was no way he was going to make their wedding cake.
“We had a cheese wedding cake,” he says. “I wasn’t going to spend hours of my wedding day assembling my own cake. And there was just too much pressure.”
Cakes start from £300 and for more information visit www.oliverjamessugarcraft.co.uk