How Hayling Island beekeeper John Geden is helping his fellow former servicemen
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 April 2020
Jonathan Buckmaster/Daily Express
Are bees nature’s healers? Emma Caulton asks John Geden, soldier and detective turned beekeeper.
You can’t see the wounds, but they’re there.
With a smile, John Geden welcomes me into his family home on Hayling Island where he lives with his wife Jo and their two daughters. This quiet out of the way spot is in striking contrast to John’s life in the army and police, with its tales of adventure and derring-do. You wouldn’t guess that this seemingly cheerful man struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And you might not notice his limp; from a paragliding accident with the Territorial Army back in 1995 when he fell 120ft – incurring a life-changing injury.
But I’m here to talk bees. As John, soldier and detective turned beekeeper, recently launched WiSP, a natural balm using propolis (a resinous mixture considered to have medicinal qualities) from his hives. It quickly becomes apparent that bees play a significant role regarding John’s own health.
He explains: “I owe a lot to bees. I’ve been through some low times and the best thing is putting on my beekeeping suit and sticking my head into 20 beehives. All the negative thoughts pass.”
Those negative thoughts are the result of 32 years in the army and police. He served in Northern Ireland before being selected for Sandhurst (“I was considered to be officer material”), followed by becoming a commissioned officer with the Royal Military Police and latterly commanding the Royal Military Police airborne unit in Aldershot.
Following a decade in the army he resigned his commission in 1992 after marrying Jo. It was around this time that he started keeping bees as a hobby.
“It was simply a lovely thing to do,” he says. “I remember visiting Southsea Show while I was still serving in the army and seeing beekeepers there.”
On leaving the army John was given a resettlement allowance. Although John said he didn’t need it, his colonel insisted he use it, and so John spent the money on a beekeeping course at Sparsholt College.
“I was trained by local legend bee farmer John Cossburn, who is based in Romsey. He taught me my beekeeping skills and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Back then John kept two or three hives in the back garden. When he started with Hampshire Police he would take occasional pots of honey into the police stations where he worked, first as a uniformed officer in a variety of roles including traffic officer, family liaison and hostage negotiator. Then, following promotion to Detective Inspector, he spent the rest of his career investigating serious crime – child abuse, homicide and kidnap, and was seconded to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (CEOP), part of the National Crime Agency.
“This took me around the world, tracking down British paedophiles in other countries, including involvement with some well-known cases, bringing child sex offenders to justice and safeguarding vulnerable children.”
During this time John mainly operated in Thailand and Cambodia, where he also delivered training to Cambodian police officers on serious crime investigation techniques. Last year John’s work was recognised by the Cambodian Government and he was awarded the Order of Sahametrei (Grand Officer) – basically a Cambodian knighthood or MBE.
Ultimately, however, this had all taken a toll on his mental health. In 2014, after 32 years of military and police service, John was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD.
“I had been having horrible nightmares for some time. It wasn’t good. I withdrew from the world. I left Hampshire Police and retired.”
John underwent months of treatment for depression and anxiety caused by PTSD. This included Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and one of the things suggested was mindfulness.
“The aim was to involve myself in something naturally immersive which in effect blocked out negative and anxious thoughts. Beekeeping did that for me.”
As beekeeping was his salvation from the effects of PTSD, he decided to upscale his hobby into a bee-farming business. Now called Sinah Common Honey, he has about 200 hives in apiaries around Hampshire, including Hayling Island, Havant, Emsworth and even Beaulieu in the New Forest.
“It’s not about making money,” says John. “It never was and never will be. I have to declare it as a business, but it hasn’t made a profit yet! It’s about keeping fit and healthy. If it became too serious it’d take away the enjoyment and dilute the benefits I get from keeping bees.
“This led to me teaching a beekeeping course to army veterans and injured servicemen and women for Help for Heroes at Tedworth House Recovery Centre, Tidworth [on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border]. It has had a huge response and is their most oversubscribed course.
“What’s really lovely is that many have gone on to take up the hobby,” he adds. “At least three people now earn a partial income from beekeeping, supplementing war pensions and disability grants, having never set eyes on a hive before.
“I also worked with a beekeeping supplier to produce especially adapted beekeeping suits to fit servicemen and women with prosthetic limbs.”
Last April, in recognition of this work, John won the Soldiering On Awards Business of the Year – Community Impact Award. At the time John commented that he considered it an honour to run beekeeping courses that may help relax troubled minds by focusing on something natural and amazing. Then he realised there was another way that his beekeeping activities could help ex-servicemen and women.
“I’m in awe of our servicemen and women. When I was in the army I had three operational tours, but they were nothing like Afghanistan or Iraq – these conflicts have been increasingly kinetic with a lot of injuries.
“I was talking to one of the chaps who had lost an arm and a leg. He said that what was making him low was the pain caused by the socket of the prosthetic limb rubbing on his leg. Nothing he had tried to relieve the pain had worked. I asked if he had tried propolis and I came home and, much to my wife’s disgust, mixed up a couple of batches of propolis, beeswax, shea butter and vegetable oil on the cooker.”
It was obvious John needed someone to help make this mixture more appealing. As it happened, when John mentioned what he was trying to do to the man mentoring him with regard to business, he was able to introduce John to Debbie Mulkern, herbalist, aromatics expert and founder of New Forest Aromatics.
“Debbie’s such a lovely person. We joke that she’s the witch of the New Forest with her lotions and potions. She took my balm and, although it is all my propolis and beeswax, she has added ingredients that make it smell and feel lovely.”
So WiSP balm was born. Its name is based on an abbreviation used by the military to describe Wounded, Injured and Sick Personnel, and a minimum of £1 for every pot of WiSP sold goes to Help for Heroes. Since WiSP’s launch last summer, John and Debbie have already raised £1,000.
“We’ve had lots of feedback to say it works. We’ve given it to New York marathon runners and they said their feet felt protected and they didn’t get blisters. Sales are good.”
Poignantly, John may be in need of his own WiSP balm. When he left the army, he joined a reserve company of military police in the Territorial Army. This was when he was involved in a bad paragliding accident – falling 120ft, breaking many bones and smashing his right leg to pieces. He was almost killed. He shows me the X-rays revealing the damage.
“Walking any distance is difficult and I take prescription painkillers,” he says. “Sadly, there’s no other option than to amputate my leg below the knee. The date has been set for October… After that I have a period of around two months in a wheelchair waiting for the wound to heal before I can get a prosthetic fitted and learn to walk again. I am told that I should be up and on my feet walking normally by early March 2021.
“Still there’ll be no problem with fancy dress; I’ll be Long John Geden!”
John is impressively resolute in the face of adversity. He is also determined to continue to help others, while the bees continue to help him. He considers: “Bees will always be my friends…”
And off he goes to stick his head in a few beehives.