Norfolk's Stacy Cronly-Dillon adapts farmhouse into off-grid home – Eastern Daily Press

A professional beekeeper who located from Essex to the Norfolk border during the pandemic says she and her family are now “part of the way” to fulfilling their dream of living off-grid.
For years, Stacy Cronly-Dillon says she and her husband, Mark, had dreamed of living in a house in the middle of a field and now they’ve made it a reality with the help of several colonies of bees.
Stacy started keeping bees around seven years ago, but what started off as a hobby quickly turned into a passion.
Within a year, she’d gone from one hive to 20 and says she kept wanting to be outside, in nature, rather than tied to an office. In 2018, she gave up her high-flying career in marketing and turned her hobby into a side hustle and then into a business, Sunnyfields Apiaries – but the long-held dream of living ‘off-grid’ was still getting louder.
As a result, Stacy and her husband moved from a 19th century terrace to a semi-detached home in the Essex countryside, where she’d grown up. But although the house was surrounded by fields, had a bigger garden and was on a lane, she says more and more properties were being built around them.
“The roads were horrendous,” she says. “Both my husband and I had often dreamt of living in a house in the middle of a field and would regularly point out properties and imagine living in them.”
Eastern Daily Press: Stacy started beekeeping as a hobby in 2018, going from one hive to 20 in less than a yearStacy started beekeeping as a hobby in 2018, going from one hive to 20 in less than a year (Image: Ant Jones/Box River Studios)
By the end of 2019, Stacy’s beekeeping business – inspired by her love of nature – had been growing and she and her husband were thinking of moving. “We discovered that if we moved out of Essex we could have a quieter property but also start living the dream.”
Finding and then buying a property didn’t come easily, she tells me, and several sales fell through. But in March 2021, the couple moved into a former farmhouse in Hedenham, near Bungay, where their nearest neighbours are over half a mile away. Around six months later, Stacy’s dad, who has myeloma and wanted to be nearby, moved into the annex next door.
“The house we bought was originally built in 1909, with add-ons in the 1990s,” she says. “It was originally the farmhouse for a cattle farm and the annex my Dad is in was originally the cow shed.”
READ MORE: Old rectory with huge gardens is for sale for £1.5m
Since then, the family have tried to adapt to living off-grid as much as possible, something which Stacy admits is a constant learning curve.
“Our electricity is about 75pc provided by a solar panel array and battery storage,” she explains. “Getting the balance right with that is sometimes a struggle. 
“When it’s sunny that’s when we usually want to be outside – but that’s also the best time to get the washing done [because] the solar is at full capacity.”
Eastern Daily Press: Stacy and her husband moved to their farmhouse in 2021, and her dad moved into the annex around six months laterStacy and her husband moved to their farmhouse in 2021, and her dad moved into the annex around six months later (Image: Ant Jones/Box River Studios)
Water is supplied by their own borehole – a narrow shaft dug into the ground to extract water – and then treated with the property’s own sewage treatment plant. 
“That’s a whole new experience,” admits Stacy, “but quite satisfying when you hear that the village is having issues with water supply… although we have no way of knowing how much water is available for us to use.”
How to heat the property has also been interesting, she says. “When we arrived the heat was provided by a biomass boiler but we soon realised how inefficient it was.
“We were chucking huge oak logs into it and barely getting any heat returned.
READ MORE: Couple create ‘off-grid’ cabin in a six-acre meadow
“Lack of efficiency and poor environmental credentials meant we had to change heating fuel, and after researching for months, we ended up with oil, which isn’t ideal, but the old farmhouse we bought wouldn’t work well with air source heat pumps and there are few other options.
“We have log burners in the house, so use them a lot, along with electric blankets when we don’t want the heating on. Oh, and layers – lots of layers and blankets!”
Eastern Daily Press: At Sunnyfields Apiaries, Stacy makes her own small batches of honey At Sunnyfields Apiaries, Stacy makes her own small batches of honey (Image: Ant Jones/Box River Studios)
Stacy says the property needed a lot of updating when they moved in, but being an avid reader of Country Living magazine and spending “all those years dreaming and watching property development shows” has helped – although she admits it’s also created “high [and in some cases] unattainable expectations of what can be achieved.”
“We’re still working on the property improvements,” she says, “but in the meantime, we have started to focus on the garden and particularly the apiary area, where we’ve added chickens and a veg patch.
“We’re trying to grow as much of our own veg as possible and we buy our meat locally, so try to support the wonderful local farms that we now have on our doorstep.”
Stacy says that having a business that’s grounded in helping the local environment spurs them on to look for new, and often old, ways of doing things, including planting lots of pollinator-friendly plants in the garden to keep those in the apiary happy – just like they have made her.
Part of the reason Stacy took up beekeeping as a hobby, she says, was to help her manage stress and improve her mental health. She had always liked nature, having grown up playing in her grandfather’s Essex woodland, and suspected that being outside more might help.
“Like many people, I was working long hours and didn’t realise just how much my stressful career was affecting me,” she says. “I was probably heading for burnout.
Eastern Daily Press: Part of the reason Stacy took up beekeeping was for her mental healthPart of the reason Stacy took up beekeeping was for her mental health (Image: Ant Jones/Box River Studios)
“It was only once I connected with the bees that I understood I needed a more sustainable, slow-paced existence for my own physical and mental health. There was an alternative to the relentless corporate slog I had been used to.”
Being with the bees at Stacy’s apiary, it’s impossible not to feel in the moment. It’s a completely multi-sensory experience, from as soon as she opens the hives to the moment she closes them. 
“When you open a hive of bees there is an immediate reaction and your senses are heightened,” she explains. “The smell of the hive; the bees, wax, honey, propolis – it all rises and for me brings a sense of calm.
“Then there’s the noise – if they’re in a good mood then it will be a gentle hum as they go about their business, noisier if they’re stressed or annoyed to be disturbed.
Stacy admits that when she started beekeeping, there would be times she felt overwhelmed, but deep breathing before she opened the hives helped to calm her – and the bees – and she soon associated the act of beekeeping with mindfulness. 
“I noticed that the calmer I was then the calmer the bees seemed to be. After a while I noticed that the moment I stepped up to a hive I was calm and focused,” she says.
Eastern Daily Press: Opening the hives is a multi-sensory experience and Stacy says it's really helped her to practice her own sense of mindfulnessOpening the hives is a multi-sensory experience and Stacy says it’s really helped her to practice her own sense of mindfulness (Image: Ant Jones/Box River Studios)
“You become absorbed with this thing that is bigger than you are; this superorganism that has been around for millions of years that you are a guardian for. 
“The buzz of the outside and everyday world disappears as the hum of the hive pulls you in. 
“It wasn’t long after I started my hobby that I realised the positive difference it was having on my mental health.”
Over the past few years, Stacy has tried to understand more about mental health and the benefits of beekeeping. “There haven’t been that many studies about beekeeping, specifically, but there is a lot about being outside in nature, breathing in the fresh air and noticing the sights and sounds of the world around you.
“Beekeeping can stop you and help you connect to the natural world around you. You become more aware of the seasons and the weather. 
“It can also be quite a physical activity, so it helps not just with your mental health but your fitness too!”
Eastern Daily Press: Stacy now shares her love of bees with others on experience daysStacy now shares her love of bees with others on experience days (Image: Ant Jones/Box River Studios)
Stacy now shares her love of beekeeping with others by hosting experience days throughout the summer. 
Since moving to the Norfolk-Suffolk border, Stacy’s business has continued to grow. She’s now a full-time beekeeper and has expanded the number of hives to become a guardian of 25 colonies of honeybees. Each of hives houses up to 45,000 bees.
She sells her own brand of honey made at her apiary in Hedenham – although most, she admits, stays with the bees, exactly as it should. What is more important, to Stacy, is spreading the word about the vital role the 270 species of UK bees play in pollination.
Focusing on education, Stacy runs beekeeping experiences at Sunnyfields Apiary so that people can get a bees-eye view of the world. Aimed at total beginners and those thinking about setting up a hive at home, she shares her knowledge and guides visitors through what the bees are doing and the work that each of them is carrying out. 
Stacy explains: “Each bee has its own role to play depending on its maturity, some fly to and from the hive gathering food and water, others nurse new bees in the making, whilst others dedicate their days to looking after the queen. 
“During the two-hour experience, I remove frames from the hive, enabling people to see up close the repetitive patterns of hexagonal honeycomb and striped bees.
Eastern Daily Press: Stacy says she tries to give visitors to her experience days a 'bees-eye' view of the worldStacy says she tries to give visitors to her experience days a ‘bees-eye’ view of the world (Image: Ant Jones/Box River Studios)
“My aim is to make the beekeeping experience special and unforgettable,” Stacy explains. “I want visitors to learn about the important difference the bees make by getting up-close and personal with them.
“We stimulate all of the senses; from the scent of wood and wax to the buzz of the bees themselves, and the session ends with a taste of the diverse range of honeys all produced locally.”
Sunnyfields’ beekeeping experiences are all about connecting with nature.
As you approach the property, the roads narrow and there are fewer houses, as guests park next to a 99-acre ancient woodland and life instantly slows down. In short, it’s exactly the thing Stacy always dreamed of.
“The pace of life in Norfolk is certainly more laid back than in Essex,” she says. “We are so fortunate to be surrounded by such beautiful countryside and wildlife and I don’t take that for granted. 
“Essex will always be my home county but the longer we spend in Norfolk the more I feel like I was meant to be here.”
To find out more about Stacy, her bees, and booking a beekeeping experience, visit sunnyfieldshoney.com
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