COUNTY councillor Stephen Castle is best known as cabinet member for education, but his portfolio also covers sport - and wouldn't you just know it.

A qualified ski instructor, he is also eastern regional chairman of the Sports Board. Busy as this makes him, he always ensures there is time to train three days a week at the local gym.

As a result of all that apparatus and all those ski slopes, he looks as fit as a greyhound and as lean as - well - a hungry politician.

He also has near-perfect vision that doesn't require spectacles, although for someone who runs a chain of opticians, this might be seen as a disadvantage.

The discovery of sport is something Stephen, 43, regards as the central transforming aspect of his life.

He cites as his prime mentor George Berwick CBE, the teacher who took him in hand at the Deanes School in Thundersley.

"What he did was take a nerdy, overweight, bookish young person and put me in the front row of the rugby scrum.

"It changed the way I looked at things. It taught me about things like teamwork, commitment, and the contribution the individual can make."

Sporting activities also led to him meeting Karen, now his wife.

Rugby, sailing, skiing, weight-training: Stephen Castle does them all with ease and relish.

But another, less obvious activity, is juggling.

The real art of being county councillor Castle is to juggle politics, business and family (he and Karen have two young sons) without ending up looking haggard rather than lean.

"Politics and public roles take up about 40 to 50 hours a week," he estimates.

Everything else has to be carved out of the remaining time. "It is," he accepts, "quite tough."

This is something of a milestone year for Stephen Castle as he reflects on ten years of Castle Opticians, the business he set up with his optician wife.

In a business-cum-profession dominated by conglomerate operations, Castle has more than held its own.

Avoiding malls and high streets, it has found a niche in smaller town centre locations such as Canvey (Stephen's childhood home and the head office site), Hockley and Benfleet.

Before the launch of Castle Opticians, Stephen worked for Lloyds in the City of London, but by the 1990s he had decided his heart lay in public life.

"Castle Opticians was set up to create time for full-time politics," he says.

He got his full-time politics all right, but his business life also seems to be pretty full-time.

But Stephen says the business plan has worked out pretty much as intended.

He has also qualified as a lab technician.

Cool and orderly in his business life, the eyes of this particular optical lab technician only really light up when he talks about politics.

His interest, he says, began at Seevic when he took part in a debate on the most passionate issue of the time, Britain's nuclear deterrent.

He realised politics was his future. He also identified the Conservative party as the one that most clearly matched his own convictions.

He has been vice-chairman of the Young Conservatives, but says he is not a tribal politician. "Particularly in local politics, you work with people of all parties to get the results you all want to achieve," he says.

His copybook political career covers time as a district councillor for Castle Point and an attempt at a parliamentary seat (Ipswich). Now, he says, "I am very happy where I am in local government."

Does he believe a county councillor may be able to achieve more, in concrete terms, than an MP? He smiles for a moment - and nods.

It is a quirk of politics and changing times that Stephen Castle is working to persuade thousands of youngsters not to adopt him as a role model. "I started work in the City at 18 and did not go to university," he said.

"It didn't inhibit me. I was able to make a good career in in-surance without a degree. Back then you could do that."

Now, though, his role as the county's education supremo demands a different approach.

"We have to marry our Essex entrepreneurial skills with a world-class standard of higher education and skills levels if we are going to compete with the rest of the world," he says.

His core advice to any younger person with political ambitions, or indeed any ambitions, is straightforward. "If you believe in something, you can achieve it. If you have the passion for what you are trying to achieve, you can change things for the better."

A chain of opticians may not seem, at first sight, like an obvious example of this principle.

Yet it has been built from scratch in the teeth of mighty competitors, thanks to a strong idea and the will to drive it through.

Stephen Castle stands as a case in point of his own conviction that "with the right structures in place, Essex and Essex people will be an unstoppable force." First, though, comes the vision - as any optician will tell you.