THERE is some hubbub in one of TWIGS Community Gardens’ polytunnels. Users are huddled around an apple press, heads craned in expectation as a handy helper twists a crank, squeezing out a steady drip of fresh juice.

The flurry over, the diligent band splits apart. Some head out to their plots, others stay behind to tend to the rows of shoots lining the tunnel.

As far as meets the eye, they are just another amateur gardening group plodding away at their allotments.

But this is no hobby club - though the fun and camaraderie are a vital component of TWIGS.

For the handful of men and women hunched over plants or hunkered down in the soggy soil this is therapy; a lifeline without which many would while away the hours barricaded at home at the mercy of their thoughts.

"I've thought about ways I would end my life, I definitely wouldn't have done it, but I thought about it," confides TWIGS user Marc, from Penhill, who joined the charity five months ago.

"Being here, gardening, it helps with your thoughts. When you're feeling really down it's really hard to control what you're thinking about," he adds timidly.

After a decades-long battle with depression the 42-year-old took the life-changing step to fight back and seek help. The isolation had grown so unbearable, he explains, it only compounded his mental health issues.

"I didn't tell anybody for years,” he goes on.

“I know now the worst thing I could have done was hide it from people. I still have ups and downs at the moment. But taking the isolation and boredom out of it has really made me feel better. It's made me a lot more hopeful about things."

Marc's story is only too common among TWIGS users.

And while the community project is seeing some improvements in the way mental health issues are perceived and handled, the enduring social stigma surrounding it too often condemns sufferers to silence.

"Even though I've seen things improve in the last 18 years I've been working here, there's still a taboo around mental health," says service manager Alan Holland.

"You can understand why people are reluctant to mention it. They learn to bottle things up, because of people's attitudes towards mental health. And we're part of breaking down that stigma.

“One in four people will experience a mental health problem in their life. When you think about the population of Swindon - with 220,000 people - there are thousands of people out there who could benefit from this kind of intervention.”

TWIGS was launched in 1997 where Manor Garden Centre stands today by community stalwart Anne Billingham and a small but dogged group of volunteers, to provide gardening activities for people experiencing mental health problems.

The charity moved to its current site a stone's throne from the centre, two years later. Its single-minded team has waged a war against silence ever since, slowly but surely breaking down barriers for those deemed lacking by an unforgiving society and giving them a helping hand through a daunting recovery process by teaching them new skills in the great outdoors.

“Anne’s belief was that engaging people who are experiencing mental health problems through gardening and being in touch with nature was therapeutic,” says Alan, motioning to the strip of landscaped gardens ahead.

“This place is a testament to the abilities of people who often have been written off by society because of the nature of their mental health problems.”

With seven ‘themed’ gardens, polytunnels, an orchard and vegetable and herb plots to tend to, there is no shortage of graft for users. If horticulture does not appeal, they can try their hand at a variety of craft activities from tapestry to woodwork.

The service receives 50 per cent of its £135,000 annual running costs from the council. The rest is raised through fundraising, donations and the sale of the produce grown and artworks created by users.

The charity supports an average of 90 people and counts 27 volunteers and six members of staff. Alan is the only one employed full-time.

Weaving one’s way around the two acres of land, the most arresting and surprising feature is no doubt the Iron Age inspired roundhouse taking pride of place amid the landscaped plots. This, Alan explains, is a physical embodiment of what TWIGS can and has achieved over the years.

“It was built by a young man who came to us in 2000,” recalls Alan.

“He was doing an art degree and got into drugs and alcohol and dropped out. He was not motivated to do any of the gardening. So I asked him if there was anything he’d like to do. He said he wanted to build a roundhouse.

"He started doing the drawings and digging a hole with a shovel and gradually other people joined him. He got on top of his mental health again, he had kicked the drugs and alcohol in a few months, got back on his course and he’s an award-winning artist now.

"This project was a major part of his recovery and it’s become an important part of TWIGS.”

Most users suffer from anxiety and depression and only need ‘temporary support’, like Colin Green, who until five years ago was, by his own admission, a fulfilled, contented man. But the sudden death of his wife sent him spiralling. Overwhelmed with the depth of his own grief, he struggled to see a way to go on without her.

"I was not quite suicidal but not far off," confides the 63-year-old from Meadowcroft.

"It knocked me down sideways. You just shut yourself away," said Colin, who has been sprucing up TWIGS’ feature gardens for the past 18 months.

"I feel more like the old me. I used to be outgoing but when she died it really hit my confidence. Here, we've all got problems; yet we all muck in together and make each other feel better, that's the way with TWIGS. We're all the same."

Some members have been diagnosed with far more severe and enduring conditions like schizophrenia or personality disorders. Increasingly, the team is receiving new referrals from dementia patients.

Although many users eventually fly the coup, some like Gordon John Haydon, choose to stay on as volunteers, support vulnerable clients and show by example that a more auspicious future is just around the corner.

"I was a bit lost, depressed when I first came here," says the 69-year-old from Toothill, who first visited TWIGS 12 years ago, having become rudderless after taking early retirement.

"But doing it is the best thing I've ever done. I found a purpose and it's taught me to appreciate people and not to dismiss their problems.

"It's still difficult for people to talk about mental health problems, even today but we're here. It seems quite simple, the gardening and everything but it works."

When their two years with TWIGS are up (some don’t always need such a lengthy stretch of support however) some get back into employment or steadily find their feet again in society, while others never quite return to life as they knew it. But ultimately, Alan insists, returning to work is not in itself a measure of success or an individual's worth. And it certainly is not the be all and end all for staff and volunteers.

"People may not be able to hold paid employment; the nature of the issues they’re battling means working is not realistic and society looks at people like that as a burden on the state somehow," he says.

"But by volunteering and helping to maintain a beautiful space like this in Swindon they are making a meaningful contribution to their community.

“That’s a huge achievement and it shouldn’t be overlooked.”

TWIGS is on the Manor Garden Centre site, Cheney Manor, SN2 2QJ. To find out more go to

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