When a herd of hirsute, corduroy-clad idealists filed into Lower Shaw Farm ready to start their own green revolution and live off the land as a self-sufficient commune in the early 1980s, they raised their fair share of eyebrows.

Fast forward 35 years and the sceptics who once dismissed tenants Matt Holland, Andrea Hirsch and their lot as pipe dreamers and star-gazing hippies have not only swallowed their harsh words – they’ve joined in.

“We were slightly misunderstood,” concedes Matt. “People saw us with our beards, long-hair, corduroy and ruck sacks… I was interested in communal work, communal living, endless possibilities for education and I saw the potential for all this at Lower Shaw Farm. We thought this might be an experiment for two or three years, but that was 35 years ago.”

Strolling up to the farm past an old tractor and a pair of vibrant murals, catching the giggles of children bouncing on a pile of mattresses in an old Dutch barn, Lower Shaw Farm exudes blissful disorder.

But one shouldn’t be fooled by this apparent chaos, the pell-mell of activity, roaming poultry, café patrons, and warbling tots, and, if you pick the right day, Matt’s son Jake practicing his tight-rope walking up in the tree canopy.

Any community project on this scale requires order and military precision. And under his blithe façade, Matt is no idler. In fact, the father-of-three runs a tight ship.

“Our whole ethos gives the illusion we’re disorganised, and even though we look like a ramshackle fun place, we have an inner military order. We are very organised, serious people. We have to be.”

Despite his best efforts to keep a low profile, Matt has become the face of Lower Shaw Farm. But he is keen to set the record straight: he is only a dedicated clog in much larger machine.

“I’m just the figurehead,” he insists, moments before whisking me up into the farmhouse to reveal a state-of-the-art yoga studio in a hayloft conversion. “Although, I unblock the drains and do all the hard work,” he deadpans, true to the humble-yet-whimsical man the town has claimed as its own.

Like Rome, Lower Shaw Farm as we know it wasn’t built in a day, or a decade for that matter. Its “creation story” is about as unlikely and wacky as its tenant’s own early life.

Home to 170-odd Friesian cows, the farm, along with a handful of others along the M4 corridor, was bought through compulsory purchase order in the 1970s. The rest were duly razed, concreted over to make way for housing estates. Fortunately, money ran out just as Lower Shaw Farm’s turn came to be reduced to a pile of rubble.

It was swiftly taken over by a hodgepodge of idealists, Quakers, liberals and other free-thinkers who formed the Foundation for Alternatives in Urban Development.

Enter Matt, an Oxford-educated 20-something drawn to the tenants’ novel way of life. There, he met his wife-to-be Andrea and when their predecessors decided to leave the project after three years, they happily took it on.

They promptly set their ambitious plans to harness the farm’s potential, transform it into a creative and educational hub and reach out to the wider community in motion.

“When we first came, they had these ideas that there should be more green spaces, that we should grow organic food and this was attractive to young idealists, as we were then,” smiles Matt, who is co-director of the Lower Shaw Farm Coop, which runs farm courses, as well as a children’s project and the Swindon Festival of Literature.

“I came here at a time when people needed farming input,” he says, before hastening to clarify he did not mean to toot his own horn.

“They had lots of ideas but they lacked something and Andrea and I were probably a saving grace for the place. When we took over in 1980 we started running courses in yoga, bread-making, carpentry and we grew organic food. When we did it, it was considered revolutionary; within five years of us doing it, Sainsbury’s had an organic food department.”

Lower Shaw Farm was certainly an attractive proposition for a man who spent his early childhood in a Christian community at the heart of the Paraguayan jungle. There, he developed a life-long love for the outdoors, an ingrained respect for nature and determination to protect and nurture the environment.

Back in England, despite receiving a far more traditional education at Malmesbury Grammar School and later Oxford, he admits he never stopped “hankering after something else.”

“For a little boy who ran around barefoot, lived with Indians, hunted alligators and skinned snakes, it was a different life – Oxford was an eye-opener.”

He did give the grind of an office job a try, but the lure of the land – he spent every school holiday helping on farms around his Purton home – was impossible to resist. And that’s how he ended up on an 18th century dairy farm, off Old Shaw Lane.

Nearly four decades on, every outbuilding, barn and cowshed has been put to use either as a café, a dormitory for people participating in one of Lower Shaw Farm’s countless weekend courses – covering anything from yoga and running to jewellery-making, fungi foray and massage – or a playground.

“It’s a full experience. People stay here, they join in the cooking and laundry. By the time they leave, they’ve had a full weekend,” he grins.

Lower Shaw Farm has become a firm favourite with parents (many of whom stomped the very same ground as children many moons ago) and schools, who use it as a great tool to teach little ones about farming, growing vegetables and cooking.

But it’s not just a show and tell: children are encouraged to roll up their sleeves, dig out potatoes, collect eggs, pick apples and whip up vegetable stews or press fresh juice with their harvest.

They get to recover from a day of fun labour with a go around the play area, a visit to the animals and a spot of tea and soup at the café every Wednesday – the farm’s free open day. Lower Shaw Farm also regularly organises tractor rides, circus or craft workshops for its young visitors.

“It’s fabulous to see parents bringing their children; it’s working across generations. It’s really become a resource local people use all the time.”

The venue’s true value to its community was brought home in 2006, when the council stepped in, determined to sell off the land to the highest bidder. The plans were eventually defeated after a hard-fought campaign by the people of Swindon who rallied to it. In 2011, a 25-year lease was agreed with the council.

“We are a community that has created continuity, or maybe it’s continuity that has created community,” says Matt, lost in thought.

“Good work takes time and there’s no short-cut. It’s the time factor that has given it its strength and beauty.”

For a full schedule of events or for more details go to lowershawfarm.co.uk.