Dig in North West - the Preston gardening scheme aimed at helping former soldiers

PUBLISHED: 00:04 30 September 2013 | UPDATED: 17:40 21 October 2015

Marcus King, Clive Marshall, William Teasdale and Katie Milburn

Marcus King, Clive Marshall, William Teasdale and Katie Milburn


A project which aims to get former members of the armed forces back on their feet has taken root in a walled garden in Preston

It is rare for more than a day or two to pass without news reports of British armed forces in action somewhere in the world. Reports of the horrific things they face are commonplace and the cameras are often there when the bodies of soldiers killed in action are returned.

And next month’s Remembrance Day events – given added poignancy by the impending centenary of the start of World War One – will add to the public awareness of members of the forces.

But many more ex-servicemen and women go forgotten every day. They may not have been injured, they may not even have seen active service but they may have been through experiences most people can not begin to imagine.

Although many of them may be physically unscathed, they carry with them haunting memories and indelible mental scars.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not widely understood but sufferers can experience flashbacks, anxiety and depression which can lead to problems with addictions, anger and mental illness.

But a project in Preston is helping to give former soldiers hope. The Down to Earth group meet in what is now a beautiful walled garden but was, just over a year ago, a neglected and overgrown piece of waste ground.

The scheme was started by Donna Rowe-Green whose husband Nigel, a veteran of the Bosnian conflict, became ill about six years after he left the army. ‘Initially he was diagnosed with depression and was treated as a civilian,’ Donna said. ‘He can function very well but no-one had got on top of it until the last 12 months – he is now being treated for PTSD and is starting to see results.’

Donna has worked in horticultural therapy for more than 12 years, mostly with people with mental health issues, learning difficulties, young offenders and addicts. Down to Earth is the first project she has done with veterans and the first she has started herself.

‘I know very little about what Nigel saw or experienced and I will never understand, but these guys here understand each other. Every sense can trigger things that we can’t imagine and it’s a matter of finding a way of trying to take away the distressing feelings that come with the memories.

‘Gardening can be relaxing and can also be motivating and invigorating and it gives people something to concentrate on. The difference between horticultural therapy and gardening is that gardening is about getting involved and horticultural therapy is about matching tasks with symptoms. For instance, a very focused job such as weeding a small patch can focus the mind.

‘Gardening is normal, it’s not like going to a clinic. You can connect with anyone, whatever their background.

‘There’s a real sense of achievement from seeing a seed grow or a tomato ripen. I still get a great buzz when they start to go red so how must it be if your confidence or self-esteem is low. It’s important to recognise the small steps – what is small to one person is massive to someone else.’

The garden, which featured in the Channel Five programme Operation Homefront last month, sits in a quiet corner of Ashton Park and was once the kitchen garden for a large house nearby. It was then used by the council until the 1980s when the gate was locked and nature took hold.

When Donna enquired about possible plots for her project last year she was shown the walled garden and saw its potential immediately.

‘I thought I’d take 12 months to chip away slowly at it and get it cleared,’ she said. ‘That would give me time to do all the grown up stuff that would have to be done.

But about three weeks later I got a phone call from the production company behind Operation Homefront, where ex-military personnel help community groups around the country. The site was so overgrown, but they got it cleared in a day and gave us an astonishing start but I had nothing to offer at the time because it all happened so much quicker than I had expected.’

The project opened in March and the first crops – planted in regimented rows – have been harvested. Donna added: ‘We have done a lot. Everything but one bed was grown from seed and we have transformed this patch and it is looking good, but I don’t feel a sense of achievement yet because there is still so much work to be done.

‘This is not a project where I am leading and organising everything – the gardeners here take responsibility. It’s not my project, I’m just a tiny part of it, it’s the veterans’ project.

‘Veterans are the most amazing people, they come back with varying degrees of emotional challenges but they have all sorts of skills and a great work ethic.‘Everyone comes with something that’s holding them back, the challenge is to find what we can do to help them move on.

‘The skills they come with are so valuable and so needed, it’s about unlocking their potential and that can take weeks or it can take years. They are not damaged, they are having a natural reaction to the most un-natural things in the world. They are used to being a part of a team with structure and routine and when they leave the forces they lose that focus and direction and that can be very tough.’

To find out more go to diginnorthwest.org.uk.

Who can help

Serving and former service personnel in Preston can be given help and advice on a range of subjects by the city’s Armed Forces Group which was formed earlier this year. The group is currently housed in the Council for Voluntary Service office in the Guild Hall arcade, and spokesman Tony Richards said: ‘We are a signposting and advice group for serving and ex-servicemen. No-one is excluded, we see people from World War Two onwards.

‘We see people who are dealing with homelessness, or are needing work, or have health problems and any number of other issues and we try to point them in the right direction. We can’t solve their problems for them but we try to direct them to people who can help.’

For more information call 01772 251108, or go online to armedforcesgroup.org.uk.

Four more useful numbers

Combat Stress, Helpline 0800 138 1619, combatstress.org.uk.

SSAFA Forces Help, Helpline 0845 241 7141, ssafa.org.uk

Royal British Legion, Lancashire, based on the Ackhurst Business Park in Chorley. General Welfare 01257 244699, britishlegion.org.uk.

Samaritans, 08457 909090, samaritans.org.

Marcus King

Marcus King was with the 1st battalion Worcester and Sherwood Foresters Regiment for four years from the age of 18 and witnessed two incidents of ‘friendly fire’ which affected him deeply. ‘That changed how I thought about everything,’ he said. He suffered two breakdowns and was left frustrated by care offered through the NHS but is now being assessed for PTSD.

‘I’m not a gardener, I have no interest in it, but the routine of coming here every week and the camaraderie and being with like-minded people who have had similar experiences is great.

‘There are days when I come in and talk and there are days when I don’t want to talk but we can pick up on how each other is feeling and we know when to chat and when not to. The biggest help for us is each other.

‘The clinical approach is not always going to work. We don’t want special treatment, we just don’t want to be treated like we’re on the scrapheap.

‘We’re all brought up to think that killing and violence is wrong and then we get re-trained by the army but when we leave the army, there’s no re-training back and it can be hard to adjust. This has been going on for me for 20 years.’

Clive Marshall

Clive Marshall left the forces in 2001, after two tours each of Bosnia and Northern Ireland. He said: ‘We’re all the same here, we’ve all been through the same feelings and we can banter with one another. We all know where we stand. There’s no rank here, everyone’s friendly but we want more people to come and be a part of the club. There are people who are in a dark place and hopefully they will see this and come along and start to get themselves back to normal.

‘I got progressively worse and had to give up work but I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until earlier this year. Coming here has helped me re-integrate and I’m happier now than I have been for a long time. I’m like a different person and I can’t thank people enough for the help I’ve been given.’

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