Interview: Alan Holland, Manager at Twigs Community Gardens

By Barrie Hudson - 25 January 2023

Community
  • Alan Holland

    Alan Holland

Swindon Link's Barrie Hudson spoke to Alan Holland - the manager of Swindon-based organisation Twigs Community Gardens.

“It’s a very grounding activity, gardening,” said Alan Holland.

This is something the people who are helped by Twigs Community Gardens know very well.

Although the organisation, based at the Manor Garden Centre site on the Cheney Manor Industrial Estate, has been around for a quarter of a century, many people do not know of its work.

Established in November of 1997 by Anne Billingham, a visionary social entrepreneur, Twigs provides horticultural and craft-based activities for people who are struggling with their mental health.

It is part of the Recovery Tree charity, which also runs the Olive Tree Cafe at the nearby garden centre, which provides work opportunities for people recovering from or at risk of mental illness.

Mr Holland has worked there since 1999, having previously worked at a residential school for boys with emotional and behavioural problems.

For anybody who wonders how something so seemingly ordinary as gardening can help people who are recovering from mental health issues, Mr Holland is happy to explain.

“While you’re immersed in the garden, all your senses are being bombarded with the sound of bird calls, the wind through the trees. the sun on your face.

“You are stimulated to be grounded in the moment, whereas quite often when people are suffering from depression, their thought processes are tied up with things that have happened in the past. For people with anxiety, quite often it’s being concerned with things that might happen in the future.

“That grounding to the moment gardening can give us, or indeed being in any natural environment, can take us away from those negative thought processes. We start to slow down and tune in to what’s around us.

“Basically, we all have what is called biophilia, this innate connection to nature which all of us have from millennia past, and I think we don’t necessarily feel complete or at ease if we are detached from the natural world.”

Does modern life play a role in this detachment?

“To a degree. In the age of the laptop, the mobile phone, screens, the amount of time we all spend sitting in front of screens - I think that is an unnatural thing for us. It’s very tiring on our brains and our concentration and our eyes.

“We can end up with a feeling of being mentally drained. Attention Restoration Theory is one of the theories behind horticultural therapy, and basically that is explaining that we are so unrelaxed when we’re on our screens. We’re heightened to being asked about something or finding out about something, and it’s absorbing all our attention away from relaxing stimulus.

“The garden is able to give us that, and if we have had time sitting at a screen, just sitting in the garden for 15 minutes, not necessarily doing gardening activities but just sitting in the garden, can repair, if you like, our fraught brain.”

Thousands of people have been helped by Twigs over the years, and there are currently about 60 clients.

People generally spend a year with Twigs, and can attend up to two morning or afternoon sessions per week.

In addition to gardening, there are opportunities to take part in crafts.

“We have currently got a volunteer who is teaching people to throw on the potter’s wheel on Thursday mornings.

“In the run-up to Christmas we had lantern-making workshops, and we look to, where funding permits, buy in artists to come and provide complete programmes for us, series of six or eight workshops.”

There are 54 volunteers, with opportunities always open for more.

The organisation has significant backing from Swindon Borough Council and a number of other organisations including Zurich, but is always happy to hear from individuals and companies able to offer help.

Some of the people helped by Twigs are referred by professionals while others self-refer.

The Twigs website, twigscommunitygardens.org.uk, has full details and referral information.

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