Any of the regular visitors to the Peace Garden at Minsteracres in Northumberland, will tell you how transformational their time there can be. For two in particular, the difference it makes for them is profound.
Bryan Green and Ray Warner have both retired from the armed services and each has suffered enduring mental health problems as a result of their time there.
It was Bryan who first stumbled on Minsteracres. "I had lived in Consett for 30 years, passing the gates to the then monastery and wondering what was there. Then, in May this year, I spotted that there was an open day and came up to have a look. Everyone was friendly, from the community to the staff and the volunteers, and lots of people mentioned the need for more volunteers."
Bryan found his way to the Peace Garden and describes an immediate connection with the place, "As soon as I got in the gates I felt the difference." He talked to Ross and Katrina who run Let's Get Growing, a charity specialising in horticultural therapy based in the Peace Garden, about jobs that needed doing.
Ever practical, his next visit to the garden was with a strimmer. Bryan's 25 years as a 'spanner' (mechanical engineer) in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corp means that he has considerably more than a passing acquaintance with the workings of everything from lawn mowers to tractors, knowledge that has proved extremely useful in the garden. Throughout the summer Bryan was regularly to be seen mowing the grass, fixing machinery and repairing the benches in the Peace Garden. Like so many other visitors Bryan insists that he gets as much out of the garden as he puts in, "It's such a lovely place, and such lovely people."
It was Bryan who introduced Ray to the garden. The two men had met around six years ago at a club for veterans. "We just seemed to hit it off," says Ray, who served for 31 years, some in the 19 Field Regiment and later the TA 101 Regiment. For 17 years Ray was principal carer for his wife, who died last year after 42 years of marriage. All of this has taken a considerable toll on him. "I signed up for sickness and health and I stuck to my guns," he says, but the stress of being a fulltime carer and the problems he developed after leaving the army led eventually to a breakdown.
"As a soldier, when you're in a conflict you're with others doing the same thing, but when you come out and you're on your own you become hyper aware - alarm bells start ringing."
There are times when Ray cuts himself off, when he can't cope with even everyday things, "I can go without eating for days," he says.
Coming to Minsteracres gives both men a sense of peace. "The pressure comes off. When we walk in the woods I'm always the last back. I'm in my own world with not a care," says Ray. Bryan agrees, "You can lag behind, but you know someone is watching your back. I can be here working on my own or with other people, talking about everything or nothing. It's so nice."
"Here I can do things at my own pace," says Ray. "There are days when I can get through two whole vegetable beds and others when I can hardly pull a weed, but no one is pushing you."
Bryan, who has been involved with a number of groups for former army personnel, says the key to his recovery was recognising he could use what he had experienced and learned in his life to help others. "I saw my life in a different way then," he says.
Taking all this into account, it is no surprise that he that felt an immediate connection with the Let's Get Growing scheme. As Ross explains, "The essence of what we want to awaken in people is a sense that everyone faces challenges of many different natures but that we benefit from feeling our sense of common humanity and that we all struggle in different ways." For Bryan and Ray, that common sense of humanity is what keeps them coming back.
Read more about Minsteracres here: www.minsteracres.org
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