Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust (LPT) is helping veterans with mental health conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), by giving them the chance to take part in a new allotment therapy to support their mental health and wellbeing – which also has the backing of one of Britain’s most well-known and loved TV gardeners.

The new project will see veterans working together to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers on a specially renovated plot, allocated by Leicester City Council, at Boston Road Allotments, in Beaumont Leys. The produce they grow will be donated to local community shops and food banks, to support those who are under financial strain.

Within the allotment, there will also be an area of flowers representing the five stages of grief, to mark of the process of recovery many veterans go through after leaving the armed forces. In order to get some advice on the best flowers to use for the display, one of the volunteers involved in the project, former RAF firefighter Mark Eyres, wrote to TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh MBE. Mr Titchmarsh kindly replied with his advice and wished Mark good luck, noting it was a ‘worthwhile’ project.

Brendan Daly, LPT’s armed forces lead, said: “We were so excited to hear from Mr Titchmarsh and to have his backing. We are really hopeful this project will be a big success as there are so many elements that we know can help people’s wellbeing coming together into one experience.

“There are now many studies that have shown that getting outside in nature has positive effects on the mind. It also helps people to get vitamin D from being in the sun, which can help with depression, and daytime light exposure, which supports better sleep and therefore can improve mood. This project will also give our veterans a purpose and something to nurture for the local community, helping to distract them from intrusive thoughts and giving them space to relax. They will get the opportunity to speak to and work with fellow veterans, providing them with the camaraderie they felt when they were in the armed forces and connecting them with others who are going through similar experiences, allowing them to support each other and build their self-esteem.”

The allotment site has been cleared and made ready to use, including adaptions such as raised beds and new paths for wheelchair access, with the help of local construction businesses, Olivetti and CR Civils. Funding for the project has also partly been provided by Virgin O2 Together Fund via an application from LPT’s charity, Raising Health. Coalville Air Cadets, squadron  1188, also kindly fundraised to buy a Tommy soldier silhouette for the allotment.

On Wednesday 2 November, representatives from all organisations involved in the project came together to carry out a formal ribbon cutting event to mark the completion of the work and the official opening of the allotment.

Cathy Ellis, chair of LPT, said: “At Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust we are committed to supporting our veteran community, just as they have supported us and our country through their service. In July this year we were re-accredited as a Veteran Aware Trust, following a formal review by the Veterans Covenant Healthcare Alliance (VCHA), reaffirming our commitment to improve armed forces veterans’ care. I am delighted that we can launch yet another opportunity for veterans living in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland to get the support they need.”

Mark Powell, managing director of LPT, said: “The veteran allotment project is a great example of showing that not all therapy needs to take place inside or in a traditional way. We have listened to feedback from our veterans, as well as our health professionals, to offer an innovative solution that we hope will have a huge impact, not only on the veterans, but also the local community too. It has been great to see us working in partnership with the local council and construction companies to launch this project and I’d like to thank them for their support.”

Leicester’s assistant city mayor for public health and the city council’s Armed Forces champion, Cllr Vi Dempster, said: “We are delighted to be donating an accessible allotment plot and supporting this important project, which is one of several public health initiatives we have in place to encourage people to get involved in gardening. Our Food Plan prioritises local growing schemes and sets out how we can build heathy, resilient communities by making better choices about where we get our food.

“The mental health benefits of gardening are now as clear and well-documented as the physical benefits it provides. By bringing together ex-forces servicemen and women in this project, we will give them the opportunity not only to support each other with their mental and physical health, but also to get together, socialise and support their wider community.”

As well as the veteran allotment project, LPT also offers veterans the opportunity to take part in other innovative therapies such as the Trust’s swimming with rescue dogs experiences and the Buddy2Buddy virtual cafes drop-in sessions, where veterans can connect, support and empower each other.

In addition to being a recognised Veteran Aware Trust, LPT pledged its support for the armed forces community by signing the Armed Forces Covenant in 2021 alongside other health and social care partners in the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Integrated Care System (LLR ICS). This pledge included a commitment to ensure the armed forces personnel – and their families – should enjoy the same standard of, and access to healthcare, as other people living in the area.

For more information about LPT’s support for ex-service personnel, please visit www.leicspart.nhs.uk/about/corporate-responsibilities/supporting-serving-and-ex-service-personnel/ . To find out more or register to be a part of the allotment project, please email lpt.armedforces@nhs.net

Find out more about public health in Leicester at www.leicester.gov.uk/publichealth and allotments at www.leicester.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/allotments/

Picture: L-R Chair of LPT, Cathy Ellis, Councillor Vi Dempster from Leicester City Council, LPT’s armed forces lead, Brendan Daly, veteran and LPT volunteer, Mark Eyres and Deputy Chief Executive of LPT, Mark Powell. 

Mark’s story

Ex-RAF firefighter and LPT veteran volunteer, Mark Eyres played a pivotal role in setting up the allotment project.

Mark, 50, who lives in Leicester, has therapy for his complex PTSD, after being discharged from the RAF in 1997 for health reasons. He still has issues with pain in his knees following injuries he obtained during his time in the armed forces and has so far had 14 surgeries on his knees and shoulders – and a total knee replacement in July 2022.

He said: “Brendan secured the land for the project and asked for a volunteer to support. Because of my injuries I wasn’t that enthused about getting involved but I thought I’d give it a go when no one else put their hat in the ring.

“I went down and had a look around the plot a few times. Initially I didn’t know how to make it work but then I went down a third time and the guy on the next plot next to me shouted me over and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. I went into his shed, sat down, the sun came out and the answers all came to me in a minute. Since then, I haven’t looked back.

“I knew the shed became pivotal as to what we wanted to do, so that even if it’s raining there would be a safe, comfortable space to sit, relax and talk to someone about how you’re feeling over a hot drink. The whole point of the project is that you don’t have to be a gardener, it is about going down to be part of a team, learning new skills, and to have a chat. The idea was all about getting these veterans to learn how to talk.”

Having mobility issues himself, Mark knew the site needed to be accessible or else many of the veterans who needed this support wouldn’t be able to take part.

He added: “What’s so great about this project is that it’s been set up so that anyone can get involved, even if they’re in a wheelchair, because of all the adaptions that have been made.

“I’m still on my own journey with my mental health but so far, this project has really helped me and my mental health is going from strength to strength. It’s not just a piece of land; it’s somewhere to go on dark days. It offers you peace and quiet, friendship but also to be able to do something positive for others.

“It’s a great way to feel accepted and needed. The allotment neighbours are only too happy to give their advice and experience and by giving back what we grow, veterans will see just how good it feels to give back to the community.

“It has given me a purpose to help myself and others. It’s exciting – it gives me a reason to get up. I go down there and I get stuck in. It’s getting me mentally and physically stronger.”

Reflecting on how he felt to get a reply back from Alan Titchmarsh, Mark added: “I was tickled pink when I heard back from Alan – I have always respected him, I used to watch him on Ground Force. I was so chuffed that he recognised the value of this project.

“I can’t wait to get more stuck in now. We are going to start by growing easy things such as onions, strawberries, rhubarb, peas, potatoes, carrots, onions, Brussel sprouts and runner beans. Let’s see if we can do Alan proud!”