THE ever-present spirit of trees is casting a magic spell upon at least one or two woodlands in Herefordshire.

Beneath leafy canopies at Almeley and near Weobley, the unsuspecting visitor might believe they’ve stumbled upon a film set for Robin Hood or even Game of Thrones.

Smoke curling up from a well-ordered camp-site, shelter afforded by large tarpaulins slung across sturdy wooden frames, everywhere the vision of people going about their business with an air of contentment and always an abundance of banter.

Welcome to The Cart Shed, where a regular programme of woodland-based crafts and activities tap into the great outdoors to provide a healing balm for the many who suffer from mental (and physical) health issues.

For eight productive years, the charity has helped hundreds, while constantly fundraising to keep the wheels in motion.

For the past five years, The Cart Shed has applied its magic for Armed Forces veterans and the facts speak for themselves.

The atmosphere is soothing to the senses: birdsong interrupted only by the steady hum of conversation, the sounds of gentle craftsmanship, enticing wafts from a busy campsite kitchen. What’s more, a huge, sooty kettle is always on the boil.

Over the years The Cart Shed has been providing a safe, working environment for hundreds of men and women, and soon the undeniable success of its therapy will be reaching out to children and young people too.

A committed posse of 40 volunteers, plus occupational therapists on duty at both Devereux Wooton, Norton Canon, and Newport House, Almeley, are clamouring to be on site. One volunteer admitted that he missed his day in the woods while on holiday last week.

Participants, who come from all walks of life, takes time to craft furniture, weave baskets from willow, or work with leather, pausing only to have a mug of tea and a chat around the fire. Each has a personal story of struggle and will freely admit that The Cart Shed has been their salvation.

One veteran explains how he once drove Army tanks. Now he takes delight in working with wood and exchanging cheeky ripostes with others. “But don’t say I do basket-making classes!” he quips.

Chief executive officer of The Cart Shed, Katie Eastaugh (her father was a well-loved former Bishop of Hereford), explains that while the depression and psychosis suffered by veterans bears the same symptoms as their civilian counterparts, The Cart Shed was aware of an indefinable difference.

Their findings pointed to the fact that former members of the military were used to a ‘family’ basis; once that sense of belonging disappeared, difficulties could ensue. Thus The Cart Shed has made significant strides in offering ex-servicemen and women the same salve to help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“The symptoms of psychosis and depression are the same for civilians and the military and the treatment is the same,” says Katie. “But we realised something was different.” A “huge dependency” comes from serving in the forces, she explains so that a move into civvie street can leave some veterans all at sea.

The charity’s observations led to a report funded by the Royal British Legion Capacity Building Grant entitled Barriers to Veterans Accessing Services.

Among the study’s conclusions, it was evident that there was no acknowledgement of the relevance of mental health issues while in service, and no discussion. One veteran felt “totally unsupported” by his commanders. Despite raising concerns about his mental health he was told to “man up” and has lived with multiple suicide attempts and PTSD.

Thus The Cart Shed’s endeavour to make participants feel connected and have a sense of belonging in their community, plus a degree of occupational competence, comes as a breath of fresh air.

Indeed, a day in the woods with others who are dealing with mental health issues brings considerable rewards. “When people have built enough confidence they can go out into wider society and not be isolated,” says Katie. “Strong friendships are formed between people here, it’s lovely.”

In order to heighten awareness of its work, The Cart Shed team makes appearances at county events such as Kington Show or on Armed Forces Day. “The more we can normalise the idea that mental health is part of life the better,” says Katie. Seeing what the charity can offer gives a better chance for early intervention, hence a far greater impact.

“This can avoid the escalating ghastliness of social distress,” she explains. “A talking therapy, while beneficial for many, can be limited. Here we do our best for people to stay as long as they need us.”

Those who attend The Cart Shed are finding that the calming effects of the woodland help them to open up and feelings of anxiety naturally reduce. Around the work benches and the kitchen – where cooks produce cauldrons of soup from homegrown vegetables – there is constant chat. Those who want to take time out can opt for a few moments in a separate tent, while others can unburden their concerns in the shade of the occupational therapists’ tent.

Meanwhile, a necessary part of any campsite, tree-bog is on standby for the call of nature, an ecological miracle for those with a penny or two to spend, and there’s an ingenious hand-washing arrangement too.

Time for lunch-break and a bowl of hearty soup, and the conversation gets into full flow. One of the cooks, tending the clay baking oven, sums up the phenomenon that is The Cart Shed: “We are a family, and it’s just magic.”

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