Young offenders are given a second chance tending the grounds of a Baroque country house. Andrew Mourant reports
Few young men find the idea of working outdoors more appealing than Tom, an 18-year-old reaching the end of his prison sentence at Ashfield jail near Bristol. He has been rejuvenated by the two days a week he spends with National Trust gardeners at Dyrham Park tending woods and formal gardens.
He hopes the experience will break the cycle of theft and drug addiction that put him behind bars for 14 months. Since October, Tom has been part of a Trust experiment to reach into the local community. Dyrham has Ashfield - once a byword for violence and bullying - on its doorstep, though in every other sense it is a world away.
Tom is one of seven inmates to have worked there. He relished his taste of liberty. He surveys an idyllic scene: the lawn with its classical late 17th-century house of Bath stone picked out in late winter sunshine.
"It's broadened my horizons for working," he says. "Coming here is as good as it gets."
His presence at Dyrham is down to a longstanding friendship between Dale Dennehy, head of the estate's park and gardens, and prison officer Bill English. During his 27 years in the prison service, Bill has seen too many young men rebounding back into jail.
"That led me to get involved with a charity called the No Way Trust, set up by prison officers," he said. "We give our free time to go round schools and youth associations telling them about the realities of prison life."
But it bothered him that they were not reaching the young people who had already committed a crime. Then the community link with Dyrham was forged.
"It's been more successful than we dreamed," said Bill. "The change in people who've been in custody for seven or eight months, who were reserved and nervous, has been remarkable. Here they have trust given them on a plate."
Coming to Dryham is as much about social education as learning the rudiments of horticulture, maintenance or dry-stone walling. But not everyone welcomed the scheme. "Some elderly volunteers thought that if the lads were in prison, they should stay there," said Dale.
"What's remarkable is that some of the same volunteers are now working alongside them and supervising. We give the prisoners a pep talk about honesty and trust to start with. No one has ever abused the situation."
One Ashfield inmate who came to Dyrham and discovered an aptitude for dry-stone walling left intent on doing it for a living.
"But most of all we want them to learn about life; teamwork; how to listen and have a conversation," said Dale. "We encourage them to ask questions.
People from Ashfield are treated the same here as everyone else."
Society is obsessed by certificates as evidence of achievement but Bill, who still works from inside the prison, has so far avoided the culture of tickboxes and outcomes. "I'm not bound by bureaucracy or targets," he said.
"What matters is the benefits for the young people."
It is part of a three-year pilot for which the No Way Trust has been funded. Bill is unaware of anyone who has experienced life at Dyrham re-offending, and wants to take the project a stage further by staying in touch with ex-prisoners who worked there.
"People who come here go back to Ashfield and tell the others what they've seen and done," he said. "It creates interest. The climate in the prison is improving."
Dale says that for the National Trust, the exercise is about changing its image from that of a stuffy institution running old houses full of roped-off rooms.
"Ashfield's part of our community and we'd be mad not to be working with it," he said. "We'd like to expand so we could have people coming five days a week."
The experience may be the turning point Tom's been looking for. He had to earn the right to come to Dyrham - only prisoners reaching "gold standard" behaviour are eligible. "I've had a lot of time to think," he said. "I'm now in a better frame of mind - I feel better mentally than I've ever felt.
Working at Dyrham has reminded Tom of one of his strengths, working with his hands; and he's considering a career in construction after release. "I value the first-hand knowledge I've picked up here," he said.
"Bill's a top bloke. I'd like to keep in touch. I think they took a big risk in trying to set this up."