Photo Credit: Ken Goff
What an extraordinary place Clouds House is. Built by architect Philip Webb in 1886 for the arty, aristocratic Wyndham family and dubbed the ‘house of the age”, for almost 30 years it’s been a famous rehab centre and now has the Duchess of Cambridge as patron.
Walk in and you instantly recognise that this is somewhere special – beautiful, yes, with quite spectacular views but it’s the universal friendliness and a pervading spirit of optimism which sets it apart.
I spent a day there going behind the scenes with clinical director Tina Mobsy and talking to some of its current patients to find out why Clouds succeeds where other rehab centres may fail (a record 85 per cent complete the initial treatment programme.)
Austerely beautiful on the outside, this house is bustling and upbeat on the inside.
In the waiting room, two posters immediately catch your eye.
“OPTIMISM: Change is possible, potential can be realised,’ reads the first.
‘INTEGRITY: To be worthy of the utmost trust and respect.’
Respect, as I will find out, is a big thing at Clouds. Considering the trouble and chaos that most inhabitants must arrive with, it is really quite astounding to see the unguarded welcome extended to visitors.
Tina, also open, warm and honest from the outset, explains that the whole ethos at Clouds is on helping each other. Those just arriving, usually detoxing from life-threatening addictions, will still join group therapy sessions on day 1 and it is the others, those 3 or 4 weeks into treatment who will pull them through the initial darkness. This kindness is seen everywhere – time and time again I am greeted with overt friendliness from people who assume I am a new, day one ‘peer.’
For years Clouds has laboured under the misconception of being primarily a celebrity treatment centre. Yes it has had its fair share of troubled rock stars, models, actors and writers arriving broken on the doorstep, but the vast majority of treatments (around 95 per cent) are funded by the state or medical insurance schemes.
Having the Duchess of Cambridge choose Action on Addiction as one of her first public roles has already thrown the spotlight on the remarkable work that is achieved at Clouds, steering alcohol and drug addicts from all walks of life on their path to recovery.
Tina says: ‘It really has made such a difference already. Our stats show an increase in enquiries and referrals and there are also more people calling up to see if they can make donations or volunteer.’
The Duchess made a private visit here back in February, touring the centre, talking to patients in their rooms and then joining a group art therapy session.
Tina adds: “She was very interested in the clients and spent a lot of time talking to them about their children. When she was in the therapy session she was just incredibly natural and wanted to talk about their pictures.’
Therapy – group, individual and art - is an important part of daily life at Clouds. For those on medicated detoxes – most according to Tina – the day starts early, rising at 6 for meds at 6.30 and finishing with the final meds between 10 and 11. There is little free time throughout the day – aside from therapy there are workshops, creative writing, peer evaluations, life stories and many alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture and reflexology.
Sym Gharia – bass guitarist in the band Eighties Match Box B-Line Disaster – had battled with drug and alcohol addictions for many years before arriving in Clouds last November.
He says: “The days are very long but the incredible thing if you are detoxing is that there are nurses around the clock, 24/7.The food is amazing, which may sound irrelevant, but actually learning how to eat well is an important part of recovery. It’s also a very beautiful place in the middle of nowhere, so you’re all living together completely cut off from everything.
‘I had reached my personal rock bottom by the time I got to Clouds and this time I was able to engage and lay solid foundations for recovery. I can’t sing its praises enough.”
Sym Gharia from Eighties Matchbox
On first entering Clouds House many addicts recall their fear of walking into what’s known as the ‘big room’ - and coming face to face with their peers for the first time. Walking in with Tina, to a roomful of people relaxing and talking on leather sofas, the 12 Steps emblazoned above them on the wall, there are merely curious glances and welcoming smiles. The feeling of their reaching out and wanting to help is palpable.
The 'big room' at Clouds House
By the noticeboard I talk to a woman from Oxford who is coming to the end of her 6 week stay. She’s nervous of leaving and will be commuting back once a week for aftercare sessions. What does Clouds mean to her?
She shrugs. ‘Without it I’d be dead, no question.’
We visit the bedrooms, womens’ first, four neat beds with a breathtaking view overlooking East Knoyle parkland, a landscape that is dotted with cedars and oaks.
A man coming out of a shared male bedroom offers to show us around. Like everyone else he is disarmingly honest.
‘Sharing my bedoom was the thing I hated most at first.’ (He is 3 weeks into his programme.)
‘I’m 42, I’d been earning a lot of money, I’d been used to having everything my way for a very long time. But it brings you back down to earth, it makes you more humble. Now I make my room-mate sleep with the blinds open so I can wake at dawn, the opposite of what I’d been doing for years.’
Over lunch (delicious tomato and courgette soup) Tina praises the 49 staff – nurses, counsellors, therapists, chefs and housekeeping - who work at Clouds, caring for around 30 clients at a time.
She has spent her career working in various drug rehabilitation centres but says: “All the staff treat the clients with so much respect. I’ve never come across anything like it.’
It’s nice here, that’s what comes across, though it is full of people battling their demons, some of whom won’t make the grade.
There is still so much stigma attached to drug and alcohol addiction in this country and yet on a grey and rain-lashed afternoon at Clouds House, a first stage recovery centre, the atmosphere is peaceful, business-like, tinged with hope.
You drive past Clouds, past that sternly beautiful façade and you wonder what’s happening on the inside. It's very simple, really: this amazing charity is calmly and respectfully saving lives, 24/7.