ON the entrance sign to Phoenix House, near Droxford, reads the message "rebuilding lives". And that's exactly what goes on in this large country house, set in a lush seven acres outside the village.

The 30 clients, or "residents", who live there are busy tending the grounds, running the house, and, most importantly, trying to conquer their biggest problem of all - substance abuse.

Phoenix House, previously Alpha House, was set up in 1969, and now runs one of the toughest drug rehabilitation programmes in the country.

As though risen from the ashes, Phoenix House, a national charity, arrived in 2001 after it merged with the then Alpha service, and has been operating programmes for anyone aged 18 to 60 ever since.

They come from all over the UK and all walks of life - from booze addicts, heroin-users, city bankers and the homeless - referred and funded by drug agencies, the probation service and in some cases, themselves.

And last week, Mayor of Winchester, Neil Baxter, was invited to see behind the doors of this unique centre and given a tour by two residents.

As well as operating a strict routine, occupants are encouraged to manage the house, study for exams and go through tough group sessions to prepare for life outside.

Days last from 7.30am to 8.30pm, with clients each performing different tasks around the house - in the garden, kitchen, or washing and utilities. Those who do not pull their weight are denied management jobs or privileges.

Sophia Kafikas, 25, from London, told the mayor: "When you start taking drugs, you stop growing up. You are not experiencing life. We have to be re-parented."

Sharon Gay, who co-ordinates education and employment at Phoenix, added: "Because people have lived such chaotic lives, this takes them to the other end of the scale and shows them that you do need structure and boundaries and that everything you do has consequences."

As well as counselling, residents are encouraged to speak out about feelings and how they got into substance abuse at daily discussions. "It's not about the drugs. That's just the beginning. We have to look at 'Who am I? What am I?' I have to pick up the tools to stop using the drugs. It's like our house. It's us that keeps the house and its grounds," said Abs Derrick, a resident for four months.

Mr Baxter, clearly impressed, was shown around some of the residents' bedrooms, kept military clean and tidy, along with the kitchen and canteen, where residents enjoy meals or, on occasion, dreaded kitchen duties if they fail in any part of the programme.

He was also shown the IT suite and classrooms, where residents learn numeracy, literacy and IT, with the opportunity to take adult City and Guilds exams.

Mrs Gay said: "A lot of them have left school early. or been excluded. This ensures that, when they get back into the community, they are equipped with the basic skills."