Keiron Young, walk leader for The Big Smile, talks to PETER BARRON about why he is so passionate about the pioneering initiative…

AS he breathes in the fresh April air, and points to a pair of buzzards circling the trees up ahead, Keiron Young reflects on what walking, and connecting with nature, have meant to him over the years.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say walking in the countryside gave me a lifeline – it saved my life,” he says, quietly.

Today, Keiron is in a good place. Recently married, and handed the “dream job” of leading 50 walks across the glorious North-East countryside as part of a newly launched charity, called The Walk and Talk Trust, he is a man at peace with himself.

He is speaking at the launch of the charity’s Big Smile initiative, in the beautiful setting of Raby Castle, near Staindrop. The spring sunshine is dazzling, and yet it is not so long ago that Keiron’s world was much darker.

Despite growing up in a loving family, with lots of friends, mental health issues had unconsciously crept up on him.

“For a long time, I wasn’t fully aware of how badly I was feeling, and didn’t understand why, but I had no self-confidence. I was scared, anxious, and loathed myself,” he recalls.

“Slowly but surely, depression set in. I was in the shower one morning and I suddenly thought: ‘Would it really matter if I wasn’t here anymore?’

“Walking became a huge therapy for me when I had my own breakdown and suicidal thoughts. It gave me the space I needed and slowed down time. I started to walk in a very big way during that period of my life.”

It took six years of pyschotherapy – and countless miles of walking – to help Keiron find a way out of the darkness. In 2017, having seen the impact walking had on his own physical and mental well-being, he launched the Consett Hiking Group, and it grew steadily, reaching 1,600 members. Among them was Catherine, who became his wife last year.

The group also developed a charitable arm, Hiking For Health, providing a range of walks for the community, including mums and babies, and adults with mental health issues.

“Mental health is so important, and what matters to me is seeing people brought together, especially after the year we’ve been through,” he says.

“Walking makes life simpler, it brings us back to basics. All you have to do is concentrate on getting from A to B, and there’s something very calming about that. It’s helped me to learn not to worry about superficial things.”

Last year, Keiron wrote a book, called The Walker, about his mental health experiences, and is now relishing “the fantastic opportunity” to work for The Walk and Talk Trust and share his love of walking.

That passion took root as a child, growing up in Consett. Born in Shotley Bridge Hospital, he was the oldest of three boys. His dad, Ted, was a head teacher, and his mum, Judith, worked in a pharmacy.

Childhood memories include walks with his brothers along the river at Blanchland, with their dad nurturing his boys’ interest in wildlife by developing an ingenious points system around birds. Each species was given a value in points – the rarer the bird, the more points awarded.

“A kingfisher was worth 50 points and we had to get to 100 by the end of the walk to earn an ice cream,” he recalls. “It was a brilliant idea.”

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His love of nature continued to grow, and he recalls one particular highlight, when he was walking through Hamsterley Forest, and a goshawk burst magnificently out of the woods. “It was a bird I’d been waiting to see all my life – the king of the forest – and there it was, ghostlike, in all its glory,” he smiles.

Ospreys swooping for fish in Derwent reservoir are another favourite sight, while a glimpse of a marsh harrier at Salters Gate last year made his heart soar.

“I place huge value on being able to have that connection to nature, and what makes it more powerful is the fact that it’s on my doorstep,” he says. “The Derwent Valley is my home – my most important place, even though I’ve walked in the Himalayas and lots of different places around the world.”

Having spent 20 years as a teacher, he is now employed as a leader by The Walk and Talk Trust, tasked with planning the 50 walks with trusted friend Richard Ellis, a former marine, qualified mountain guide, and “superb navigator”. Together, they will cover the full 1,000 kilometres of The Big Smile.

“We’ve worked hard at finding some of the region’s most beautiful spots across five counties. Some of them are well known, some are hidden gems,” he promises.

“It’s such a privilege to be tasked with leading the walks, and The Big Smile is such a brilliant initiative. It’s about connecting to people and connecting to nature, and at the end of it we’ll be giving free walking boots to children to encourage them to take the first step into the great outdoors.

“Imagine that! Giving free boots to children will be one of the biggest things to ever hit the region’s schools. There’s never been anything like it, and it’s so important we get the connection to schools and parents right because that’s absolutely key.

“But it won’t just be about walking – it will be about talking to people in each group to make them feel included. It will only be a success if we show we are invested in the people taking part.

“The size of the groups in the first year will be restricted by Covid but I’m confident the event will grow as the years go by. I just can’t wait to get going.”

Fifty walks across some of our most stunning countryside, teeming with wildlife, while the summer skies are alive to the sound of all kinds of birds. Just imagine how many points are up for grabs.

There’s a smile on Keiron Young’s face at the very thought of it ­– a Big Smile.

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