Mountain leader and former Royal Marine Richard Ellis is at the heart of a new campaign to inspire the next generation of walkers. He talks to PETER BARRON about his excitement at being a leader of The Big Smile

AS an only child, growing up with the beautiful Derwent Valley on his doorstep, Richard Ellis had  “the best playground in the world”.

Forests, rivers, hills, and wildlife have been part of his life for as long as he can remember. “It was just always where I felt most at home – out in the countryside and the fresh air,” he says.

It is a passion that has stayed with him throughout his life, leading to him serving all over the world with the Royal Marines and qualifying as a mountain leader.

And now he is relishing the opportunity to pass on his love of the great outdoors as one of the leaders of The Big Smile – a series of 50 fundraising walks across some of the most stunning countryside in the north.

Richard, 47, and friend, Keiron Young, have plotted every walk and will cover the full 1,000 kilometres, starting at Raby Castle, near Staindrop, on June 21.

The aim of the summer campaign – backed by The Northern Echo, County Durham Sport, and the world’s leading sports retailer, Decathlon – is to boost physical health and wellbeing by reconnecting people to nature. And the money raised in the process will be used to give free walking boots to thousands of children and disadvantaged adults.

It is the vision of Durham businessman Peter Bell, founder of a new charity called The Walk & Talk Trust, and Richard is itching to get started.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic initiative and Keiron and I are both acutely aware of the positive impact it is going to have in so many ways,” says Richard.

He will be using all the experience he has built up from a lifetime spent close to nature, starting with that idyllic childhood exploring the Derwent Valley from his home in Bridgehill, near Shotley Bridge.

A keen sportsman, he excelled in cross-country running with Chester-le-Street Harriers, and joined The Boys’ Brigade, loving the camping trips which came with membership. It was the perfect background for a career in the Royal Marines, starting at 18 when he was posted to Arbroath with 45 Commando, and going on to serve in the Persian Gulf and Northern Ireland.

After 10 years, engaged in a variety of roles, he left the military and trained to teach English as a foreign language in Indonesia, Colombia and Shanghai.

“It was a pretty tough time when I left the Marines, and it took a while to get my head round what was happening outside of that bubble,” he admits. “I parked those emotions by teaching abroad as a distraction, but it was even stranger when I got back to the UK and started wondering what to do next.”

He studied for a BA in history and an MA in medieval history at Durham University, before teaching children with special educational needs at Sedgefield College. Crucially, he also returned to his first love of exploring the natural world.

“It may sound strange but walking, and being out in the countryside, just made things much clearer – everything started to make sense,” he says.

It led to expeditions, including climbing mountains such as The Matterhorn, The Eiger and Mont Blanc. Initially the climbs were with guides, and then without, as he became a qualified mountain leader.

His growing expertise led to him taking friends and family on treks and he found great personal satisfaction in seeing how much joy it inspired. “It was just a fantastic feeling to see the pleasure it gave other people, it was hugely powerful, and that became my motivation.”

The next step was to launch his own company, Alpha Mountain Adventures – offering bespoke adventures – and it was just getting going when the pandemic got in the way.

“Bookings flooded in after the first lockdown ended around June, but then the rug was pulled again with the second lockdown,” he says.

However, a change of fortune was just around the corner. Richard had met Keiron through the Consett Hiking Group, and the pair proved to be the perfect partnership when Peter Bell came looking for expert support for The Walk & Talk Trust.

“It’s going to be really tough physically and mentally to do all 50 walks, one after the other, but it’s such a great opportunity and I’m chomping at the bit to get going,” says Richard.

The motivation every step of the way will be the thought of children getting a free pair of walking boots to encourage them to leave their computer games behind and get outside in the fresh air.

“My childhood was all about exploring and I want children to taste that too,” he adds. “It doesn’t have to be climbing mountains, but everyone should experience the sound of running water or feel the wind in their face on a hillside.”

  • To find out more about The Big Smile and to register for one of the fully guided fundraising walks, go to