A GROUP of men who started walking regularly to boost their mental health have spoken of the difference getting out in the countryside has made to their wellbeing.

And they have praised an innovative campaign, called The Big Smile, aimed at boosting physical and mental health through a summer series of 50 fundraising walks through the beauty spots of the north.

“It’s a fantastic idea to get people out walking in the fresh air,” said 71-year-old Paul Rennoldson, from The Grove, Consett. “I’ve had mental health issues for 30 or 40 years, and walking has really helped stimulate my mind, so The Big Smile is brilliant.”

Paul is a member of a small group which started going for weekly walks a year ago – led by County Durham naturalist Keiron Young – through an association with mental health charity, Mind.

The walks had to temporarily stop due to lockdown, but they have now resumed, with Keiron employed as a walk leader with the Walk & Talk Trust, the new charity behind The Big Smile.

Keiron has spoken openly about how walking and connecting to nature helped him through his own mental health problems, and he now hopes to help many more people through his work with the Trust.

The Big Smile starts on June 21, with a 20km walk from Raby Castle, near Staindrop, and Keiron – alongside fellow walk leader, Richard Ellis – will tackle all 50 walks, covering 1,000 kilometres.

Money raised during the walks will be used to supply free walking boots to children and disadvantaged adults.

Keiron said: “It’s really important that the message gets out that The Big Smile is fully inclusive. Children will ultimately benefit from the free boots, but this initiative is for adults of all ages too.”

George Greener, 68, of Medomsley, is another member of the group, which joins Keiron on the weekly walks.

George, a volunteer with Mind, said: “I just love the camaraderie of the walks – we have great patter and, even though I’m born and bred in County Durham, I’ve seen places that I never knew existed. It gets me out of the house and has become a great new hobby.”

David Albone, 23, of Consett, added: “Before I started the walks, I wasn’t active at all and found it hard to meet new people. The first walk was hard, but I started to enjoy them – it’s just nice being around people out in the countryside, and it’s great to get started again.

“I’ve been through lots of mental health programmes but this has definitely been the most beneficial.”

Before the latest walk, starting from Witton Gilbert, Phil, George and David became the first adults to be given free walking boots, sourced from the world’s biggest sports retailer, Decathlon, one of the partners of The Big Smile.

• To find out more about The Big Smile, go to www.bigsmileuk.co.uk