THE fiftieth and final leg of a campaign to inspire a new generation of walkers is underway today.

The Big Smile, physical and mental health initiative backed by The Northern Echo, began at Raby Castle in County Durham on June 21, and ends in Durham City this afternoon.

Along the way, the 50 fully guided fundraising walks have covered five counties of the north, with proceeds being used to buy high-calibre walking boots for more than 1,000 children.

The final walk, sponsored by law firm Ward Hadaway, started at 10am this morning from Durham School and will finish at the same place around 3pm.

By then, walk leaders Keiron Young and Richard Ellis will have completed the full 1,000 kilometres.

Former teacher Keiron said before setting off this morning: “The connection we’ve made to people and places has been incredible, and I’ve no doubt it will be emotional when we get to the end.

“I’m really grateful for this fantastic opportunity which has felt like one big adventure. The best thing about it has been that we have been able to live in the present without the usual outside influences and that has made it really positive for mental health especially.”

The next stage of the campaign will be the delivery of the boots to children in local schools.

“That will be so rewarding because it’s what it’s all about and we have plans in place to work with families through the schools, so that this is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. The ultimate aim is to change behaviours and schools will be the conduit.”

The Big Smile series of walks was organised by a charity called The Walk and Talk Trust, which is the vision of Durham businessman Peter Bell.

Mr Bell said today: “I feel totally exhilarated because The Big Smile has gone way beyond our expectations. “We’ve been blown away by the support of businesses and schools.

“We will be building on the foundations that have been laid in this first year, so this is the start of something that is destined to grow.”

The Northern Echo:

Geoff Simpson, Chief Executive of The Walk and Talk Trust, added: “We could have made such an impact without the support we’ve received from all the sponsors and participants.

“We are especially grateful to The Northern Echo for its outstanding coverage from start to finish, and to SG Petch for their invaluable assistance in supplying a tour van throughout the campaign.”

Katherine Richards, partner with Ward Hadaway, said: “We do our best to get involved in our communities as much as we can, and The Big Smile was a perfect opportunity for our team to reconnect after lockdown.

“It is utterly fantastic what The Big Smile has done in promoting the physical and mental health benefits of walking and talking, and I can’t wait to see where the initiative goes from here.”

Phase one of The Big Smile may end today – but there’s clearly a bigger smile to come.