A campaign to improve physical and mental health in the North-East through the power of walking in the countryside began yesterday. PETER BARRON joined the first leg of The Big Smile

AS starting points go, they don’t come much more impressive than Raby Castle, and the route continued through magical woodland trails, then magnificent open countryside that led to Cockfield Fell and back.

Even the unexpected rain couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the first participants to sign up for a series of 50 fundraising walks across five counties of the north.

Yes, it was a little disappointing perhaps, but it didn’t really matter – The Big Smile was underway.

The aims of the campaign – launched by The Walk & Talk Trust charity – are to encourage people to reconnect with each other and nature; to boost physical and mental health; and to inspire a new generation of walkers.

Proceeds from the walks – led by expert guides Keiron Young and Richard Ellis – will be used to supply children and disadvantaged adults with free pairs of walking boots.

And, as the first steps were taken in the drizzle, a herd of inquisitive red deer emerged from the shelter of a nearby copse, as if to give such a laudable initiative their endorsement.

The start of the campaign had been officially signalled by legendary mountaineer, Alan Hinkes, cutting a ribbon, accompanied by a short speech by the charity’s chief executive, Geoff Simpson.

“The support we have received has been tremendous and, hopefully, this is something that will carry on for years to come,” he said.

There may be a long way to go but The Big Smile is already having an impact, and it was encapsulated by three schoolchildren who were special guests at the start of the first walk. Esha Begum, Olivia Watson, and Stevie Heseltine – pupils at Corporation Road Primary School in Darlington – were among the first beneficiaries of the free walking boots.

The youngsters had taken part in a warm-up walk at Raby Castle and their headteacher, Ann Pringleton, said: “I immediately saw the difference in the children after they were taken on the walk at Raby Castle and became the first children to receive the free boots.

“Since then, it’s been made non-negotiable – every child at the school has half an hour walking around the park, as part of the school week. It’s something so valuable that we want it to continue.”

It is precisely what Durham businessman Peter Bell set out to achieve when he had the vision for The Walk & Talk Trust.

“Hearing about how it has inspired that kind of change at Corporation Road Primary School makes all the planning worthwhile, but this is just the beginning,” he said. “It’s about bringing people together in our glorious countryside, while also having a lasting impact on physical and mental health.”

That message was underlined by walk leader and former teacher Keiron Young: “It feels great to have got started and to see people enjoying the day – connecting with each other and the countryside,” he said.

“It has been friendly and inclusive, and that ethos will continue through all the walks. Friendships will be forged because people are being given the time and space to get to know each other on a unique level.

“And to hear that what we are doing has already had an impact on the culture of a school is absolutely huge for me. For children to have walking as part of their lives, and to become advocates for the benefits is fantastic – that’s when you get meaningful change.”

Alan Hinkes, a man who has climbed the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains, has become such a supporter of The Big Smile that cutting the starting ribbon wasn’t nearly enough. He couldn’t resist joining in the first walk.

“It is such a brilliant initiative and I applaud all those who have made it happen,” he said.

The Big Smile is being supported by a number of high-profile businesses and organisations. They include: The Northern Echo as media partner; the world’s biggest sports retailer, Decathlon; motor dealer SG Petch; Durham County Council; County Durham Sport; Greggs; Eversheds Sutherland; The Banks Group; New College Durham; and Newcastle Building Society.

Charity partnerships have also been forged with the Great North Air Ambulance Service, and the North East Autism Society.

The Big Smile walks continue today with “The Cotherstone Loop” and throughout the summer, ending with a circular walk from Durham City on August 27, with Keiron and Richard completing all 1,000 kilometres.

Every journey has to start with the first steps – and they were taken yesterday. By the time the walkers had returned to Raby Castle, the morning rain had been replaced by sunshine.

There may have been aching limbs and a few blisters – but you could see the big smiles a mile away.

  • To take part, go to www.bigsmileuk.co.uk