First step in Suffolk's year of walking
PUBLISHED: 15:14 29 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:14 29 February 2016
From mega-hikes to gentle stress-busting strolls, this year's Suffolk Walking Festival is aiming to provide the widest possible range of options. And, as John Grant reports ahead of the springtime event's website going live, it means you'll never walk alone - but you'll get all the benefits
Within the 1,460-or-so hugely varied square miles that make up the hugely varied county of Suffolk there is a labyrinthine network of public rights of way that covers some 3,500 miles.
Each one of those 3,500 miles has a character all of its own. Each one may meander along coast or estuary, snake across open heathlands, arc its way across agricultural lands or wend its way through woodland.
As varied as every mile is, the county’s footpaths are united by one thing - they all offer the chance for the walker, or even the most casual of strollers, to feel better for being out in the great great outdoors.
The existence of this much-treasured mosaic of public rights of way, the physical and mental benefits that they offer when they are put to good use and the fact that they showcase what an extraordinarily diverse place this county’s landscape is quite a combination. It offers plenty to celebrate - and Suffolk is about to do just that. Suffolk’s ninth Walking Festival has now been planned, organised and is ready to put its best foot forward.
Between a launch date of May 14 and a conclusion on June 5, variety is very much the spice of the festival’s life.
From the geographical outposts of Lowestoft, Felixstowe, Knettishall and Haverhill, to the very middle of Suffolk - such central locations as Norton, Wetheringsett and Stowmarket - the spread of walks on offer is truly countywide.
The themes of the walks are just as varied. Some are focused on health and wellbeing, others are themed around architecture, or natural history, the county’s artistic heritage or its social history.
There is even a “speed dating” walk - a 5.5 mile potentially romantic stroll in the Stour Valley near Lavenham in which the just-published festival progamme says participants may “meet a potential partner or make friends for life”.
Urban, rural, coastal or far inland, the festival progamme offers a total of more than 70 walks. From challenging mega-hikes to little more than dawdles, there are small participation fees and each one is accompanied by at least one experienced leader.
In her programme message, BBC producer and presenter Lesley Dolphin - the festival patron - says this year’s event is “a bit special”. It officially launches the county council’s Year of Walking - a multi-partner initiative that will run until the end of the 2017 festival.
“The Year of Walking will be celebrating two of my very favourite things: walking and Suffolk and the aim is to inspire more people to build more walking into their everyday lives to discover what fun it is,” she writes. “It’s been proved there are loads of benefits, to both our mental and physical health, that can be gained by simply getting out in the fresh air and being active.”
The festival is supported by all local authorities in Suffolk, with major backing from the county council’s Discover Suffolk project.
Claire Parker, green access manager in Suffolk County Council’s rights of way, access and development team, has been working closely in the build-up to the event with festival co-ordinator Karina Coghlin, who runs the createpr company with her husband Paul.
A passionate advocate for the wide-ranging health and wellbeing benefits that come from even the simplest stroll in any green space, Claire said the festival had evolved steadily from its original inception.
“This is the ninth one and it all started a few years back when Mid Suffolk District Council had the idea for a walking festival that was more rooted in tourism - that was the original thrust of it, to get people to visit Suffolk,” she said.
“Now there is still that element to it, of course, but Suffolk County Council is responsible for it and Discover Suffolk puts funding in and there is a lot of thought put into it for the involvement of Suffolk residents.
“It is still pretty informal and very enjoyable but people are very passionate about it. It is a wonderful way to showcase all the things Suffolk has to offer the tourist but it is also a great celebration of everything that Suffolk can mean to the people who live here - and what benefits that just being out in their home county can bring them.
“We have a local authorities steering group and we are working with people such as the Active Lives charity. We want it to be as inclusive as possible so this year we have included some free walks and we have really broadened it out. We want to inspire people and show them that even a gentle, brief stroll out in the fresh air can help a great deal with physical and mental wellbeing, and other things in their life, such as helping to overcome feelings of social isolation.”
The festival’s launch event will take place at the RSPB’s famous Minsmere nature reserve, near Westleton, with a walk of about two miles from the site’s Discovery Centre, starting at 11am. Admission to the walk will cost £8, which includes refreshments and entry to the reserve.
The toughest of all the planned walks is clearly the “mega challenge” on May 15. It is a physically demanding trek from Lowestoft to Felixstowe, covering 60 miles in 24 hours.
Participants will need to have a “very high level of fitness” and the cost is £75, including coach transfers, supper and refreshments.
Less demanding, but still challenging, will be a series of shorter walks over five days, from May 15, that also covers a route from Lowestoft to Felixstowe in stages.
The festival programme features a host of other walks, including Nordic walking “tasters” and “mindfulness” walks, and ends on June 2 with a two-mile “family horrible history” stroll in Ipswich. With its £5 admission, it promises “a gory story of murder and execution, ghosts and witchcraft, vile diseases, foul stinks and overflowing graveyards.”
The festival website, suffolkwalkingfestival.co.uk is due to go live in the next few days. Tickets for any of the walks will soon be available via the site or from tourist information centres at Aldeburgh, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Lavenham, Lowestoft, Southwold, Stowmarket and Sudbury.
Step by step, quite literally, the many and varied benefits that come from taking even the briefest of stress-busting strolls in any green space you can find are becoming increasingly widely known.
With more green space than many other areas of Britain, much of East Anglia is a walkers’ paradise. And the region is also at the forefront of research into, and appreciation of, the advantages that such “ecotherapy” offers.
Last week, representatives of the mental and physical health sectors met for a first-of-its kind collaboration to highlight the benefits of active lifestyles for psychological wellbeing.
Held at the Trinity Park conference centre, near Ipswich, the event was organised by Suffolk’s Most Active County group.
Delegates heard that physical exercise was “hugely important” in warding off a wide range of conditions, both physical and mental - so much so that GPs were being urged to promote physical activity ahead of pharmaceutical treatments.
Studies have shown that walking for between 10 and 15 minutes a day can help lift moods, improve sleep patterns and increase energy levels. Such exercise can also help block negative thoughts or distract from daily worries, enhance physical health and quality of life and improve self esteem.
In a recent survey carried out by the national walking charity Living Streets, 94% of respondents said “green exercise” such as walking improved their mental health. A total of 71% of respondents experienced a decrease in depression levels after going for a walk. Of patients diagnosed with major depression, 45% no longer met the criteria for the illness after exercising three times a week in a supervised group setting. This compared to 47% of patients who were prescribed anti-depressants.
Many of the cutting-edge studies undertaken into the issue has been carried out by researchers at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex, at Wivenhoe Park, Colchester.
As far back as 2003, researchers at the university formally proposed the “synergistic benefits of adopting physical activity whilst at the same time being directly exposed to nature.”
The concept was referred to as “green exercise” in a paper by Prof Jules Pretty and initiated a rigorous scientific research programme. Combining expertise in sports science, physiology, psychology and environmental sciences, the programme has demonstrated that “green exercise” can yield benefits to health and wellbeing and that, additionally, it can increase the likelihood of participant understanding of - and care for - nature.
The university researchers were the first interdisciplinary group to quantify such a “synergistic health benefit”.
We want to inspire people and show them that even a gentle, brief stroll can help a great deal with physical and mental wellbeing, and other things in their life, such as social isolation
Suffolk County Council