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Step forward for the 2016 Suffolk Walking Festival

PUBLISHED: 14:14 15 April 2016 | UPDATED: 14:14 15 April 2016

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If it's May it must be time for Suffolk Walking Festival - and 2016 is special because it's the Year of Walking in Suffolk. John Grant previews this year's events

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This spring’s Suffolk Walking Festival already has a spring in its step and is gathering momentum for its launch.

The event is being seen as a showcase for all that is best in the county’s rich and highly acclaimed natural and historic environment, and ticket sales for the wide-ranging 77-walk festival are being snapped up quickly and enthusiastically.

Organisers have finalised a programme of walks that range from gentle strolls to demanding mega-hikes – and they say that each and every one will enable participants to reap the now-widely-acknowledged physical and mental wellbeing rewards that exercise in green spaces delivers.

The programme has wide geographic spread across the county and varied themes, but the underlying message of the festival was that anyone could take part in at least some of the walks, said Claire Parker, the green access manager in Suffolk County Council’s rights of way, access and development team.

“The programme has been finalised and it’s been very much a team effort,” she said. “The festival is supported by all the local authorities in Suffolk – there was really good buy-in from them right from the start. It is spearheaded by the county council’s Discover Suffolk project and we have great support from the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) teams and the Ipswich-based ActivLives charity.

“Every walk will be themed and will be led by experts in their particular fields who have volunteered to help. So many organisations and individuals have given their support.”

Several Suffolk County Council staff had volunteered to be walk leaders, she said. They included members of the council’s environment and rights of way teams and the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB team was also providing leaders and sponsoring all the festival’s “challenge” walks.

“The problem with the programme was not so much what to include but what to leave out because in Suffolk, we are spoilt for choice with walking options,” said Claire. “We settled on the programme as it stands because there are so many chances for everyone to get involved in some way with it – it’s not only for people who are experienced walkers, it’s for those who may not have done any exercise for a while, too.”

Ms Parker has worked closely with festival co-ordinator Karina Coghlin, of the company CreatePR. “The festival is now in its ninth year and is really gaining momentum,” said Claire. “It is being seen in a really positive light and as a great showcase for Suffolk’s natural and historic environments, and the benefits that people gain from being out in them.” The festival will be launched with a gentle stroll sponsored by Suffolk Coastal District Council at RSPB Minsmere on May 14, an event that will also include the launch of the Suffolk Year of Walking, – a multi-partner initiative that will continue until the end of the 2017 festival.

Some festival walks are free but some have small participation charges. Walks range from some that highlight the benefits of exercise to those themed around architecture, or nature or the county’s artistic heritage or its social history. There are Nordic walking ‘tasters’ and ‘mindfulness’ walks, and there is even a ‘speed dating’ walk – a 5.5 mile potentially romantic stroll in the Stour Valley near Lavenham in which participants may “meet a potential partner or make friends for life”.

Suffolk County Council cabinet member for health Tony Goldson was in no doubt about the value of the festival.

“We are delighted that this year’s walking festival marks the beginning of Suffolk’s Year of Walking,” he said. “The purpose of the initiative is to celebrate walking in the county, to promote walking events and to encourage new walking opportunities.

“The festival does a wonderful job of demonstrating how easy and inclusive walking is, and what a fantastic county Suffolk is to walk in. It is making a positive contribution to our ambition of becoming the most active county in England.” The festival continues to June 5. Tickets can be booked via the festival website, suffolkwalkingfestival.co.uk. Brochures are available from tourist information centres at Aldeburgh, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Lavenham, Lowestoft, Southwold, Stowmarket and Sudbury.

The Mega Challenge

Some of the Suffolk Walking Festival events promise to be delightful dawdles and some will be more bracing and brisk. Some, however, threaten to be stamina-testing, like the 60-mile, 24-hour trek along the Suffolk Coast Path, from Lowestoft to Felixstowe, that will raise money for the East Anglian Air Ambulance. A team of walk leaders will be headed up by Suffolk County Council’s head of natural and historic environment Nick Collinson.

“This is a tough challenge, including long stretches of walking on the beach, through forest and along estuaries – and in the dark,” he said. Up to 20 participants will tackle the mega-challenge walk on May 15 and 16. The rewards for their efforts will be second to none. The walk is being supported with huge generosity by businesses along the route. They are Southwold Pier, the Ship Inn at Dunwich, the Dolphin at Thorpeness, the Froize Inn at Chillesford, the Boathouse Café at Bawdsey and the Viewpoint Café at Landguard. Vital back-up support throughout the walk was being given by Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty staff, whose assistance will include the provision of food and drink throughout the night – and transport for any walker who has to drop out.

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