FEATURE: Suffolk Walking Festival prepares to kick off 12th season
This time last year, they left an astonishing 24 million footprints across the length and breadth of Suffolk.
And it is about to start all over again as the Suffolk Walking Festival kicks off its 12th season.
What better way to enjoy the county’s countryside, towns, history and points of interest than on foot?
But it does not necessarily mean hiking boots on and backpacks at the ready. While some routes involve a long and energetic trek, many are more of an amble.
This year, there are 123 guided walks on the three-week programme, ranging from a long-distance challenge to gentle strolls of around a mile.
After last year’s event, one of the organisers, Anna McGowan, worked out how many steps were taken by the thousands of people who took part.
Calculating it from numbers of walkers, distances and how many steps in a mile, she came up with the amazing figure of 24 million.
Coincidentally, this May is national walking month, with numerous charities and health groups engaging in a big push to get the nation on its feet.
Suffolk is ahead of the game. The walking festival was established in Babergh and Mid Suffolk in 2008 and was soon adopted county-wide.
“We have one 20-mile walk, but most are about three miles, so you don’t need to be a major walker or hiker to do them, and some are very short and suitable for families,” says David Falk, who leads the organising team.
Some include lingering to take in history, local stories, wildlife from woodland bugs to birds that flock to our coastal reserves, a boat trip or even a cream tea.
A ride on a vintage military vehicle is part of one package. Other walks come with photography lessons at locations, including a watermill and a light railway.
Suffolk’s annual celebration of walking – like another more famous festival – even has a Fringe.
These are walks where putting one foot in front of the other is not the main focus of the event.
Think mindfulness, a woodland night safari, art and craft workshops, foraging, or finding inspiration for poetry.
“The health benefits of walking are massive, and really important for our mental wellbeing, too,” said David, who is Suffolk County Council’s green access manager.
“We know from our research that for people who take part it’s a bit of a springboard for the rest of their lives as well.
“Being in green spaces, blue spaces near water, or in a wood or forest has a real impact on you.
“Being among trees makes you feel better, and being out and about makes you feel good.
“The majority of our walks are rural-based. The idea of being out in the countryside for mental wellbeing has really caught on.
“We have mindfulness walks this year focused on being in, hearing and sensing the countryside.
“Sometimes, slow walking is really good – taking the meditative approach.”
The longest walk is the challenge walk – this year’s is 20 miles over five days from Lowestoft Ness, the most easterly point in Britain, to Ipswich.
“We have regulars,” said David. “When we do the challenge walk, it’s like a family reunion. Some people come along year after year, and some have even started going on holiday together.
“It’s a very sociable occasion. When you put on something like this, you maybe don’t think of the social benefits, but it does have an impact on people’s lives and that’s really nice.”
“Around 2,000 walkers took part in the festival last year, and we expect a similar amount this time.
“It is one of the largest and longest-running walking festivals in Britain, and the only one in East Anglia.
“It began in 2008. The first year, it was run by the tourism officers of Mid Suffolk and Babergh district councils. I got involved to help fund it.
“But as soon as I saw the first event, I thought it was fantastic and saw an opportunity to roll it out across the whole county.
“From 2010, it was the whole of Suffolk and I became the lead for it. It’s been a joy to see it develop and grow. Four of us work on it, but we all have our day jobs to do as well.”
There are now around 40 established walk leaders scattered all over the county.
“They’re a really interesting group of people, with different backgrounds, knowledge and experiences,” says David.
“This is the most amazing event. There’s no other event that showcases the whole county.
“We start planning in September. We send emails to all the leaders we know about, and they come up with their titles and descriptions and routes.
“Then I and a colleague go through all the submissions and make a few suggestions about possible changes.
“Then other people knock on our door and say they would like to lead a walk. Every year, we get new ones.”
Walking with a guided group makes it easy to explore a new area. “There’s no need to read a map or think about directions,” he adds.
Booking is essential. To see the full programme, and book places on the walks, go online to www.suffolkwalkingfestival.co.uk. Brochures are also available at tourist information centres.