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Why going for a walk has made a big difference to our lives in Northern Ireland

As a new website is launched listing hundreds of popular walks across the province, three people tell Stephanie Bell of the true benefits of getting outdoors

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Leona Coulter out with her walking group (from left) Karen Hanna, Ann Morrow, Inge Hamilton, Joy Totten, Gabriella Nicholson

Leona Coulter out with her walking group (from left) Karen Hanna, Ann Morrow, Inge Hamilton, Joy Totten, Gabriella Nicholson

Alex Swan lost his brother to suicide 10 years ago

Alex Swan lost his brother to suicide 10 years ago

Community: Alex Swan walks weekly

Community: Alex Swan walks weekly

(From left) Zoe Mitchell, Jenny Giraudeau, Leona, Karen Hanna and Paula Bassett

(From left) Zoe Mitchell, Jenny Giraudeau, Leona, Karen Hanna and Paula Bassett

Leona Coulter

Leona Coulter

Mike McClure and wife Cheryl

Mike McClure and wife Cheryl

Leona Coulter out with her walking group (from left) Karen Hanna, Ann Morrow, Inge Hamilton, Joy Totten, Gabriella Nicholson

Finding a scenic walk in Northern Ireland has just got a whole lot easier with the launch of a new website by Walk NI. For the first time people will be able to use their mobile phones to access a digital map showing hundreds of popular walks for all abilities right across the province.

Every day of every week small armies of walkers are putting their best foot forward to walk for their physical and mental health.

Walk NI, an initiative supported by local councils, has mushroomed with weekly walking groups set up in most towns and villages in Northern Ireland.

And in an effort to encourage even more people to pull on their boots and get out into the fresh air, the new website has been packed full of inspirational content.

Already used by more than half a million walkers every year, Walkni.com has been created to make planning your next walk not only easy but also enjoyable.

Jayne Woodrow, marketing officer for Outdoor Recreation NI who manages Walkni.com, said: "The first thing about our new website is that it is finally mobile friendly.

"The second is that we have redesigned the website with the experiences and the opinions of the walkers at the heart of it.

"This includes live links to your favourite #WalkNI moments from Instagram, a 'review this walk' feature and the ability to report any problems you encounter to land managers."

We caught up with three regular walkers to find out what difference getting out regularly in the fresh air has made to their lives.

Ulster Unionist councillor in Lisburn and Castlereagh Alex Swan joined his local walking group in Drumbo five years ago.

‘It can really give those people struggling with loneliness or depression an escape’

Retired policeman Alex (60) is married to Ann (60), a retired nurse, and has three grown-up children and two young grandchildren.

He enjoys the craic and companionship on the club's weekly walks to many picturesque parts. However, having come through the pain of losing a loved one to suicide, he is passionate about the benefits of walking for mental as well as physical health.

Alex's brother Howard had been battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following an incident during his career with the police.

He had just retired six weeks before he took his own life at the age of 47.

Alex doesn't believe walking would have prevented the tragedy, but he is convinced it would have helped his brother's mental health.

He says: "I think walking might stop people from going on to develop depression and I think it would certainly help people who are struggling with loneliness or depression.

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Alex Swan lost his brother to suicide 10 years ago

Alex Swan lost his brother to suicide 10 years ago

Alex Swan lost his brother to suicide 10 years ago

"My brother Howard died in 2008. He was married with a young child. He had just retired from the police and I think he was hoping retirement would take his demons away, but it didn't.

"He had medically retired because of PTSD. It was his third episode of depression, and they always say the third is the worst.

"When it happens it does knock your confidence. You think something like that can't happen to your family. Since it happened I would never let the sun go down on a row, I would always make peace, as you don't know when the last time you will see someone will be."

I enjoy the craic and the exercise. It is like being part of a wee community, and that might sound corny, but to me life is all about the wee communities you build Alex Swan

As a public representative, and because of his personal experience, Mr Swan believes more needs to be done at central government level to stem the shocking spiral of suicides here.

He says: "It is now an average of five suicides a week and even if that affects six immediate family members, then that is 30 people's lives every week being devastated.

"We have very graphic ads on TV at the moment aimed at young drivers. I think we need to have something just as hard-hitting aimed at young people about suicide and the pain felt by those they leave behind."

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Community: Alex Swan walks weekly

Community: Alex Swan walks weekly

Community: Alex Swan walks weekly

Alex is one of around 40 members of Drumbo walking group, which is mainly made up of retired people.

He believes meeting for their weekly walk every Thursday is a chance for many to get out and escape the loneliness which can come with retirement.

The group have progressed from walking in their local area to travelling long distances to enjoy some of Northern Ireland's famous beauty spots.

Alex adds: "I enjoy the craic and the exercise. It is like being part of a wee community, and that might sound corny, but to me life is all about the wee communities you build.

"We walk and we talk and we see some beautiful sights and then we have a cup of tea and a scone."

‘We like adding a fun element and have gone out with llamas and dressed up for Halloween... we also pick up litter’

Adding a sense of fun to the weekly walking troupe in the village of Aghalee is leader of the group and local high school music teacher Leona Coulter.

Leona enjoys adding themed twists to her walks including teddy bears picnics, fancy dress and yoga.

Her group has even walked with llamas and built Christmas wreaths after foraging for decorations during their walk.

At Walk Aghalee the focus is on fun and friendship - and it certainly lives up to its motto 'More than a walking group'.

It all began for Leona when she wanted to walk along her local towpath but didn't feel safe doing it alone.

Realising there would be safety in numbers, she had the idea of setting up a walking group.

Originally from Castlederg, she moved to Aghalee 12 years ago with her husband Nigel.

She says: "I have always been interested in walking and keeping fit and getting outside into nature.

"I was into sport at school and over the last 15 years have done a bit of running for charity

"I have the towpath on my doorstep and one winter's night I was sitting thinking that I wouldn't mind going for a walk along the towpath, but I didn't want to go on my own because I was worried about my personal safety.

"That got me thinking about how many other people who, like me, wanted to walk but something was putting them off too.

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(From left) Zoe Mitchell, Jenny Giraudeau, Leona, Karen Hanna and Paula Bassett

(From left) Zoe Mitchell, Jenny Giraudeau, Leona, Karen Hanna and Paula Bassett

(From left) Zoe Mitchell, Jenny Giraudeau, Leona, Karen Hanna and Paula Bassett

"That was in January 2017 and I thought it would be great to have a walking group, although I had no idea of the health and safety and legal aspects of it, so I contacted Walk NI."

Through Walk NI Leona was able to sign up to take part in a leaders' course and then she completed first aid training, qualifying in June 2017.

We have had so many great friendships and I think overall for people it improves your mood and helps you to better cope with stress Leona Coulter

She set up a Facebook page and put posters advertising her new group in her local village hall and shop and was delighted when 12 people turned up to her first meeting.

The group now has more than 100 members of all ages, including young mothers who push buggies on their walks and others who bring their dogs along.

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Leona Coulter

Leona Coulter

Leona Coulter

The group meets once a week, on a day which suits most members, and will choose walks from the large selection on the Walk NI website, as well as on their own doorstep. Walks usually last two hours and most are around 5km, but can go up to 10km.

Members enjoy the fun element which Leona has introduced to the group.

She adds: "We are lucky to have a yoga teacher in the group and we've done two 'mindful' yoga walks, we've walked with llamas at Jungle NI and we've dressed up for Halloween walks and also made Christmas wreaths.

"We also pick up litter on all of our walks; some of us will bring gloves and a bag. It is good to add a bit of fun, it keeps thing fresh and exciting.

"For some people it has been a great challenge as at first they couldn't walk far.

"It's great to see them build up their stamina and fitness levels.

"We have had so many great friendships and I think overall for people it improves your mood and helps you to better cope with stress."

‘During intensive chemotherapy, getting out twice every day really helped me cope’

For dad-of-three Mike McClure (54), walking proved a lifeline when he came through a tough cancer battle three years ago.

Mike worked for many years as an outdoor pursuits instructor and is now an outdoors officer for Sport NI.

He has always enjoyed getting outside and appreciating nature, but it is only since his cancer diagnosis that walking has become a way of life.

Mike kept a photo diary of his daily walks during chemotherapy treatment, which have now been made into a video by his daughter and can be viewed online.

Married to teacher Cheryl (54), they have three children - Joanna (26), Thomas (24) and Katie (14).

Living in Castlewellan, Mike feels blessed to have a multitude of beautiful walks on his doorstep and will start most days with a 45-minute walk before work, fitting in another 5km walk later in the day.

He says: "I always loved canoeing and kayaking and did a lot of mountaineering. I also enjoyed walking, although it wasn't a regular thing for me.

"I love connecting with nature and seeing wildlife and just being in the natural environment."

Mike was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2018 and went through emergency surgery.

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Mike McClure and wife Cheryl

Mike McClure and wife Cheryl

Mike McClure and wife Cheryl

He then started chemotherapy treatment that lasted for nine months.

It was during the treatment, which left him fatigued and sick, that he forced himself to go on long walks every day.

I feel very fortunate where I live as I have so many beautiful places to walk close to home and I would definitely tell people to think about getting out and enjoying the beauty around them Mike McClure

He explains: "I had two forms of chemotherapy which really floored me, but walking got it through my system and made me feel less sick.

"I would have taken a chemo tablet in the morning and most mornings I felt as if I didn't have the energy to get off the sofa, but I forced myself to go for a walk.

"I would have walked twice a day and some of the walks were the most challenging things I have ever done because of the effort involved. But I found that being out in natural spaces was very cathartic and took my mind off what I was going through. Being in the natural world helped me to focus on the bigger picture.

"As well as tablets I was getting chemotherapy intravenously and I honestly felt better for having the exercise."

Now walking is part of his daily routine. Favourite walks close to home include the Mournes, and Murlough Bay as well as Tullymore, Castlewellan and Drumkeeagh Forest Parks.

His job with Sport NI takes him all over and he takes the opportunity to walk in different counties when he can.

He adds: "I don't belong to a walking group. I am happy to walk on my own and with my family and sometimes friends.

"Since I came through my cancer treatment and thankfully have been given the all clear, I have kept it up and will try to get out twice most days.

"I feel very fortunate where I live as I have so many beautiful places to walk close to home and I would definitely tell people to think about getting out and enjoying the beauty around them."

To find a scenic place to walk or a walking group near you go to www.walkni.com

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