Andrew Swift picks out his highlghts from this month’s Bristol Walking Festival and encourages us all to get involved.

Now in its fourth year, the city’s walking festival is the largest urban celebration of walking in the UK. This year, it is bigger and more inclusive than ever, offering over 170 walks, involving all of Bristol’s neighbourhoods and aiming to involve not just those already aware of the joys – and benefits – of a good hike, but those who are yet to be persuaded.

And, if you are one of the latter, there is no better time to dip a suitably shod toe into the water. The health benefits of walking are, of course, well known, and ‘health walks’, led by experienced guides, feature prominently in the programme. If you are after something more strenuous, there are Nordic trekking sessions, while other walks are specially geared to those recovering from illness and injury, or those with long-term health problems. There’s something for everyone, from 15-mile hikes for seasoned ramblers to gentle strolls for complete beginners – as well as walks for those who think walking is not for them.

It’s not just your health that can benefit from walking. According to Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking; “There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together… Once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively.” Walking not only sharpens the senses, but also helps in problem solving. “I’m far more likely to find a solution by going for a walk than sitting at my desk and ‘thinking’” – says Geoff.

Frome Valley Walkway

Frome Valley Walkway

Famously, Paul Dirac, the Bristol-born Nobel-Prize winning physicist, also came up with one of his most groundbreaking discoveries while on a long walk.

While there is no guarantee that you will experience a similar ‘Eureka’ moment, over three-quarters of those festival-goers who took part in a survey last year said the best thing about it was learning new things. And while walking can be a solitary activity, the festival is very much a community event, so, as well as discovering new places and new ideas, you also get the chance to meet new people.

Other walks go in search of the wildlife to be found along the river banks at Crew’s Hole, Brislington and Hotwells.

One of the aims of the festival is to showcase the city as a vibrant centre of culture, green space and innovation. Bristol is one of the best cities in the world to explore on foot. Along with great estates such as Oldbury and Ashton Courts, Stoke Park and Kingsweston, you have the choice of Leigh Woods, the Downs, Frome Valley Walkway, Purdown, Royate Hill and St Anne’s Woods, all on the doorstep, along with dozens of other parks and green spaces.

Not surprisingly, nature figures largely in the festival. Early birds can join the Avon Wildlife Trust for the dawn chorus in Portbury Woods, while later risers can head to Badock’s Wood to listen to and learn about birdsong. Badock’s Wood, one of Bristol’s most enchanting green spaces, is also the venue for the Bugs and Butterflies Walk. Other walks go in search of the wildlife to be found along the river banks at Crew’s Hole, Brislington and Hotwells.

Several take foraging as their theme, seeking out not only plants that are good to eat, but also those that can be used as natural dyes or for medicinal purposes. Foraging has added benefits as well, according to the organisers; “It changes our relationship with the world,” they say. “We learn to slow down, becoming intimately involved with our surroundings.”

Arnos Vale

Arnos Vale

Mindfulness features in other walks as well, with opportunities to learn de-stressing techniques while walking the Clifton Downs, or to meditate and practice Tai Chi while exploring the sylvan delights of the Blaise Castle estate. Alternatively, you might be tempted by a stroll round Victoria Park, with stops along the way to sing seasonal songs in the open air – no previous experience necessary.

But perhaps a street art or sculpture trail is more your thing, or a guided walk in search of the city’s heritage? Among the historic sites focused on during the festival are a 19th-century boatyard, former tobacco factories, Whitchurch Airfield and a Roman road that once ran across the Downs to Sea Mills. Links between walking and storytelling are also celebrated. You’ll be able to find out about Bristol’s literary heritage, from Defoe to Angela Carter – and not forgetting Long John Silver. Meanwhile, for children, there is an Early Years Storywalk along the Malago Greenway – but not quite so recommended for children is the ‘atmospheric exploration of tragic tales, folk customs and funeral etiquette’ on a night time ramble through Arnos Vale Cemetery.

Alternatively, you could visit some of Bristol’s ruined churches in the company of ruins enthusiast, Dave Hamilton, or follow a multi-faith trail through east Bristol, meeting members of six different religions.

Another of the many highlights of the festival comes on Sunday 15 May, when the Portway is closed to traffic, and there is a chance to see the Avon Gorge as it was when renowned as a tourist attraction a century or more ago. A guided stroll will seek out plants found only in the Gorge, as well as the goats and peregrine falcons that have made it their home. A couple of weeks later, there’s another walk that will trace the line of a forgotten tramway linking the gorge to the downs.

Blaise Castle Estate

Blaise Castle Estate

This year also sees the launch of the Bristol Walking Alliance at the Watershed on 17 May, bringing residents, walking groups and policy makers together to discuss plans for making Bristol an even better place for walkers.

Oldbury Court

Oldbury Court

Most of the planned events are free, although, because numbers are limited, some do need to be booked in advance. However much walking you have done in the past, and whatever your interests, there has never been a better opportunity to improve your health and find out new things about the city. Grab a copy of the festival programme – available at the Tourist Information Centre or local libraries – and get involved!

Full details of all the events included as part of the festival can be found at: www.bristolwalkingfestival.co.uk