For the past year, 10.30am on a Saturday has been a regular date for hundreds of Merton residents, who head for their local park and join the borough’s flourishing Walk and Talk Movement.
For many of them it has been life changing. According to Fi, who began walking and talking in January: “It was the right thing at the right time. I wanted to start walking more, just to get out and about, but the idea of meeting people is always a challenge. It took me a while to build up to it. But after that I found it easy just to come along, chat to one or two people and gradually get to know everyone.”
I found it easy just to come along, chat to one or two people and gradually get to know everyone.
The brainchild of social entrepreneurs, and long-time Merton residents, Andy Yates and Ali Palmer, the movement began in Wimbledon Park. It was a simple idea – a weekly walk at the same time and place that was open to anyone.
“We wanted to find a way to help people reconnect after COVID,” says Andy. “A lot of people were feeling anxious, isolated, and less connected to their communities. We were looking for something uncomplicated, that would always be free, always be fun and be inclusive with no booking or registration.”
The idea of walking and talking in Merton’s glorious green spaces seemed to fit the bill.
A lot of people were feeling anxious, isolated, and less connected to their communities.
The benefits of physical activity in the great outdoors, where people can feel calm and connected with nature, are well documented. But the talking bit is possibly the most vital element in creating a feeling of wellbeing.
Says Andy: “When people come on a walk, there’s a ready-made community. New people are welcomed with a round of applause. We hear such amazing things, hundreds of stories, people who didn’t know their neighbours, hardly ever spoke to anyone or hadn’t left the house for some time. People open up when they’re walking. Often, they are talking so much they don’t notice the physical activity.
“Anybody can come, whatever their ability, however far they want to walk and at whatever pace. We very much cater for everybody and are here to help.”
After launching in Wimbledon Park in September 2021, more walks were added in Mitcham, Morden Hall Park and Colliers Wood, thanks to funding from Merton Council public health.
This funding means new walks led by local Walk and Talk Champions can be established. The programme recruits volunteers who make the events sustainable – and ensure they happen every single week, rain or shine.
The Walk and Talk Movement is now a 700+ strong community with ages five months to 90+ represented. People come from all walks of life and cultural heritage – and pets and buggies are always welcome.
According to David, who has been part of the Wimbledon Park group since the launch: “It’s been a great experience, to watch Walk and Talk grow. I’ve noticed that people do return and that they’re having a good time and relationships are being formed. There’s no commitment, no fuss, it’s the best formula. After all we’ve been through with the pandemic, it feels like a gift, the chance to celebrate .. our lives.”
After all we’ve been through with the pandemic, it feels like a gift, the chance to celebrate .. our lives.
Once the walking is over, participants can hang around for refreshments supplied by the volunteers, and sometimes additional activities. As Andy explains: “We’ve linked up with local groups and planted trees, tried crown green bowling, met a Womble, visited Wimbledon tennis, had the Jubilee bagpipes played for us and meditated at Wimbledon’s Thai Temple.”
Says Fi: “It’s just amazing to see how many people come along, new people every week building up those friendships, getting to know people that you then run into when you’re out at the shops, which is lovely.”
It’s just amazing to see how many people come along, new people every week building up those friendships.
The Wimbledon Park Walk and Talk starts by the café. In Mitcham, it’s from the courtyard of the regenerated Canons House and Grounds. You can join the Morden Hall Park walk from the Stable Yard and Snuff Mill and for Colliers Wood it’s the tube station. A new walk with AFC Wimbledon from 24 September 2022 starts at Plough Lane stadium.