Friday was the shortest of our walks, from Rothbury to Thropton in the middle of Northumberland. I had covered the section from Kirkwhelpington to Rothbury on my own earlier in the week, a fantastic walk taking in Harwood Forest, the Cup and Ring carvings at Lordenshaws and views out to the coast. When I walked into Rothbury earlier in the week it had been bright sunshine, on Friday it was wet, really wet.

The hour long walk to Thropton takes you across the floodplain of the river Coquet, the footpath follows the river and offers fantastic views of the Coquet Valley. All of this is providing you can traverse the makeshift styles and dodge the sheep that make the floodplain their home.

Despite not being on the St Oswald’s Way, we chose to make the detour to Thropton as November Club has a history of work with the community there through Beyond The End of the Road, and Doorstep Theatre allowed us the opportunity to re-connect with the village.

Despite the rain, we were pleased to see a fair number of people waiting to walk with us on Friday morning. The party included an architect, a dancer, a writer, a project manager in the heritage sector, a maths student, a civil servant, an 11 month old baby and more. The conversation was flowing, despite the deluge.

I asked John, from Rothbury, about what had kept him going during the past 18 months...

‘I’m a musician so I kept going by writing music by myself and with other people. I have really missed the opportunity to play live and go and listen to live music and it is great to see it coming back. I know that a few gigs are starting to happen again which is great. But music really kept me going. I also walk everyday.’

It transpired talking to John that he walks the walk we were doing almost every day, and had done this during lockdown as his daily exercise. He had used Walk in Your Shoes as a way to experience a walk he was very familiar with, with a new group of people.

I asked John more about what he plays;

‘I am learning the Northumbrian Pipes, they are a form of bagpipe. I was learning with a group of local folk but during lockdown that kind of fell away. A few people kept learning on zoom, but it’s not a very communal experience playing bagpipes in your living room! I am looking forward to getting back to that in person.’

Gwen is retired and now lives in the North East but is originally from Wales. It was Gwen’s second day of Walk in Your Shoes and I asked her what had brought her back for a second go:

‘It’s refreshing to meet people I don’t know and just be able to have a chin wag with them, you speak to people in a different way if you are walking. I feel happier walking than going inside at the moment. I’m not really very keen on the idea of meeting people inside just now.’

I asked Gwen more about what she did and why she had started walking;

‘I didn’t use to be very good at doing things. And then when I tried to adopt a policy of saying YES to things. Events and activities, so I just say yes now and it’s great to do new things and meet new people. I’ve met so many interesting people. I’d love to do some more walks but I’m going on holiday to Wales next week, finally!’

….

Esther and Alex run an arts space in Cambois, a former mining community in South-East Northumberland. They were joined on the walk by their 11 month old daughter, Dhalia who enjoyed the walk shielded from the rain in a backpack. Esther is a dancer and choreographer and Alex is a writer.

I spoke to Esther about reopening their venue in the last few months.

‘Things are coming back to life, in unexpected ways. I have started a dance group for local folk in Cambois and a person came in to volunteer. I had never met them before, and I wasn’t even sure we needed a volunteer, but they arrived with their CV and were really keen to be involved. They were local to us and weren’t who you might expect to volunteer for an arts organisation. But were enthusiastic and really helped out.

They had just volunteered from the sidelines and then approached me during one of the sessions and asked;

“Esther, do you think if I join in the dancing, it will help other people to be less self-conscious and see that they should also join in?”

Since then they have become a real advocate for the group and have recruited others to join.’

I ask if running an arts organisation in Cambois has challenges and Esther is quick to counter;

‘Places like ours are too frequently written off as ‘low engagement’ areas. But that is due to historic under-investment in these communities. If you put the work in and provide the opportunity, then we are proof that people will take advantage of it, but it might be in ways you don’t expect. Their community is important to them and they have spent time isolated from each other. Yes, of course it’s hard, but it matters to us a great deal as members of that community.’

Esther has recently been awarded an Arts Council England project grant for Stairwall, a dance collaboration between professional artists and the community in Cambois.

We only have three walks remaining, sign up to them here: Walk in Your Shoes | November Club 

You can support Joe and make a donation via his Just Giving page here: Crowdfunding to Sponsor November Club to walk 125 miles across Northumberland on JustGiving