Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: The walking bus of Wivenhoe

Walking Bus �passengers� last November, on its first anniversary, preparing to set off. Founder Char

Walking Bus �passengers� last November, on its first anniversary, preparing to set off. Founder Charlotte Bernays, with the blonde hair, is behind the blackboard. Inset, ticket-shaped information leaflets. Picture: JAMES DODDS - Credit: Archant

It’s almost 18 months since the Walking Bus was launched here in Wivenhoe.

The picturesque town, incidentally, has just been declared (by The Sunday Times no less) one of the Best Places To Live In Britain.

Cheering from the sidestreets was reportedly short-lived after property speculators (sorry, that should have read residents) discovered Chelmsford had topped the “East” list. How we laughed.

Back to the Walking Bus, whose passenger numbers have increased since its launch in 2016.

It was begun by Charlotte Bernays, local artist and inventor, who’d been walking the 2km circular route for some months before she began the scheme.

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Setting off at nine o’clock each weekday morning from Brook Street, the “bus” takes a scenic route, much of it alongside the River Colne. The pace is brisk, sometimes character-forming.

The Walking Bus is not a new idea. The first one is credited as having started in Herts 20 years ago as a healthy way for children to get to school. Walking Buses for adults, however, remain a relatively new concept. Sponsorship paid for leaflets and the Walking Bus won immediate approval from the town’s medical practitioners.

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From an original half-dozen or so regular “passengers”, the bus can now include up to 20 people on a good morning and having in all about 50 regular and occasional participants combined.

The age range is roughly 50 to 70 years, comprising a mix of mainly semi-retired and self-employed people.

Your correspondent has particularly taken to the scheme, having missed only a handful of days since it began. I like it because I don’t have to wear ghastly sportswear which might give observers the errant idea that I’m a rugged outdoors type.

The Walking Bus does, however, prise me off my escritoire for at least half an hour each morning. In a busy writing week, this is a good thing.

It’s also a different type of exercise to the sporadic if more strenuous cycling I usually engage in. The forms of exercise complement each other nicely.

For a freelancer working chiefly from home it’s an additional motivation to know I can be back at my desk by the relatively pert time of 9.30am. The real bonus of the Walking Bus is the social aspect. For those of us who work long hours alone, to walk and chat with others for a while is vital contact with the outside world.

Working alone can be melancholy during winter. So there’s lots of chatter. Indeed, the passing racket of the Walking Bus on certain mornings has, I’m told, led to one disgruntled resident nicknaming us The Geese.

Walking, however, is particularly beneficial and as our chief medical officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, reminds us, most of us don’t do nearly enough of it.

The British, so we’re told, are a well-padded nation. Some have even called us The Fat Man of Europe. I consider this harsh, but a cursory glance at certain 18th century illustrations would seem to imply that, as a people, the keys to the pie-cabinet have always been kept close to our hearts.

Old engravings of our national everyman, John Bull himself, support the idea that our forbears enjoyed a slap-up feed. Where we differ from recent ancestors, however, is that so many of us lead sedentary lifestyles.

Dame Sally was most emphatic. Scandalously, few middle-aged people do any regular exercise at all. She made it quite clear, though, that joining a gym wasn’t always necessary. All that is required, she said, to prolong our lives, keeping heart disease and certain cancers at bay, was that we walked, gardened, or even did some up-and-down-stairs housework. These activities do need to be undertaken daily, however.

Perhaps this is why the Walking Bus is a hit. It’s regular, not too strenuous and fun, if at times somewhat noisy company.

From next week, with British Summer Time (allegedly) having started, there will be two extra walking buses.

From Monday, each weekday, the Go Slow Walking Bus will leave Brook Street at midday for a “more leisurely, slightly shorter walk”.

This will accommodate those less-inclined to brisk marching. There will also be an Evening Bus at 6pm each weekday, along the same route as the morning one. This is for people unable to do the morning walk.

Some participants have even said they would like to do both.

It is fun. As I said earlier: I stepped out one morning in autumn 2016, mainly to see what it was all about. I’m still doing it.

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