As part of our series on ParkLives, Rebecca Hobson travels to Newcastle to discover what they make of Nordic Walking compared to stilt walking – and why there’s a lot more going on than just exercise.

Travel to the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne and you’ll find a thriving metropolis of busy Geordies, university students, stunning architecture and cows.

Yes, cows. Amid the one million people who live in the city and its surrounding areas are free roaming cattle – peacefully grazing on the Town Moor and in Leazes Park.

But for 13-year-old Melissa Taylor, the bovine creatures are an unwelcomed addition to her four-mile walk. She doesn’t like cows, but that’s not going to stop her from trying out Nordic walking.

“The walking’s fun!” she says between deep breaths and confident strides. “I’ve been to this park a lot of times, I like it.” Her mother Libett Taylor agrees. “It’s definitely helping me feel better,” she says – while artfully propelling herself along with her walking poles.

This is a ParkLives Nordic Walking class. Just one of the hundreds of free activities held across Birmingham, Newcastle, London, Glasgow, Nottingham and Manchester – and part of Coca-Cola Great Britain’s campaign to get one million people active by 2020. 

This session takes place every Wednesday evening in Leazes Park, the city’s oldest public park and one that is overlooked by Newcastle United FC’s home stadium, St James’ Park. On this sunny midsummer’s evening the park is in full, resplendent bloom.

Walking with Melissa and her mum are a dozen or so other walkers, including council worker Judith Rust, aged 60, who switched to Nordic Walking after taking a tumble while jogging.

“I fell and broke my finger and lost my nerve a bit,” explains Judith “so I was looking for something else – and that’s how I found Nordic Walking.”

Since taking up the class in January this year, Judith’s become a seasoned regular – taking to the Finnish activity like a natural.

And so have many other walkers. According to the session leader, Marguerite Fisher, most attendees start out as beginners but progress quickly. So much so, she’s had to extend the sessions beyond their original one-hour period.

“The walks really bring the group together,” explains Marguerite, while the group limbers up. “They’ll all go off and talk about their day and what they’ve done, so I’ve had to make the session longer.”

Marguerite holds two Nordic Walking sessions per week; a beginners’ class and an advanced class. And while she praises the sport for improving her fitness, it’s the social element that she cites as the best thing – a sentiment shared by her dedicated walkers.

From Nordic walking to stilt walking

A couple of miles east of Leazes Park lies Heaton Park, where leaders Suzy, Melissa and Craig hold free family games sessions every Thursday.

Like Marguerite and her walking groups, being part of a new and growing community while working outside, is a perk the instructors relish. Especially on a day like today, where not a single cloud disturbs the perfect blue sky. 

“I love it because it’s outdoors, working with people I wouldn’t normally engage with,” says 23-year-old session leader, Melissa Marshall.

“I love working with families and giving kids the chance to do stuff they wouldn’t normally do. How many kids get the chance to go on a climbing wall in Newcastle? When the wall goes up and you see the kids’ faces – that’s amazing!”

Yet when Melissa first heard about ParkLives she wasn’t entirely convinced.  “I thought the idea was a good one, but I was a little sceptical,” she admits. “It sounded very similar to some of the other projects that haven’t run so well.” 

Thankfully, the thousands of people who have enjoyed ParkLives Newcastle suggest it is working. So what’s different?

Melissa puts the success down to a number of factors: committed staff (“even when it’s snowing they go out”), good promotion and the community partnerships fostered by teaming up with community centres and organisations across the city. Melissa believes this has helped ParkLives reach a far wider audience.

Her colleague, 18-year old Craig Prudhoe, agrees. Seeing different communities and ethnicities come together to play has been a welcome surprise for him.

“Sometimes you get 10 different people playing together – for example, cricket. You may not know them at first, and they don’t know each other, but by the end they’ve started to get friendlier with each other – which is always good.”

And it’s not just new friendships that are occurring, people are discovering new activities too, as session leader Suzy Hunter explains: “A major benefit is allowing the kids to try sports they’ve not tried before. The kids say, ‘oh yeah I kind of like this, where can I go and play this more?’”

Melissa agrees. “Lots of people see tennis as an upper class sport, but we bring it here and it’s small [the team use a mini tennis set-up], the kids can try it out, it’s different – it’s all very accessible for them.”

For the Tuck family, the fun of discovering tennis together has been a major perk. “We were here at the park and somebody came over and asked if we wanted to come over and join in and we did – and we really enjoyed it,” explains Chris Tuck, a local schoolteacher and dad to three-year-old Harrison and 18-month old Stanley.

“Obviously we came back this week because it’s brilliant – and free! There are a lot of different resources and Harrison really enjoyed going on the stilts – which is the sort of thing you’d never think of to do really!”

For Chris, giving the kids a chance to try out new activities is definitely the best part. “With the age of our two, they’ve not done much proper organised sport before. So this is giving them the chance to play tennis and cricket for the first time, it’s been really good.”

Both Chris and his partner Stephanie have had a go too. Having not played tennis since she was 15, Stephanie’s enjoyed giving it another go. “I’m not particularly sporty but I keep trying bits and bobs,” she says.

“And there’s no pressure either, because someone will always help you out.”

This article was commissioned via NewsCred's NewsRoom and written by freelance contributor Rebecca Hobson.