A GRACEFUL heron lifts from the lake and flies above the surface of the water half way round our walk, and fifteen minutes later, a fox scoots in front of us and trots up the path.

Surprisingly we are not out in the wilds, but deep in the urban forest. I've joined the second outing of Step Out Swindon’s Old Town walking group, which meets at 10.30am every Monday at Christ Church. It is one of two new groups in the busy Step Out Swindon programme, the other beginning from Croft Sport Centre on Fridays at 10.30am. I'm surprised by just how many pockets of natural green we find.

Today the group of around eight walkers meets inside the church, before setting off for an hour’s walk around Old Town. Grahame Lee, chairman of the Swindon and Northeast Wiltshire Ramblers, and health walk leader for Walking for Health, has planned a route for us.

We walk around the Lawns Park, then through Bruddel Wood, a strip of oak, ash and beech covering four acres of land, now bursting with green as spring gets underway. We make our way uphill, round the back of Lakeside and The Planks. It is here the fox appears, looking surprised to see us, as it dashes back into the Lawns. The walk takes just under an hour, though it seems shorter as I spend the time listening to various fellow walkers about their motivations for joining the group and the benefits walking has brought them. Afterwards, back in Christ Church, everyone sits down for refreshments and conversation.

Grahame has long been a keen walker and joined the Ramblers when he retired. When he became a walk leader for Walking for Health, the project was supported by Swindon Borough Council. Unfortunately, the council decided to withdraw funding for the scheme and instead Graham and a group of volunteers decided to keep it going and set up their own scheme.

They have built up a bank of local walks, and established Step Out Swindon, a popular programme of one-hour health walks to encourage people to be more active. It offers free, short walks locally, with staring points in Penhill, Covingham, Lower Shaw, Haydon and Wroughton, in addition to the two new ones. The Haydon Health Walk, on a Thursday at 10am, regularly attracts over a hundred people.

They promote walking as an accessible exercise with a host of health benefits – helping heart and lung performance, lowering blood pressure, lifting mood, keeping joint, muscles and bones strong, and helping with weight loss.

Martin Styles is one of today’s walkers, and this is his second Christ Church health walk.

“I’ve always enjoyed walking, and a friend told me about this group,” he says. “It’s handy for me and I have got some spare time on a Monday morning. I enjoyed seeing places I haven’t visited for years and years. Now Bruddel Wood – apparently a Civil War skirmish happened in those woods.”

Peter Paul, from Cheney Manor Road, is another newcomer to Step Out Swindon.

“I retired five years ago, and I told myself I would take up walking when I retired. It’s taken me a bit of time though,” he smiles. “My wife read about the walk on social media. I like walking, the fresh air, the company and meeting new people.”

Dawn Burt has been involved in Walking for Health for around two and a half years, and it now a volunteer with the group. She and fellow walking enthusiast Mavis Edmondson describe the benefits of the walking groups for people who were nervous of walking alone, as the group offers solidarity and safety in numbers.

Both women also emphasize the benefits of the social life brought about by the health walks.

“There’s lots of socialising,” Dawn says. “It’s a wonderful way to make friends.”

Once people are confident on the hour-long walks, they can try Step Out Swindon Progression Walks – which are slightly longer and visit new places in the local area. These walks last around two hours and are open to members of the Walk for Health groups. They offer a great way to explore the hidden places and green spaces of local towns, with the security of the group and trained walk leaders. The walks often end up at a pub. Some walkers then graduate to the Ramblers and take on more ambitious walks.

As well as the walks themselves, Walking for Health organises social events and days out. The friendships people make extend beyond the walks too – and sometimes even lead to romance.

“We have had some relationships started on the walks,” Grahame says.

To join the Christ Church Health Walk, arrive at the church before 10.30am. For more information about Walking for Health and Step Out Swindon, visit www.walkingforhealth.org.uk.