Mid-morning at Thornham Walks. It's one of those spring days, when there's just enough warmth to ponder leaving the coat behind but still enough of a nip in the air to remind you that winter hasn't yet fully retreated.

The car park is filling up. Vehicles are disgorging mums and toddlers, and middle aged couples, all eager to stretch their legs, breathe some fresh air and feel a little sun on their backs. People finding an hour or two in a busy week, simply to enjoy being out in nature, among the ancient trees of Thornham estate. It's a heart-warming sight.

Great British Life: The Folly at Thornham Walks. The Folly at Thornham Walks. (Image: Waveney and Blyth Arts)

This was the chosen location for the launch of 2024 Suffolk Walking Festival and I'm here to meet – and walk – with Jo-Jo Henniker, who runs Thornham Walks. Jo-Jo (Josephine) belongs to the Henniker-Major family who have owned the estate for over 250 years. She's granddaughter to the late John, eighth Lord Henniker. It was he who started the walks at Thornham after inheriting the estate in 1980, deciding that, as he was lucky enough to own 2,000 acres of historic Suffolk parkland, farmland and woodland in the beautiful Dove valley, he should share it.

An ardent conservationist, over two decades, with his second wife Julia, he transformed the estate into an asset for the community. The woods and parklands were opened up to the public for recreational walks, while unused buildings in the estate's Red House farmyard – a model Victorian farm made obsolete by 20th century changes to agriculture – were converted to provide workspaces for small businesses.

Great British Life: The entrance to the Walled Garden. The entrance to the Walled Garden. (Image: Sonya Duncan)

A field study centre was opened in 1985, giving local schoolchildren an opportunity to learn about conservation and ecology on the estate, then in 2000 the Victorian walled garden was restored with funding from the Henniker-Major family, the National Lottery and charitable donations. This lovely space was opened to the public and is now a base for Beyond the Wall, a charitable project working with people with mixed disabilities, which aims to help them into education or employment.

John Henniker-Major died in 2004, at a time when Thornham Walks were being run by Mid-Suffolk District Council in a partnership he had forged. It came to an end in 2012, when the council decided it could no longer provide support. Jo-Jo took over the reins in 2015, leaving her career as a marine consultant that took her to some of the more remote parts of Britain.

Great British Life: The PoeTree at Thornham, when visitors could hang thier poems from the branches. The PoeTree at Thornham, when visitors could hang thier poems from the branches. (Image: Thornham Walks)

She grew up on the estate with her siblings; her childhood was, she says, 'a bit Swallows and Amazons'. Born the year before her grandfather inherited, she has only ever known Thornham as a place of public access. Now, under the guidance of the trustees, she is carrying on the philosophy and good practice started by her grandfather almost 40 years ago. For the past nine years, she explains, she has focused not on changing things, but on enhancing what has already been started.

For her there is no better sight than a full car park and plenty of folk wandering the 12 miles of permissive paths that meander through the woodland and around some of the fields – Thornham estate is still a working arable farm – as well as hearing the busy chatter of children enjoying the woodland playground visible from her office in the visitor centre.

Thornham is delightfully welcoming to families and people of all ages. It's open almost every day of the year and it's free, except for the car park, which is a modest £2 all day Monday to Friday and £3 all day at weekends. Keeping it affordable and accessible for everyone is part of staying true to the original aims.

Great British Life: There are lots of surprises at Thornham Walks.There are lots of surprises at Thornham Walks. (Image: Sonya Duncan)

Indeed, Jo-Jo believes one of the main challenges is to make everyone feel welcome so they can reap the physical and emotional benefits of being in the countryside. This includes older people, people with disabilities, and people who might not think the countryside is for them, such as some ethnic groups.

Lockdowns demonstrated how important the great outdoors is to us humans, when Thornham's visitor numbers swelled so much that Jo-Jo had to find emergency funding to create an overflow car park. 'We were committed to providing outdoor space,' she says, 'so it was a case of managing the enormous numbers of people looking for a way to spend time outdoors.'

Thornham is constantly evolving and Jo-Jo is actively seeking new ways in which she can bring the community closer. There are tree planting programmes with local schools, and events such as hedgerow wreath making, family fungi fun, summer fairs, woodland night explorations, den building, theatre productions and themed Halloween, Christmas and Easter events.

Great British Life: The carved Green Man at Thornham Walks. The carved Green Man at Thornham Walks. (Image: Sonya Duncan)

There's also an active volunteer group led by Simon Hooton, who was Thornham Walks' first warden in 1985. He advises on conservation and organises a monthly volunteers' day for tasks such as coppicing, pollarding, mowing and raking wild areas, and hedgerow planting and maintenance.

The volunteers are supported by the Friends of Thornham Walks, who promote community engagement and help with fundraising for major projects, such as the Green Latrines, Thornham's state of the art eco-toilets. Jo-Jo's currently looking to raise £125,000 to resurface the surfaced footpath that threads its way from the car park, through trees, to and around the Walled Garden.

'Research shows people feel more confident using a surfaced path,' she says, 'especially parents with buggies and prams. And it's essential for wheelchair users.' She's hoping to use a type of permeable material made from recycled tyres which has been used by Sustrans, the organisation that promotes walking and cycling as a more sustainable way of getting around. After the record amounts of rain that have turned some tracks to mud this winter, Thornham's Park Run participants, who turn up for a 5km run, jog, or walk every Saturday at 9am, should also be glad of it.

I've enjoyed quite a few walks at Thornham over the years; it's a place for all seasons and for everyone. I always find something new to marvel at, whether it's along the footpath or on the galleries in Red House Yard. The Suffolk Walking Festival launch weekend has several walks which promise fascinating insights to Thornham estate's rural past and I can't wait to get started.


Great British Life: Thornham WalksThornham Walks (Image: Sonya Duncan)

What will you find at Thornham Walks?

Twelve miles of walking routes, some relatively short and very manageable. The paths link up with public footpaths that lead to the surrounding villages and hamlets of Thornham Parva, Thornham Magna, Wickham Skeith and Gislingham so it's possible to plan a complete day out, perhaps with a start and/or finish at the excellent on-site Forge Cafe.

Within easy walking distance of the car park, you'll find the Volunteer & Visitor Centre, with a permanent display about Thornham Estate and its history; excellent eco-toilets; attractions including a play area, Labyrinth, Mini Beast Haven, Pinetum with a fairy circle and and carved Green Man, a bird hide, den building area, Enchanted Wood and Folly, Pets' Cemetery and more.

The Forge Cafe – delicious homemade food, various teas, coffees and cold drinks, light lunches, snacks, cakes, ice creams and more.

Great British Life: The Walled Garden at Thornham WalksThe Walled Garden at Thornham Walks (Image: Sonya Duncan)

The Walled Garden – originally part of 25 acres of formal gardens, maintained by nine gardeners. Restored and redesigned, now the base for the charity Beyond the Wall, improving prospects for with disadvantaged young people with mixed disabilities and behavioural problems. Open daily, with a small seasonal plant and produce stall (profits to Beyond the Wall).

The Queens Copse – planted in 2023 by pupils of Gislingham Primary School, is named in memory of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Trees were donated by the Woodland Trust and include a mix of native species, including wild cherry, maple, birch, rowan, dogwood and hawthorn, replacing a plantation of ash trees, which were felled due to ash dieback disease.

A looped footpath has been created inside the plantation and it's hoped to extend the surfaced footpath to and around the plantation, so everyone can enjoy the wonderful space.

Red House Yard – various enterprises including a gallery, a pottery store, and artists' studios. Beyond the Image Gallery is a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of volunteer lens-based artists who exhibit their own work in quarterly themed exhibitions.