A Kind of Pilgrimage
Walk for miles in mid-July; camp in a field; share a shower block with 300 other people; eat what you’re given; climb long, steep and challenging hills; repeat this for three days.
This is what the Dorset Walk offers to the ‘pilgrims’ who have returned every year now for eleven years. And, as with all pilgrimages, the journey begins with very reasonable misgivings (mainly, ‘can I do this?’). And, also as with pilgrimages, should end, in theory, with a kind of spiritual goal: in this case, the sense that you have ‘given of yourself’ for someone else.
What certainly shouldn’t be in doubt from the outset - the main attraction, I suppose - is the stunning coastal scenery which from beginning to end is varied, legendary (literally) and predictably and endlessly beautiful.
Three things will mainly test you: 1) The getting there 2) The camping 3) The walking.
You’ve got to steel yourself for a bit of a drive – five hours, give or take, from Cambridgeshire. This is the time when the apprehension builds: what have I done? How will I be tested? Am I going to survive? Pre-match nerves they call it in sport. At sea, the calm before the storm.
Camping is a bit of a marmite pastime. Bad experiences tend to put people off for life. But this is a mistake: adults have a habit of hardening their hearts too early while the young roll with the punches. The students at Dorset have the run of a huge field, the chance to meet up with other schools and, most importantly, the freedom that being outside 24/7 offers. I would say this is one of the most educational and therefore valuable aspects of the Dorset Walk: experiencing that lift in the quality of life that being outside fundamentally brings. Teenagers might not articulate this but they certainly feel it.
We all know that walking is a dying art. So why let yourself in for 40 miles of it? You might not be very fit; you might find yourself signing up for the Walk without even wanting to walk! But you are carried along – not literally – by the challenge, by the mile long line of trekkers, by the sense of camaraderie, by the awareness that you are probably doing something more indefinably worthwhile than you’ve ever done before.
And then it’s over and you’re on the way home. And in almost every participant’s mind is the same thought: I want to do it again. Remind yourself what a pilgrimage is: a physical journey with a spiritual goal. You know you’ve achieved something quite special; you know the Dorset Walk is something extraordinary in our mostly ordinary lives. That is what you signed up for and that is why you should do it.
I’m sure I don’t need to describe the exhilaration when we arrived at the final destination (you can see it on Facebook). A fleet of minibuses may have driven out of Studland Bay that afternoon in a dust cloud but I swear there were haloes hovering above every one of us.