Being a Firewalker

I have – from time to time – been known to have a good idea. It’s comparatively rare, and I’m not convinced that I can always tell the difference between a good and bad one. I therefore approached a fairly bland-looking building on a hill in the outskirts of Folkestone one Saturday evening with a certain degree of trepidation.

The Pilgrims Hospices, dotted across east Kent, are wonderful places – if you can bear with me on this. They are light and airy, compassionate and caring, and welcoming and inviting. A friend of mine, many years ago, spent her final days in there, and she was cared for with exquisite dignity. Everyone is.

It costs a lot for them to offer free care, of course, and they have a dedicated fundraising team to bring in cash that pays for their services. I have occasionally taken part in walks and other events to help raise money. It was, therefore, with that aforementioned sense of foreboding, that I approached the Saga building in Folkestone, as I and a friend were about to walk on fire.

Firewalking is literally what it says on the tin; it’s the act of walking barefoot over a bed of hot embers or stones. In this case, it was going to be the hot embers of wood.

I didn’t realise this until afterwards, but firewalking has been practiced by people and cultures in all parts of the world, with the earliest known reference dating back to Iron Age India – 1200 BC or so. It is often used as a rite of passage, as a test of an individual’s strength and courage, or in religion as a test of one’s faith.

Cliff Mann, the person behind the Pilgrim’s Hospice four Firewalks in 2017, has been doing it for 27 years, so he knows what he’s talking about. Thank heavens. He exudes confidence, and he has you believing – by the end of a seminar – that you can indeed walk on fire.

Saga had offered to host one of the Firewalks, so Di (my friend who enjoys these adventures as much I do, no matter what she says) and I turned up just before 6pm on a dry and not-that-cold evening to sign in and find out just what we were letting ourselves in for.

As you can imagine, the hospices and Cliff Mann take this process incredibly seriously, and so we were booked in – collectively – for a 90 minute seminar before being taking outside to face the flames. I was quite dubious about this, if I’m honest; why would it take so long to teach us what to do? I thought I could summarise it in a single, rather pithy sentence; “Walk fast, don’t stop, and don’t fall over.”

I’m glad to have been proved wrong, however. There was about sixty of us in the room with Cliff, who is a brilliant motivational speaker. He helped us get into the mindset of firewalkers (oh yes, there’s a mindset), and got us thinking about the process of feeling the fear and doing it anyway – something we could all learn from throughout our lives.

He also explained the physics behind firewalking; science has concluded that that the amount of time the foot is in contact with the ground is not enough to induce a burn, combined with the fact that embers are not good conductors of heat. That reassured Di and I somewhat, but I won’t lie; there was still an element of “Oh bloody hell, what have we let ourselves in for?” Perhaps you’ll see the slight hysteria in our faces here;

pilgrims hospice

Just as an aside, Cliff was superb at arousing a sense of “I can do this”; a study conducted during a fire-walking ritual at the village of San Pedro Manrique, Spain, showed synchronised heart rate rhythms between firewalk participants and spectators.

Back to the firewalk. Before we were led down to the site, where the flames were being prepared, we were given some background on the physics. When two bodies of different temperatures meet, the hotter body will cool off, and the cooler body will heat up, until they are separated or until they meet at a temperature in between. What that temperature is, and how quickly it is reached, depends on the thermodynamic properties of the two bodies. The important properties are temperature, density, specific heat capacity, and thermal conductivity.

It also helps, of course, if you walk across wet grass first, like we did before the firewalk; this insulates your soles due to something called the Leidenfrost effect.

Cliff made some excellent points on why we wouldn’t get burned if we understood the information he gave us;

  • Water has a very high specific heat capacity, whereas embers have a very low one. Therefore, the foot’s temperature tends to change less than the coal’s.
  • Embers have a poor thermal conductivity, so the hotter body consists only of the parts of the embers which are close to the foot.
  • When the embers cool down, their temperature sinks below the flash point, so they stop burning, and no new heat is generated.
  • Firewalkers do not spend very much time on the embers, and they keep moving.

He had to, of course, discuss the risks with us, but he reassured everyone that in his 27 years of working with firewalks, that no-one had been daft enough to damage themselves by taking silly risks or falling over; two notes I took immediately to heart and decided to listen to carefully. Despite my dyspraxia and my innate clumsiness, I resolved to stay on my feet.

I wish I could fully explain the seminar to you, but I can’t; you really have to be there to experience the laughter, the shared sense of determination, and the way he really does make you think about your own preparation. It was a powerful session.

Suitably trained, we were then walked down to the firewalk; this is what we were confronted with;

pilgrims hospiceI was suddenly conscious of a deep-seated need to go for a wee, but my mind was refocused as we heard the cheers of the crowd around us, and we were allowed to stand round the fire and feel the intensity of the heat. Believe me, the heat was intense – Cliff told us a couple of minutes late that the temperature had risen to 900 degrees all the way through the embers. The desire to go for a wee had come back again. So would yours if you saw this close up;

pilgrims hospice

Then something strange happens to you; you remember the seminar and it imbues you with a strange sense of power. As you take off your shoes and socks, and take in the sight of all those people around you, a sense of calm overcomes you and you become focused on doing the deed. You start to believe it’s possible, and think, “Hell yeah, I can do this.”

And so, reader, I did it.

My great pal Di went first, and she was brilliant; she walked tall, steadily, and calmly across the fire. She didn’t hesitate, and was done before I could get a picture of her barnstorming across the embers. I felt an instant surge of pride that my friend had succeeded, and been so cool and collected. That made me immediately think, “Well, if Di can do it, so can I.” You just can’t help yourself, so I went for it.

I didn’t fall over, I didn’t trip, and I didn’t feel any exquisite pain; I felt a bit of heat, but it didn’t hurt. I’m sure if I would have stood there for even a couple of seconds, the flesh might well have started to peel off the soles of my feet, but I’m not really that stupid. At least, I hope I’m not.

In the cold light of day, I vaguely remember breaking into a gentle trot half-way across, being paranoid that I was going to trip, but of course I never did. Both of us wanted desperately to do it again, but the queues were too long to warrant that.

Here’s us afterwards with certificates only given to people who have done the firewalk;


So there you have it; we’ve done some crazy things, Di and I – we’ve walked marathons together, for heaven’s sake – but this was by far one of the most focused and intense things we’ve done outside of them. I’m very proud to have done it, and would even consider doing it again if ever the opportunity arose.

Take a look at Cliff Mann’s website – there’s an excellent clip of firewalking there – and also consider donating some money to the Pilgrims Hospices if you have some spare change; every penny gives life-affirming care and dignity to those people who go there to stay.

To anyone considering a firewalk; do it, please. You’ll never, ever regret it; that much I will guarantee you.

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