Being a Firewalker

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

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back a few steps. We have a series of hospices in East Kent called the Pilgrims Hospices, and they’re wonderful buildings, if you can work with me on that; they are light and airy, compassionate and caring, and emotionally focused and powerful. A friend of mine, many years ago, spent her final days in there, and she was cared for with exquisite dignity, as has everyone I know who had ever been in there.

It costs a lot for them to offer the free care they give, of course, and they quite rightly have a dedicated fundraising team to bring in cash to pay for their services. I don’t begrudge this in the slightest; any additional income they generate makes someone’s stay more comfortable, and I definitely have no issues with that.

Of course, the fact that, because of the fundraising team’s ideas, I’m able to take part in some very interesting events is a factor I have to concede as well.

It was, therefore, with that aforementioned sense of foreboding that I approached the Saga building in Sandgate, Folkestone on Saturday night in early March with a certain amount of foreboding, 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 our case, the hot embers of wood.

I didn’t realise, 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 – c. 1200 BC. 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’s a relative newbie on the scene. However, he exudes confidence, and he has you believing – by the end of this seminar with you – that you can indeed walk on fire.

Saga had kindly offered to host the Folkestone Firewalk, 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 the hell this was all about.

As you can imagine, the hospices and Cliff Man 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; what the hell can we learn in 90 minutes about walking on fire, after all? I could summarise it in a single, rather pithy sentence; “Walk fast, don’t stop, and don’t fall over.”

But the seminar was a part of the evening, so we went into the meeting with a degree of interest, along with about 60 other people. Well, I will absolutely say this about Cliff Mann; he is a brilliant motivational speaker, a very clever presenter, and he clearly knows what he’s talking about. 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 during the seminar, but I won’t lie; there was still an element of “Oh bloody hell, what have I let myself in for?” Perhaps you’ll see the slight hysteria in our faces here;

pilgrims hospice

Just as an aside, Cliff was superb at being about to arouse a sense of “I can do this” amongst the group in our time with him, and that’s inevitably part of the bonding experiencing of doing something new and powerful; a scientific study conducted during a fire-walking ritual at the village of San Pedro Manrique, Spain, showed synchronised heart rate rhythms between performers of the firewalk and non-performing spectators. This research suggests that there is a physiological foundation for collective rituals, through the alignment of emotional states. Sorry – you can’t take the researcher and writer out of a potential firewalker, it would seem.

Back to the firewalk itself, before we were led down to the site itself, when the flames were being prepared, we had some background physics explanations. I’m going to share this with you, because it’s interesting even to a non-scientist like me, so bear with me.

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 would not get burned if we followed his simple advice;

  • 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 process 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’s potent stuff.

Suitably trained, we were then walked down to the firewalk, a couple of minutes away from the interior room where we were being trained. As we approached, this is the sight I saw.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. And 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

But then something strange happens to you when you’re there in the moment; you remember the seminar and the sense of power you’ve got from it and, as you take off your shoes and socks and are stood there with your friends and strangers all 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 over before I could even get a picture of her doing it. I felt an instant surge of pride that my friend had succeeded, and been so cool and collected; and then I thought, “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 wasn’t anything painful. 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 souls 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. I emerged the other side without a single concern or worry, and both Di and I tried desperately to do it again, but the queues were too long to warrant that – a shame, because we absolutely would have done.

Oh, and to prove it, here’s us afterwards with certificates only given to people who have done the firewalk;

firewalk

So there you have it; we’ve done some crazy things, Di and I – we’ve walked 11 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.

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

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