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Schumacher College Pilgrimage of Conviviality

William Thomas

The weather forecast was unequivocal. “We will be setting off in rain”, I announced to the group at our final meeting in the meditation room the evening before departure. I watched for signs of dismay, but saw only brave enthusiasm. When I began planning the first Schumacher College Pilgrimage, I thought maybe half a dozen of our postgraduates would want to come. In the event 24 people set out that rainy Sunday morning, mostly postgraduates. Actually, I thought, the weather will serve to test everyone’s rain gear right at the start. “The difference between waterproofs that work and waterproofs that almost work is the difference between pleasure and misery”, I had told the group at an earlier meeting. But nothing seemed able to dampen their spirits as we walked past Dartington Church at 11a.m., just as the church bells began to ring. The College slowly receded into the distance.

The Pilgrimage of Conviviality arose out of 3 things. Firstly, along with all who visit the College, I had been inspired by Satish Kumar’s great Peace Pilgrimage from India to the nuclear capitals of the world. But we at the College had never undertaken an extended journey on foot. The second stimulus was a conversation Philip Franses and I had over a year ago, following the one-week “Process and Pilgrimage” workshops he had organised in North Italy. “People should walk to such an event”, I said. “I agree”, replied Phil, “you can lead the walk”. “That’s just what I was going to suggest”, I answered. Thirdly, Philip, Patricia Shaw and I felt that a more memorable event was needed to mark the conclusion of the postgraduates’ eight-month stay at the College, something that would take them out of the College in a challenging but reflective way. So the idea underwent a series of developments, beginning with the concept of a walk in Italy, inflating to a walk to Italy, which quickly invited the prior need for a smaller enterprise closer to home, alighting on the notion of a walk from Satish’s House in North Devon to the College, and finally a walk from the College across our beloved Dartmoor, scene of Satish’s memorable “Earth Pilgrim” BBC film. It was important to me to gain the notional blessing of those I consider my Schumacher teachers. Thomas Moore, Jonathan Horwitz, Rupert Sheldrake, Alastair McIntosh, Martin Shaw, Colin Tudge and Satish all expressed enthusiasm for the project. It seemed like an idea whose time had come, so I announced the event in the December 2013 newsletter.

I told the group I didn’t want to impose too much ritualistic structure. It was to be a journey undertaken in the spirit of pilgrimage, but the celebration was one of sharing rather than paying homage. The community of pilgrims over 5 days could be a microcosm of the learning community over 8 months. The name “Pilgrimage of Conviviality” arose partly out of a system of inclusion used in the early years of the College, and partly following a recent lecture by Colin Tudge in which he used that word as an aspiration for sustainable living. During the journey we agreed to walk in silence at significant moments. At the beginning and end of each day’s walk we held quiet, attentive council together in a circle. Each day (well, most) at sunrise and sunset I performed the fire-ritual of Agnihotra, a cleansing sacrifice of ghee, rice and cow-dung.

I realised from the start that we would need various kinds of help for the Pilgrimage, and Schumacher has just the right kind of network. A few months previously, Anthony Pacitto and I sat in the Cott Inn and decided to make a list of all the people who had moved to the Dartington or Totnes area as a direct result of attending the College in one capacity or another over the 23 years. I expected we might come up with 30 names. In the event we got to 60 and were still writing. So I asked Inge Page to help plan the route and act as Dartmoor guide on 4 of the 5 days. Julia Ponsonby co-operated on food supplies with her usual professionalism, assisted by Maya Walters, Minni Jain and Anthony Pacitto. Jamie Perrelet, one of the Holistic Science students, had conveniently acquired a minibus which he offered as a support vehicle. Paul Carter, Holistic Science graduate from 2012, agreed to drive it and re-supply us. Valerie Lancaster kept the accounts. Ally Toombes acted as facilitator and co-leader, and Rosalyn Maynard and Christel Ankersmit (Science of Quality, May 2006) agreed to meet us with restorative treats at significant points along the way. Crucially, Martin Shaw agreed to offer an evening of storytelling half way through the journey.

A pilgrimage is normally an individual undertaking, but 24 people walking, eating and camping together is a different proposition. There would be 5 days’ walking and 4 nights’ camping. I had warned the group, to grimaces which reassured me the point had been taken, that the nights might be perishingly cold. Suitable equipment would be important, and curiously, in the weeks before the journey, spare tents and sleeping bags began appearing out of nowhere. The early-April date was a gamble with the weather, necessitated by the timing of the postgraduates’ completion of their stay at the college. But on that rainy Sunday morning 6th April, high spirits banished gloominess. After a restorative pit-stop at Beara Farm and a moment at Buckfast Abbey, a final walk through a quiet woodland brought us to the first night’s stop: a farm near Hembury Woods. Mercifully, there was an animal barn where most of us were able to bunk down in the hay. It was almost Biblical. We were able to light a fire under a canopy and eat welcome food prepared by our supporters as we dried out. The following day took us along a wild and very challenging stretch of the River Dart, roaring and swollen by the rains. Beyond that we were on high Dartmoor, and Inge Page led us along excellent routes during the day. At all subsequent camping spots we had the use of a hall or Barn in which to eat and meet, and the weather gradually improved to bright sunshine. You can read more details of the excellent walking route in our Dartmoor Guide Inge Page’s blog.

I would rather leave it to the students to express what was achieved and experienced on the journey. On my own account however, I would like to decribe how the journey ended. After a final meal at a Country Inn in Chagford on the last evening, we awoke at dawn on 10th April to a clear sky and unobstructed view of the Eastern horizon. The Agnihotra fire was lit, the mantra intoned, and ten seconds later the sun peeped over the edge of the world. After breakfast and packing up, we walked in silence to Scorhill Stone Circle, arriving there at mid-day. As we approached the circle, the air became completely still. A warmth of sunshine through broken cloud provided unseasonable comfort. There was no need to assemble the group and impose a ritual form – they each responded to the stones spontaneously and in a personal way. There was an hour of uncanny silence. The only sounds were skylarks. When the group came together, varous accounts of that hour were shared. I told them that as far as I was concerned, if this stillness was journey’s end, it was good enough for me. So in retrospect, it was a pilgrimage to Scorhill Stone Circle from Schumacher College, though that only became fully clear at the end. We walked a final 2 miles to a small country road where the Wood Bros. bus picked us up. From there, some students had decided to undergo a Sweat Lodge at Embercombe community. Others prepared to travel to Europe on a ski trip, and others prepared to return home. It was the conclusion of a rewarding, successful journey. I am full of gratitude to all our helpers and supporters.

William Thomas
Schumacher College