Shaftesbury-area residents who are opposed to oil drilling off the Dorset coast set off on a three-day, 43-mile ‘pilgrimage’ from Gold Hill to Studland this morning. Alfred was there.
At just before 10 o’clock on Friday morning, a group of around forty people, some carrying overnight bags and rucksacks, congregated outside the Town Hall. The grey skies above Shaftesbury High Street, contrasted with the bright, lime green and pink coloured Extinction Rebellion flags and the homemade banners, which were flapping around in the gusts of wind.
Shaftesbury Fairtrade campaigner Arthur Simmonds clutched a placard featuring a design by Shaftesbury artist Phyllis Wolff – the outline of a skull, made up of tiny white bees set against a black background. Environmental activist Sue Clifford raised a white flag featuring the words ‘no more oil’ and a green seahorse, a clue to this event’s coastal connection.
Planet Shaftesbury member Rachel Bodle stood on the bench outside King Alfred’s kitchen to address the crowd. “We’re here at the start of a pilgrimage to oppose oil drilling in Dorset,” Rachel said through a megaphone, which still struggled to cut over the low hum of the idling engine of a bus waiting at the stop. “Parliament has agreed that we’re in a climate emergency. The UK has committed to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We need a plan for getting away from our dependence on fossil fuels. Drilling more oil, which we can’t safely burn, is irresponsible. You could say it’s absolutely absurd,” added Rachel, to the crowd’s applause.
One onlooker shouted that the Dorset Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “We’ve worked with Save Our Shores in Bournemouth and XR Purbeck,” explained Planet Shaftesbury driver Karen Wimhurst. “This is about reaching across Dorset, and in that sense, just joining up the dots. We share this beautiful county.”
Karen said that this march, a Shaftesbury-led initiative, links in with a planned protest in the capital next month. “People are asking why Extinction Rebellion are out on the streets. Their first demand is that the government tells the truth about climate change. We’re just saying, this is what is happening in Dorset at the moment. It’s really inappropriate when we’ve got three degrees warming forecast for the end of the century. Any child being born today, that’s what they’re going to see,” said Karen.
Karen’s fellow event organiser Ed Bersey was pleased with the turnout. He accepts that not everyone can give up three days and it is Shaftesbury Carnival weekend. Walkers need a level of fitness, too. They will be on their feet for an estimated 20 hours during the journey.
“We have 25 walkers on the first two days and over 50 walkers on the last day,” Ed said. “There are definitely a lot of Shaftesbury people here but people have come from all over because this is a joint action with Save Our Shores, which is based on the coast. It’s fantastic to see such a lot of like-minded people coming out. We’re really looking forward to the next three days.”
Friends and supporters had turned up to wish the walkers well. It’s fair to say that not all onlookers appeared to be so impressed. One elderly gentleman waiting for a bus was continually shaking his head and muttering comments such as ‘get a job’. Another man, who forged his way through the crowd, muttered disapproving remarks which turned the heads of some pilgrimage supporters.
Ed said the event was to publicise the group’s concerns over drilling and fracking and they had tried to get media coverage. They had used press contacts to secure column inches and airtime. “We’ve contacted BBC Points West and all the local TV stations. A couple have got back. The Guardian has been in touch. We’ve done everything we can,” added Karen.
Arranging a three-day event has taken a fair amount of organisation and Karen is grateful for the support received. “People have been busy drawing maps and getting the information out. It’s been quite a lot of work to get this,” she said.
“We’ve had a lot of support in Blandford and in Wareham with overnight accommodation,” added Ed. Some of the ‘pilgrims’ will return to Shaftesbury each evening, but not all. “There’s a small number of people that wanted to stay overnight and the church halls have offered their facilities. So people are going to stay in the halls.”
The forecast isn’t great, but Ed doesn’t think that has dampened enthusiasm. “The weather is always a risk, but you know, it depends on your motivation, doesn’t it? This is a pilgrimage. It’s a chance for us to do a journey together to talk about the issues together as we walk and to think about why we’re walking.”
Oil and gas company Perenco says that they have now completed their 3D seismic programme around the Dorset coast. In August they started to gather new data relating to the subsurface structures. Perenco has politely declined ThisIsAlfred’s latest invitation to comment on the walkers’ demands, to drop plans to extract oil.
The group has learned a marching song, written by Planet Shaftesbury’s Robin Walter, and they practised the repetitively catching chant outside the Town Hall before setting off on their longer-than-a-marathon march. It will end at Joe’s Café on Studland’s South Beach at 2.30pm on Sunday. Ed hopes that sympathisers and supporters will be out in force.
“Have your Sunday lunch, and then come down for a very short stroll out to the cliff edge and have a celebration with us and bring the walk to an end,” invited Ed.