From Weymouth to the world
Brian Cormack looks at thirty years of the town’s Dorset Expeditionary Society
Published in April ’15
Its tentacles spread all over the world, but the heart of the Dorset Expeditionary Society (DES) remains firmly rooted in Weymouth and Portland where it was founded 30 years ago next month by teachers Clive Burgess, retired Head of Upper School at Wey Valley, and Budmouth College vice principal John Hegarty with the primary intention of making adventurous outdoor activities available to young people in order to promote leadership and personal development.
The DES now takes young people on expeditions from Ecuador and India to Canada, Kenya and Kyrgystan as well as in the UK. This year it is offering, for the first time, a unique expedition with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari.
‘Really, the DES as it is today with its head office in Weymouth has grown into a national organisation, but our philosophy hasn’t changed since John and I sketched out a few ideas on the back of a beer mat in North Portland Working Men’s Club in 1985,’ says Clive. ‘We got together a team of like-minded individuals who shared our vision, namely to provide the opportunity for every school in Dorset to be able to offer expeditions at home and overseas to young people and to make sure that no young person would be excluded from taking part for financial or other reasons.’
Their mission was inspired by Lord Hunt, organiser of the 1953 Everest expedition, the first to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Hunt was a great advocate of challenging outdoor activities as a means of developing leadership and self-sufficiency in young people and became the first director of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme for which the DES is an Approved Activity Provider.
‘Well, I believe we are an outstanding provider of expeditions,’ says Clive without embarrassment. ‘We are selective and we make no bones about it – unlike some commercial providers you cannot simply buy your way on to one of our expeditions, that could be incredibly dangerous not only for the individual but for the whole team. Our leaders get to know the members of the team sometimes over an 18-month period before they go, they don’t just meet the team leaders at the airport as often happens.
‘Our leaders, all volunteers, are expected to make a contribution towards their own costs and our young participants have to raise some funds for their trips themselves. It’s all about commitment. When they’re on the expedition each of them has to take responsibility for an aspect of the trip – food, transport, security or any one of countless other things. Our trips require certain levels of fitness and mental strength and we have to be sure that everyone on the expedition is able to cope with what they will encounter.
‘Selection is everywhere in our lives and it is foolhardy to include a young person if at the time they are not quite ready. More often than not it is the young person who decides to withdraw from selection. We respect the integrity of the individual and always leave the door open to them to return at a later date, which is something that happens often.’
A registered charity, the DES is funded through individual and group membership (many local schools are members), private donation and grants from bodies including the National Lottery and Children In Need. It also works closely with two other Weymouth-based charities – the Claire Clements Trust and the Will Mackaness Trust, both of which also provide grants to young people.
‘We make grants to individuals so they can gain national qualifications in outdoor learning, but also to schools and clubs with the proviso the funds are spent on outdoor activities for the benefit of young people who may otherwise be excluded. Leadership development should be open to everyone.’
For example, Wey Valley School and Westfield College spend all or part of their grant on the Duke of Edinburgh Awards programme and Budmouth College on its Year 7 Freshers’ Camp. The latest member, Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy uses its grant to fund climbing and biking clubs. Grants range from £750 to £1000 – in all some £70,000 has been distributed over the years – and organisations pay a membership fee of £50 a year.
‘So it’s pretty good value,’ notes Clive. ‘We are completely apolitical, all schools are very welcome to belong and all enjoy the same level of membership. Where the DES is the expedition provider for a member school, as with Wey Valley School’s Nepal trip, we work in partnership with the local authority.
It’s not uncommon for young people that have been on an expedition to want to give something back and many of them go on to train as leaders.
‘These are life changing experiences; we see it every time. The young people blossom, they come out of themselves. Two of our young leaders who have come through our system, Dan Gale and Naomi Dodds, both from Weymouth, have led demanding expeditions, Dan to Arctic Sweden and Naomi to Chile.’
A measure of the society’s ability to make a positive difference is that three of its leaders have been awarded the MBE, most recently Clive’s co-founder John Hegarty for services to education and outdoor learning. He joins Martyn Hastings, from Weymouth, who was made an MBE for his services to the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme in 2010 and Richard Backwell, from Sutton Poyntz, whose award for services to the DES came in 2007.
‘That is an astonishing achievement, to have three leaders awarded the MBE makes us very proud. John, Martyn and Richard, and all our volunteer leaders, are dedicated to the service of young people and the community.’
The DES has been – and still is – blessed with the patronage of like-minded people who excel at getting things done. Clive describes the current chairman, retired tea broker David Panter of Tarrant Rushton as ‘a formidable man’ very much in the mould of the society’s first chairman Christopher Pope (of the Dorchester brewing dynasty, his son Oliver is now a trustee) and its first patron, the late Admiral Sir John Hamilton: ‘an inspirational man, very hands-on with training, he could still walk the youngsters off the hill well into his eighties.’
The current patrons are Major General Sir Michael Palmer, Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth, John Montagu the Earl of Sandwich and William Christopher.
All are united in admiration for the society’s continuing provision of quality leadership opportunities for young people from Dorset and further afield, as well as its superb track record in community works overseas, such as the annual expeditions led by Martyn Hastings to the Murugi region of Kenya where the work of DES teams has had a profound impact on the health and well being of the local people. Also in Kenya, DES teams have helped build and equip a major hospital at Baragu and built the first day secondary school in Meru South.
In northern Nepal, the Okhle Village Trust was set up by Richard Backwell to run a variety of projects in a cluster of remote villages in the Mahabharat hills, distributing funds and expertise that have helped build water projects and a community centre at Kat Guan.
The DES encourages peer-led member expeditions and destinations have included mountain biking in Iceland, cycling in Morocco or Norway, trekking the GR20 in Corsica and mountaineering in Kyrgystan.
‘These ventures have been outstanding experiences for the respective teams and have provided a big step up when applying for university places or employment,’ says Clive.
‘I guess one of our subliminal aims is to reconnect young people with the natural world – on expedition there is no television, mobile phones often don’t work and the young people don’t miss them at all. These trips are not adventure holidays, they are about learning to lead; they empower young people to develop leadership skills, build self-confidence; we’re helping create good citizens and parents tend to see the expeditions as an investment in their children’s future.’
The boldness and scope of the DES programme could seem anachronistic in an age when safety considerations rightly dominate decisions made about extra curricular activities. Not a bit of it, says Clive, who fully supported the end of self-regulation at outdoor education centres in the wake of the 1993 Lyme Bay kayaking tragedy when four teenagers were swept out to sea and drowned.
‘While I believe that without risk there is no achievement, in the past young people have died through the negligence of adults so the tougher regime was inevitable. The DES regularly contributes to the Young Explorers’ Trust Forum on safety and DES leaders assess risk assiduously. Dorset Expeditionary Society has an impeccable safety record. We haven’t had a single serious incident and that’s down to selection, training and an exceptional bunch of leaders and trustees.
‘Look, many thousands of people volunteer in this country and we’re no different, it’s about giving something back to the community. There’s nothing new about David Cameron’s Big Society, it has been happening for years.’ ◗
❱ For more information about the Dorset Expeditionary Society, visit www.dorsetexp.org.uk email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call on 07766 718246