A walk on the wild side

Raynor Winn and husband Moth lost their home just as Moth’s diagnosis with a terminal disease also appeared to rob them of a future together. Not knowing what else to do, they began to walk and the true story of their journey along the South West Coast Path turned into a surprise bestseller

IF YOU owned a bookshop, it would be hard to know quite where to place Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut, The Salt Path.

It’s not a nature book, yet the significance of the natural world is inescapable throughout. It wasn’t planned as a spiritual journey or a pilgrimage, yet it certainly was a journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t meant to be a sociological study. But it contains plenty of trenchant observations about homelessness in Britain today – and about human nature.

Nor was it ever planned as a book about long-distance walking. Back in August 2013 when Raynor and her husband Moth set off from Minehead in Somerset to walk the South West Coastal Path, they were a couple in their 50s without any clear plans for the future.

The spur for that decision was a combination of life-changing twists of fate – a toxic investment which led to them losing their home in a devastating court case, coupled with a shock diagnosis that Moth was suffering from a rare degenerative brain disease and probably did not have long to live.

“You can’t be ill, I still love you,” Raynor told the man she had met at sixth-form college more than three decades earlier. But with the bailiffs banging on the door it seemed that choices were limited – and tackling some of the 630-mile South West Coastal Path seemed as good a way as any of buying some time to figure out the next move.

With a friend storing their few remaining possessions in a barn, they set off pretty much broke, equipped with thin sleeping bags, a tent bought on ebay and with access only to the few pounds a week they were due in tax credits.

Their journey – split over two summers, with the winter spent in a friend’s shed – ended in 2014 in Polruan, Cornwall, when their lives changed again with an offer from a kind stranger of accommodation on the coast path they had been trekking along for so long.

Raynor’s story of that walk, originally an article for The Big Issue, turned into an inspiring, lyrical and emotional story of human endurance against the odds – and about what homelessness really feels like in 21st-century Britain.

Published in 2018 and shortlisted for the Costa book award, the couple’s epic trek also proved to be an eye-opening examination of a divided society where our preconceptions about the homeless are often misguided.

Forget the stereotypes about people with addictions and mental health problems, Raynor suggests – what about the rural poor, many of them in temporary, seasonal or zero-hours jobs in communities where housing costs are astronomical?

As she revealed in a Big Issue interview in 2019 this problem is largely hidden, as local authorities eager to support their tourism industries want to keep the streets clear of rough sleepers.

Wild-camping along the coastal path in the footsteps of guidebook author Paddy Dillon, the bedraggled pair feel pretty out of place in the picture-postcard villages they pass through along the way – and not always welcome visitors once people discover they are homeless.

But if that heart-breaking loss of identity and self-worth is hard to handle, along with the physical hardships, it’s not a dark and depressing journey.

Writing with warmth and humour, Raynor manages to remain surprisingly free of bitterness about the circumstances which have combined to push them out on their journey, and equally unsentimental about what they have lost. While being forced to desert the Welsh farmstead they had transformed into their family home and business is tough, it’s the loss of sense of self which is the fundamental issue about becoming homeless, she explains in a 2018 Guardian interview.

Plodding along the path – and doing it together as a couple – helps to offer a sense of purpose and a new perspective, that home is not about bricks and mortar but a state of mind, about family, and about being at one with nature.

Alone for weeks in all weathers, that immersion in nature is inescapable, and Raynor is good at immersing the reader in the experience too, so that we can share in the highs and lows, the uplifting encounters with people and animals as well as the more depressing ones.

Thankfully, despite the aching bones and blisters it seems that the experience helps Moth regain some of his physical strength too, and straddling that void between life and death makes each experience all the sweeter, whatever the elements throw at them.

Walking the path hasn’t changed Moth’s diagnosis, but it may have helped stave off his terminal illness a little longer – and his routine of walking and physiotherapy has continued since the couple finally found their new base in Cornwall.

It’s that reconnection with nature that is perhaps the book’s overwhelming message, and while some readers may not be convinced by the health benefits of surviving on fudge, noodles and pasties, the pair emerged from their roller-coaster journey leaner, fitter and better equipped to face an uncertain future.

Growing up on a farm, Raynor was aware of nature being a fundamental part of her daily life. But most of us have lost that connection and need to rediscover it again. As she told The Big Issue: “Nature doesn’t just make a nice TV show, it’s what we actually need to survive, it’s the most important thing we have.”

Whatever the future holds for the Winns, it’s clear we are going to hear a lot more from Raynor this spring when her second non-fiction book, Wild Silence, is published by Michael Joseph , about nursing an over-farmed piece of land back to health.

Expect Raynor to explore some familiar themes here – of lifelong love, nature and what it means to find a home. And expect an army of well-wishers to be toasting her success as a writer as she and her beloved Moth continue to explore a new chapter in their lives.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is published by Michael Joseph at £14.99 and in paperback by Penguin (£9.99). The pictures reproduced in this article were taken by Raynor Winn.

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