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.

Saintly refuge at Stonor

THE SHEER sense of serenity you encounter at Stonor on a sunny day makes it hard to associate the place with persecution and torture.

But this extraordinary Oxfordshire home has some remarkable stories to tell and played a unique part in the history of English Catholicism.

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Today, basking in the September sunlight, the only sound to be heard across the 1760 deer park is the clack of a cricket ball and occasional cries from approval from the small crowd round the green at the Stonor Cricket Club across the main Henley road, which overlooks the estate.

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But although Stonor Park has been home to the same family for 850 years, it was let to the National Benzol Company during the war and was empty when the family moved back in 1945. Many family possessions were sold off during subsequent years of financial hardship.

It was only in 1978 that the current Lord Camoys was able to buy and start renovating the house, opening it to the public in 1979 and buying back many portraits, pictures and other possessions which had been sold.

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It has been an extraordinary achievement, because there’s a wonderful sense of peace and warm about the manor house which the poet John Betjeman remarked upon – and the same sense of serenity can be found in the park and gardens.

Parts of the house date from the 13th century but the site has been inhabited for longer than that, as witnessed by the circle of standing stones by the front drive, deposited during the Ice Age and used as a pagan site of worship.

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The family name (de Stonore in the 14th century) comes from the stones – and the crest, appropriately, is a hill with prominent stones.

But while the children might want to explore the adventure playground out in the woodland, it’s inside the house and 13th century chapel that the real story of Stonor Park unfolds.

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This is where we first encounter those darker memories of centuries of persecution which followed the Reformation, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the Pope and unleashed a harsh crackdown against all those regarded as being guilty of heresy.

Any priest found on English soil was guilty of treason (as was anyone who harboured him), and that included a scholar by the name of Edmund Campion who had once found favour with the Queen as a young man.

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Campion had been born in London and studied in Oxford before moving to Dublin, Douai and ultimately travelling on foot to Rome to become a Jesuit priest. He had been a professor in Prague before the Jesuit mission to England began and he arrived in London in June 1580 disguised as a jewel merchant, and began to preach.

He led a hunted life, administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire while he started to work on his Decem Rationes (“Ten Reasons”), arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church.

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Upstairs in a hidden room behind a chimneybreast at Stonor is where he and his colleagues hid their printing press which was used to print the famous tract – 400 copies were distributed on the benches of the university church in Oxford, causing a great sensation.

The hunt for Campion was stepped up and the “seditious Jesuit” was arrested at a house in Berkshire and soon publicly hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn in London in December 1581, at the age of 41.

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Back at Stonor, Dame Cecily and her son John were taken to the Tower of London too, but Dame Cecily refused to conform to the Established Church – meaning that the tiny family chapel is one of only a handful in the country to have remained Catholic despite 250 years of persecution.

Several rooms in the main house are open to the public, including the Gothic Revival hall dating from 1350, the library, drawing room and bedrooms. Throughout, there are dozens of portraits, photographs and family artefacts, meticulously documented in a “hand list” of contents.

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Outside there’s time to unwind in the tranquil gardens to the rear of the house or meander up to the terraces which provide views across the roofs of the house to the park beyond, where the fallow deer may be seen grazing while red kites and buzzards glide on the thermals overhead.

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Although the house and chapel are only open on Sundays in September and are generally closed until April, there are a number of special events planned, from an autumn food festival in October to candlelit tours of the house decorated for Christmas.

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For full details of prices, opening times and future events, see the main Stonor House website.

Berkshire’s first lady of fashion

IT’S hard to imagine quite how dramatic the state of disrepair at Basildon House was after the war.

Exploring the Grade I listed building today, or sauntering round its 400 acres of parkland, you are greeted with a lovingly restored Georgian country house maintained by the National Trust.

But that’s largely down to the vision and hard work of one extraordinary woman, Renée Lady Iliffe, who first saw the building in 1952 after it had suffered years of military occupation.

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“To say it was derelict is hardly good enough,” Lady Iliffe wrote later. “No window was left intact, and most were repaired with cardboard or plywood.”

Walls were covered with signatures and grafitti from various wartime occupants and there was no sign of modernisation other than an army washroom catering for six people at a time.

Nonetheless, despite the cold and damp, the empty rooms and broken windows, she had fallen in love with the place and would spend the next 25 years carefully restoring it to its former glory.

“There was still an atmosphere of former elegance, and a feeling of great solidity. Carr’s house was still there, damaged but basically unchanged,” she wrote.

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Lady Iliffe was born on the island of Mauritius and the family home was a remote and beautiful 5,000-acre plantation. With the collapse of the sugar industry, the family were increasingly strapped for cash and Renée, the eldest of four children, grew up to be sturdily independent.

But her life changed dramatically through the intervention of her aunt Edith, who insisted that the family decamp to England and paved the way for the family’s assimilation into the English aristocracy.

Cultivated and exotic, with film-star looks, Renée was introduced to Langton Iliffe, and the couple fell in love and married in December 1938 – an event captured for posterity by Pathe News.

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Renée Iliffe soon set about the task of transforming their new home, honing a talent for interior decoration she had first show during the war, and establishing herself as a skilled and generous hostess – so much so that the couple’s lifestyle at Basildon Park would feature in the July 1966 edition of Vogue.

That photoshoot, along with the famous weekend parties in the 1950s and 60s where Lord and Lady Iliffe entertained guests such as Princess Grace of Monaco and artist Graham Sutherland, inspired a special display of select pieces of designer couture from the Fashion and Textile museum which runs until November 18.

From Chanel and Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior, 18 dresses and gowns are on display, including items owned and worn by Lady Iliffe herself.

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She was a skilled and generous hostess whose genius was said to be her ability to create an atmosphere in which comfort was mixed with elegance, and to inject it with a sense of fun.

Sebastian Conway, the Trust’s house and collections manager – and whose pictures feature above and below – said: “The vivid life and colour that filled this house at weekends has for a long time been missing. It’s about time we celebrated Lord and Lady Iliffe’s socialite side, as they brought prestige and recognition to Basildon Park with their dazzling dinners and glamorous parties for their celebrity guests.

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She and Lord Iliffe lived happily at Basildon for many years and, after presenting it in 1978 to the National Trust along with a handsome endowment, remained there as tenants. He had succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1960 and died in 1996, while Lady Iliffe died in 2007 at the age of 90.

The Palladian house itself was built by John Carr of York for Francis Sykes, who made a fortune in service with the East India Company, while the interiors were completed for the Liberal MP James Morrison, who bought Basildon in 1838.

But the house stood empty and neglected throughout the first half of the 20th century.

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Nowadays the interior boasts a richly decorated neo-classical hall, a spectacular staircase hall, an octagonal drawing room with heavy Italianate ceilings and a slightly overwhelming upstairs shell room created by Lady Iliffe.

It has to be said that the floral pinks and ornate fifties feel of some of the upstairs rooms are not to every taste, but for those unmoved by fashion and youngsters wanting to let off steam, the 400 acres of parkland provide plenty of space to escape from the house into the sunlight.

Although substantially damaged by wartime tank training, the long-term restoration of the grounds continues today and the parkland walks provide the opportunity to escape from the crowds, even on busy weekends.

For full details about Basildon Park and its history, along with prices and admission times, visit the National Trust’s main website.

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Surprise guests at the palace

YOU can never be too sure who you might run into at Hampton Court Palace.

It might be a sneaky fox sunbathing among the flowers – or possibly even a rogue monarch stopping for a chat in the Tudor garden.

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Henry turns out to be a lot more approachable in real life than the history books might have had us believe.

But maybe that’s because this Henry is one of the actors playing Tudor roles around the site, nowadays a major tourist attraction run by the Historic Royal Palaces charity, which also looks after the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, among others.

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It’s an atmospheric touch much appreciated by many of the thousands of visitors who travel here to find out more about Royal history, or just explore the impressive landscaped gardens.

A major appeal of the palace is the chance to discover more about the public dramas and private lives of Henry VIII, his wives and children, and the extraordinary world of the Tudor court.

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Nowhere is that more vividly on show that in the vast kitchens – one of the king’s earliest building works designed to turn the palace into a principal residence, no easy task given the 1,000-strong size of his household retinue.

Despite owning more than 60 sixty houses and palaces, none of them was really equipped for entertaining on the scale Henry VIII envisaged, so this 1529 transformation was perfect.

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Perhaps it was equally predictable that Henry should be enthusiastic about adding a huge feasting room to the palace. His Great Hall was the last medieval great hall built for the English monarchy and took five years to complete, even with the masons working through the night by candlelight.

But Hampton Court isn’t all about Henry, and there really is an extraordinary amount to take in (so much so that you will want to return again, so the family membership fee for unlimited access to all six of the royal palaces makes a lot more sense than the day tickets).

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When William III and Mary II (1689-1702) took the throne in 1689, within months of their accession they embarked on a massive rebuilding project, commissioning Sir Christopher Wren to build an elegant new baroque palace surrounded by formidable landscaped gardens.

Today, the palace houses hundreds of works of art and furnishings from the Royal Collection, mainly dating from the two principal periods of the palace’s construction, the early Tudor and late Stuart to early Georgian period, and ranging from Mantegna’s impressive Triumphs of Caesar in the Lower Orangery to numerous pieces of blue and white porcelain collected by Queen Mary II.

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But that sheer variety of attractions is perhaps the greatest delight of Hampton Court. Even though the Royals left here in 1737, ever since Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public in 1838 it has been a magnet for millions of visitors.

Whether it’s the formal grandeur of the great Tudor kitchens and hall, the stories of ghosts, the famous maze or the fabulous art collection, there’s no shortage of different delights and distractions, from the magnificent chapel to the biggest vine in the world (the ‘Great Vine’, planted in 1768 by Capability Brown and still producing a huge annual crop of grapes).

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Free audio tours allow visitors to make the most of the experience and thousands of Trip Advisor reviews are testimony to the enduring appeal of the palace.

The Magic Garden is an interactive play garden inspired by Hampton Court’s long history, while the gardeners have worked wonders in recent years to reconstruct the kitchen garden which once grew all the local fruit and vegetables for the Royal dining table.

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Note the word local, because of course the king had no qualms about importing the most exotic delicacies from around the world to grace the tables in the Great Hall – and some of the extraordinary menus on display there do much to explain Henry’s imposing girth.

Time was when three sunken gardens were originally ponds used to house freshwater fish such as carp and bream for the Royal table, although when Mary II arrived at the palace, these sunken, sheltered, south-facing gardens were used to house her collection of exotic plants.

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There’s a whole lot more which could be said about the palace of course, but why not set aside some time to pay Henry a proper visit?

See the main website for full details about prices, attractions and special events at Hampton Court Palace as well as those at other HRP destinations like the Tower of London and Kew.