Walking out of homelessness – a challenging new take on the SW Coast Path

salt path.png

We were regularly asked: “How come you have enough time to walk so far?” When we told the truth, children were held closer, dogs retracted on leads, doors were closed and conversations ended very quickly.

Raynor Winn

It is hard to imagine a more desperate situation than the one faced by Raynor Winn and her husband Moth than the one they find themselves in at the start of this remarkable memoir. Huddled in their Welsh farmhouse, hiding from the bailiffs after a long court battle goes against them, they are not only homeless and almost penniless but reeling from a recent diagnosis that Moth is terminally ill.

What would you do? Probably, particularly in view of medical advice, you wouldn’t decide, almost on a whim, to walk the Britain’s most demanding long-distance footpath, backpacking and living on less than £40 a week. Yet that seemed preferable to sofa-surfing and waiting years for an elusive council house and a new life.

So off they went. Now I know from bitter experience that even in short managable sections, using a luggage transfer service and sleeping in comfortable B&B s every night, this is no small undertaking. On paper, their decision borders on lunacy, or at least irresponsibility. Yet off they went. Cue for the usual discussions of burning thighs, agonising blisters and pitching camp in all weathers.

Coast path odysseys are becoming a genre in their own right. They tend to either focus, with various degrees of jokiness, on the considerable physical hardships, or more lyrically on the way plodding along this narrow strip of land at England’s edge changes you. And Raynor Winn does both. The path does change them. It gives them purpose, hope, a connection to the natural world, and, surprisingly, a dramatic improvement in Moth’s health prognosis.

When you have no obvious future, sometimes the best thing to do is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It really is that simple. And in the end, in a scene that would have the most hard-hearted reader punching the air, it pays off. There’s a gloriously hard-won happy ending. But this is not an easy read. It’s a penetrating look at social exclusion. The Winns soon find out that one story – that of the early retirees selling their house, sticking the money in the bank and hitting the open road, brings affirmation and respect. But the reality, that they are homeless and haven’t a clue what else to do with themselves, rapidly ends a conversation.

Living in Manchester, averting my eyes from figures slumped in doorways is no novelty to me. I live with it by dehumanising them, choosing to assume that they got their through some weakness of character or combination of circumstances unimaginable to me. But The Salt Path makes you realise what it’s like when people recoil from you because you haven’t been able to shower for days, when you press your nose up hungrily against the windows of cafés and are asked to move on because you’re putting the customers off their pasties, and when you have to climb sea cliffs on a diet of dried noodles for days on end.

The rural idyll of the West Country has a dark side of deprivation and desperation that the tourists rarely see. In woodland hollows, people priced out of the housing market camp out. In pretty villages, scratch the surface and you will find the mentally ill, the drifting and the addicted. Most of us imagine homelessness in an urban setting. But in a recent Big Issue article, Rayner Winn claims that she and Moth were far from alone in taking to long-term backpacking to give them a much needed sense of purpose when faced with crisis.

So read this book if you love hiking, the West Country, the natural world, tales of unexpected human kindnesses and hope found in unlikely places. But don’t read it to escape. The Coast Path tests you to the limit. I can say that from hard-won personal experience. And like any pilgrimage, if fully embraced, it will introduce you to unexpected encounters, broaden your outlook and challenge your prejudices.

The Salt Path – Penguin Books


How not to run a railway


(Tweeted image of the interior of the Good Friday Paddington to Penzance train)

Last August we had a very enjoyable holiday in Bavaria. On our final day, we turned up at Fussen station for the train to Munich airport and found there had been a mechanical problem and it was cancelled.

What happened next was revealing. Within half an hour, a coach had arrived to take us to an intervening station. Despite our limited German, we were kept well informed of the situation. The coach was admittedly a little crowded but everyone was good humoured, particularly the guys enjoying a few beers on the back seat.

On our replacement train, there was air conditioning, which we appreciated as it was 37C outside. There were plenty of seats and the staff were pleasant, even telling us that an alternative coach would be cooler and more comfortable. We caught our flight in plenty of time.

By contrast, last Friday (the first day of a four-day bank holiday Easter weekend), the inappropriately named Great Western Railway saw fit to put a two-coach train to Penzance on the 10.00am run from Paddington, London. People who had reserved seats – exactly what they had been advised to do – were physically unable to reach and claim them because the train was so overcrowded that people were standing, or even lying, on every square inch of floor space. A pregnant woman was unable to get to the toilet. The staff were apparently nowhere to be seen, although I do remember reading a few months ago that GWR staff were threatening strike action to protest against trains being run without guards and ticket inspectors. Looks as if they lost that argument.

For those unfamiliar with British geography, this is a journey that takes five and a half hours. By the time the train reached Plymouth, somebody had figured out that it might be a good idea to lay on a bigger alternative train. Unfortunately, they hadn’t told the passengers. The station platforms became dangerously overcrowded and the British Transport Police had to be called to escort people off the train, where they waited an hour for a replacement.

Just as well there aren’t any international airports in Cornwall. If you were planning to fly from Newquay to the Isles of Scilly for Easter, tough luck.

The worst thing about this story is that it’s not at all surprising. My hubby and I are walking the South West Peninsula Coast Path, all 630 miles of it, as a ten-year project. We have always made the journey down from Manchester and back by public transport. (Cornwall, by the way, doesn’t have a single mile of motorway, and many of its coastal beauty spots are down single track roads, for those smugly asking why these people didn’t just drive there).

We’ve never had an experience quite as unpleasant as that experienced by the unfortunate travellers on Good Friday, but it always seems to baffle GWR that people going to one of the most remote and beautiful parts of England for a holiday might have small children and luggage. Provisions for either consist of squatting in the disabled space and hoping nobody with a wheelchair tries to get on (good luck with that), or sitting on your suitcase in the corridor for hours, or putting a dangerously large piece of luggage on an overhead rack and praying nobody gets killed if it falls off. We have also learned to travel with ample food and water because if there is a refreshment trolley, it will probably be confined to a single carriage and you’ll only be able to reach it by getting off at a station and sprinting to wherever that happens to be.

Neo-liberals would say that if so many people want to go from London to Cornwall on a Bank Holiday weekend, it makes sense just to charge a lot for it. Well, for the journey described above you’ll pay around £125.00 minimum return per person. That’s hardly cheap. You’ll be charged extra to reserve a seat, and if someone is sitting in it when you board the train there will be nobody around to tell them to move, so expect some dirty looks or guilt tripping if they already have two toddlers on their lap.

If train companies really can’t increase capacity on popular routes, then for heavens’ sake, can’t they behave more like airlines? By all means charge people a lot of money, but for that, at the very least, they deserve a guaranteed seat, somewhere to put their luggage, and access to refreshments and a toilet on a lengthy journey.

I’m addicted to Cornwall and I work in a school so I probably have a few more crowded journeys ahead of me. (By the way, parents in England can be prosecuted and fined £60 a day per child if they take them out of school to go on holiday). But I can see why people might go for Germany instead.

As for the Germans, and anyone else from overseas, one look at this picture and we probably won’t need to have a Euro-referendum in June. They’ll be happy to leave us well alone. Particularly if you reflect on the possibility of a terrorist managing to leave a bag in such a situation.


My heart aches for Cornwall and Devon right now

Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)
Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)

It breaks my heart to see the horrendous storm damage to the South West of England this week. Of all the regions of my native country, it’s the one I love most, and crossing over the Saltash Bridge from Devon into Cornwall gives me a thrill that never abates. The line at Dawlish that has just been swept away holds particularly special memories for me. The first holiday that my husband of 26 years and I took together was a trip to Penwith and the Isles of Scilly in 1984. We took the night train from Manchester to Penzance – an adventure in itself at the time – and I remember waking at 4.00 am to look out of the window and discover, with a thrill of joy and anticipation, that we were literally travelling along the Devon coast. That line, built by Brunel in the 1840s has always been a marvel of engineering, defying the elements, linking the far west of England with London. Now it has gone.

The South West in general, and Cornwall in particular, is a world apart. That is what draws so many people there for relaxation and adventure, but it is also a vulnerability that leaves them economically fragile. I was concerned on our last trip to the region to discover that the Isles of Scilly no longer has a direct air link with Penzance. Beautiful though it is, the tiny population of Scilly is one of the most economically deprived in Britain, and having to travel the 32 miles to a halfway-decent shopping centre via Newquay puts an unfair burden on them. Such cuts in infrastructure are increasing the impoverishment of an isolated region where many local people can already barely find a decent place to live and secure year-round work.

For the last five years DH and I have been walking the entire South West Peninsula Coast Path; a monumental trek of 630 miles, including a combined ascent three times the height of Everest. We are just over halfway through, with our ninth campaign planned for early summer. During that time we have always travelled down from our home in Manchester by train and used local transport to get around. We have stayed in a variety of hotels and B&Bs, most of them delightful and memorable. I wonder if all of them will survive to welcome guests into the 2014 season.

Ultimately our goal has always been to retire to the region. Like many others, no doubt, recent events may cause us to rethink those plans. With ageing and decreasing mobility to consider, finding the right property has been a balance between the delights of living right on the sea coast and the relative safety of an inland home, which in most cases will be up a hill steep enough to isolate an elderly person. Much as I love the high street at Lyme Regis, I shudder to think of the practicalities of getting down it and back on a frosty winter morning without falling and breaking an oseteoporotic bone or two. So the attractions of a coastal home are not simply aesthetic.

About two years ago, on a glorious September evening, we walked into Kingsand, the first village west of Plymouth, and fell hopelessly in love. We made enquiries about the local community and felt that this could be the right place for us, regardless of our earlier decision that Cornwall was too remote and isolated. Now the lovely little village hall with its iconic clock tower is on the verge of collapse. And if we’d been able or willing to find the £750,000 for our dream house, we’d probably now be pumping out the cellar. With the present weather, even your own private smugglers passage direct to the beach is a mixed blessing.

Our Enid Blyton vision may be faced with the cold winds of reality and common sense, but our problems are nothing to those faced by those who live and work in the beautiful South West counties. When we return – hopefully by train – next Whitsuntide, I can only hope that the path, and the hotels we have booked, will still be there to welcome us. I have a Cornish ancestry that stretches back to the early 19th Century. I’m taking this personally. My thoughts are with you all.

Quilting Tales

From “Blankets” Graphic Novel by Craig Thompson

I’ve always been fascinated by patchwork quilts. I’ve never made one, mainly because I’ve been unable to make friends with a sewing machine. Knitting, stitching, no problem, but put me in front of a machine and I’ll spend hours struggling with spools and tension and broken needles.

But that doesn’t stop me appreciating the patience and the love that goes into quilting, and what it says about a relationship when you offer your work up to someone else. The scraps of material tell stories, first about where they came from and secondly about how you arrange them and present them. Thirdly, a layer of meaning is added by the way the recipient values and uses the quilt.

Quilts are beautiful in their own right – humble scraps of material transformed by a thrifty alchemy into works of art. One of the most moving examples I ever encountered was in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year. It was made for an inspirational guide leader by her troop, from the scraps they could salvage in a Japanese internment camp in World War II. Quilts have been used in political activism, or offered as dowries in marriage. Different countries have developed strikingly different styles – some based on applique, others on tessellating pieces into intricate repeating patterns. In days gone by, sometimes yet another level of meaning was added by the paper templates used to cut the shapes. Love letters, for example, might find their way into the quilt that covered a marriage bed, or remain as a folorn reminder of a future wished for but unattainable.

The Last RunawayI have read two very different books in the last week or two that develop this theme of quilting. The first, Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, “The Last Runaway” tells the story of a Quaker girl from mid 19th Century Dorset who decides to emigrate with her sister to America after a youthful love affair goes wrong and leaves her shamed and vulnerable at home. But things don’t go as planned, and when her sister dies she finds herself trapped in an unfamiliar country. Her position in the household of her planned brother-in-law, whose new partner sees her as a threat, becomes so untenable that she is forced into an unpromising marriage to a local man. Only her skill with a needle makes her feel valued in her new community.

Tracy Chevalier is very sensitive to the subtle but deep cultural differences between American and English social behaviour. Many of her observations ring true today. Honor, her quiet heroine, finds herself startled by the directness of American social interaction, slightly revolted by an excess of sugary and salty food and, most seriously of all, placed in a moral dilemma when she discovers runaway slaves sheltering on her husband’s property. I wasn’t aware that, in the years leading up to the American Civil War, there were severe penalties for people in the North who were caught harbouring slaves. The family that Honor has married into has already lost a home and a father under such circumstances, so despite their Quaker ideals they forbid Honor to get involved, an instruction she finds it impossible to obey.

Quilts feature throughout the book, as a symbol of what Honor feels she has lost, and the alienness of what she now has to adapt to. Twelve quilts are demanded of her as a dowry, and she is forced to write home and ask old friends to return the ones she has given them for this purpose, something she naturally finds deeply painful to do. Quilting parties are held, involving the entire community, for a couple about to marry. Honor finds the American custom of appliqued designs, rather than the painstaking English method, a symbol of all she finds alienating and superficial about her new neighbours until she gets to know them better. She struggles to relate to the black people she meets without causing offence on either side, and becomes involved with a tough but kind milliner and her “mean sonofabitch” slave-hunter brother, who is problematically attracted to Honor herself. The solution comes in a very American fashion that offers Honor and her new husband an opportunity to make a fresh beginning. That is, in itself, a solution that feels right  in a country that seems to be in a state of perpetual flux. Ohio is both a staging post on the Underground Railroad and a temporary stopover to those heading out West; very few people seem to stay there permanently, and the quilt, whether in a farmhouse or in a wagon, becomes an emblem of the search for a place to belong.

From “Blankets” by Craig Thompson

My second quilt book was equally American, but set in the more recent years of the 1990s. It’s a graphic novel, but very different from your usual celebration of Spandex and superpowers. An autobiographical account, it introduces us to Craig Thompson, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family from which he feels increasingly alienated. Blankets are a recurring theme in its pages – there’s the blanket he reluctantly shares with his younger brother, crammed into the bedroom of a poor, isolated rural home, the blanket of snow that covers the ground through the magical weeks of a stay with his first love, Raine, and the quilt that she makes for him as a token of that love. Word and image combine to create a rich tapestry of meaning, and many people will recognise Craig’s experiences of love and loss, his struggles with youthful obsessions and temptations, his conflicted feelings about sex and his sense of alienation. Raine becomes the focal point of many of these struggles and for a while she seems to offer him everything he could ever need, but she has problems with her own family to work out. This is a subtle, profound and very touching exploration of youth and first love, and there are no clear-cut winners and losers. The characters are so real that they leap of the page and it stays in the mind and the heart for a very long time. Ultimately, the quilt that Raine gives Craig comes to symbolise even more than their youthful infatuation; it resembles his own commitment to make his mark on the world, to leave something personal and authentic behind him: “How satisfying it is to make a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement, no matter how temporary.”


Nobody has done more to popularise the beauty of quilting in recent times than the immensely talented Kaffe Fassett. While in London last week, I went with a friend to the new Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey to see an exhibition of his work. Bermondsey nestles at the southern end of Tower Bridge, a warren of characterful terraced houses and winding streets that somehow manages to accommodate the recent arrival of The Shard into its atmosphere of general eclecticism. The exhibition covered all the aspects of Fassett’s creativity, including knitting and needlepoint, but it was the quilts that stood out for me. It was wonderful to get up close and appreciate the subtlety of the interlocking patterns and his masterful use of colour. Some of them seemed to leap into three-dimensional life when viewed from a distance, and to see the great man himself directing a quilting workshop was icing on an already-wonderful cake. It’s lovely to see these very personal and historical handicrafts enjoying an renaissance and we’re blessed to have a genius like Kaffe Fassett to add colour to our modern world.

Who Will Buy this Wonderful Feeling?

Vault Beach near Gorran Haven The pathway lead...
Vault Beach near Gorran Haven The pathway leading down to Vault Beach, south west of the village of Gorran Haven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I have a desperate need to be alone. I’m an introvert and the last couple of weeks have been enjoyable but challenging. We have climbed Pendle Hill, attended a family funeral, walked 50 miles or so of Cornish coastline, returned a son to college, and celebrated a daughter’s 18th birthday. In addition, I’ve issued hundreds of books in one of my busiest-ever weeks at work.

Home life has been dominated by seemingly endless piles of laundry as people come and go. We are now on the final push of hands-on parenting, as our younger child prepares for A Levels and hopefully university admission in the autumn, a path our son has already trodden with fulfilment and success. It’s a time to be thankful, and proud of both of them, but also to reflect on how very different life will shortly be. This hit me very powerfully yesterday, a day that began with taking my son to the bus station and ended with Becky’s birthday meal at a flamboyant Teppanyaki restaurant. Tom and I discussed music on our drive into town and I realised how much I’d miss him. He’s matured into a truly worthwhile person – they both have. One thing I never envisaged when they were tiny was a world where we’d use Spotify to keep in touch.

Our few days in Cornwall were our tenth trip down to the South West of England in the last four years as we proceed along the immense (but also immensely rewarding) SW Peninsula Coast Path – all 630 miles of it. Our next trip will take us to the halfway point, somewhere between Coverack and Helford. Every time we go it feels more like home, and once J retires we hope to relocate down there. Each journey takes us further westward and is a slightly bigger commitment – our return from Truro on Monday took over six hours. Sometimes the trains are so crowded with people and luggage that you can’t even buy a cup of coffee without getting off at a station and back on further up – and then you’re stuck away from your home space until the next stop. The inability of British railway companies to invest in adequate rolling stock on their busiest holiday routes is a source of never-ending bafflement to me. Nevertheless, we have stuck to our original commitment to use public transport throughout.

The first day was the hardest of the latest trip – because of the funeral, three days walking were telescoped into one exhausting 14 mile trek including around 3,000 feet of ascent. We arrived in the tiny village of Gorran Haven around eight o’clock and if the kind Lancashire couple at our B&B hadn’t taken pity on us we’d have been reduced to dining on cereal bars in our room, since the local chip shop was changing his cooking oil and the nearest pub, for some unspecified reason, didn’t feel like serving meals. (The next evening, in a settlement of a similar size, we had to wait hours to eat because the local inn was packed). Such things are fairly typical of rural Cornwall, even in the Easter holiday week. There is always an element of unpredictability, but at least we only got soaked on one occasion. Mostly the weather was a great deal better than forecast, and the mornings, dominated by the unforgettable contrast of bright golden broom against deep cobalt sky, were some of the most glorious walking we’d ever experienced.

Coast path walking is deeply addictive. It has always been my personal definition of perfect happiness. It can be very physically demanding, involving constant ascent and descent on rough ground, exposure to terrible weather, exhaustion and occasional hunger – not to mention the desperation of arriving, spent, in a remote hamlet and wandering for ages before you locate your bed for the night. And all this is doing it the easy way, with luggage transfers and hotel accommodation. Many people camp and backpack, which takes a degree of fortitude I feel a bit too elderly to contemplate. Nevertheless, I never seem to suffer from depression or anxiety when I’m out doing it. I have developed coping strategies for everything from blisters to irritable bowel syndrome miles from a loo. In fact, my ability to cope with the exigencies of the path never ceases to amaze me.

By contrast, at home I’ve spent an adult life suffering from chronic depression and anxiety, sometimes severe enough to render me completely helpless. I am presently struggling to get off  Fluoxetine after 20 years. It’s strange, because I’m not actually unhappy. On the contrary, I have an enviable life and I’m deeply thankful for it. Marriage, kids, job, house, garden, are all as I’d want them to be. (Health is another matter and the cat drives me mental, but you can’t have everything).

So it would seem that my mental distress is environmental, which raises the interesting question of whether it would recur if I actually lived in a rural community near the sea. I’m under no illusions – you can’t survive happily in such places without a pretty high degree of interaction with your neighbours. Walking, and sunlight, is known to be therapeutic, and the nearest I can come to an answer is that I think it’s the multiplicity of conflicting demands on my energy that I find so wearing at home. I can reach the point where even a well-meant, friendly e-mail seems like too much of an intrusion at times. But whatever I experience in Cornwall, I wish I could bottle it. As Lionel Bart wrote:

Who will buy this wonderful morning?

Such a sky you never did see!

Who will tie it up with a ribbon, and put it in a box for me?

So I could see it at my leisure,

Whenever things go wrong,

And I would keep it as a treasure,

To last my whole life long….

The right tool for the job

Sometimes there’s just so much satisfaction in getting the right piece of kit for the job. Often it seems to be the culmination of a long process of trying out less satisfactory alternatives. When you’ve already paid out a significant sum for something, you baulk a little at the extra cost that will make it convenient as well as enjoyable.

It’s exactly 12 months since I invested in an iPad. Finally, this week, I acquired a proper sound dock for it that allows me to do what it was meant for all along – entertain me, mostly in my little corner of the kitchen/lounge area while I do my cross stitch or my ironing. I joined Audible.com a while back and have some lovely downloads lined up. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to transfer them to my various devices but now I can have them right at hand, and reasonably audible. I’ve muddled through with speakers on my laptop but the kids invariably carry them up to their rooms, never to be seen again. I have a little iPod dock on my bedside table, but that doesn’t fit anything bigger and – a small matter but annoying – the time resets every time I unplug it and carry it around, and it’s a bit of a swine to sort out. It just never seems quite worth the hassle.

My iPod with new dock

The little dock I’ve bought from the Philips Fidelio range is so straightforward they don’t even enclose an instruction booklet. You just plug it in and the time’s right, and everything. It can fill a room comfortably with acceptable sound and I’ve been sitting here listening to Beethoven’s Seventh on Spotify while eating my lunch. A bonus I hadn’t expected is the app that allows you to listen to a huge range of radio stations. It’s ideal, and all for around £50.00. Why did it take me so long?

A similar purchase was a proper, floor-standing frame for my latest stitching project. Again, having paid £32.00 for a kit, I tried a lot of cheaper workarounds. I tried a frame on my lap, but the material just wouldn’t fit. And I even picked up a second-hand frame from the Oxfam shop and sewed my new project on it, only to find it flapped around all over the place and only stayed put if I rested it against my tummy, a set up guaranteed to give me chronic backache within the hour. So I finally gave in and got a lovely beech Eseebee frame – very adjustable and comfortable to work with, and a huge time and effort saver. It’s allowed me to see the whole project as I work and have my chart and threads handy. Again, such a time saver.

Cross stitch project - Henry VIII and six wives

As I get older, I think these are probably the purchases that give me the most pleasure.