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.
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.