A triumph of hope and love over despair – and some tough cliffs

Review: Vivien Horler

The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn (Penguin)

salt pathRaynor and Moth Winn were in their 50s when they decided to walk. Their lives were falling apart and they didn’t know what to do.

So they started to walk, along south-west England’s famed South West Coast, setting out from Minehead in Somerset, and carrying on, across North Devon, round the Cornish Peninsula and Land’s End, and on, eventually, to Poole in Dorset, covering just over 1000km.

And by the time they had completed their trek they had a plan.

Raynor was in her teens when she met Moth, and loved him from the off. They married, had two children, and bought a run-down farm in Wales which they rebuilt and from which they ran holiday lets.

Thirty-two years later, the children at university, they were hit by two appalling blows. An unwise investment went wrong, and the couple were sued by an erstwhile friend, eventually losing both their home and their holiday-let business. Within days of a judge finding against them, a doctor diagnosed Moth with corticobasal degeneration, or CBD, a slow but always fatal degenerative brain disease.

The bailiffs came and Raynor and Moth hid in the cupboard under the stairs of their farmhouse. While crouching there, Raynor spotted a book in a box by a man who’d taken his dog on the coastal path, titled Five Hundred Mile Walkies.

Could they do that? How hard could it be – a nice path around the coast? It turned out to be very hard, the challenging geography aggravated by a chronic lack of funds which meant they couldn’t afford to stay in campsites, and often couldn’t afford much in the way of food: rice, noodles, tins of tuna and fudge were mainstays. They even tried seaweed.

“Wild” camping – camping behind hedges, tucked into the corners of fields and even on the beach – was a challenge. It was better to set up their tent late and strike camp early, before anyone might come along to order them gone. Not using campsites meant they were rarely able to shower or wash their clothes, except in the sea. They were aware they smelt.

The weather too was a challenge, often wild and wet. They’d chosen their sleeping bags for their lightness, which meant their nights were often unpleasantly cold.

They discovered what it was like to be a pair of tramps. At first when people asked them how they were in a position to walk so far and for so long, they replied truthfully, saying they had lost their house and were now homeless. People always recoiled.

They later came up with a better story: they had sold up and were on the path, going where the wind took them. This version of the truth prompted responses of “wow, brilliant, inspirational.”

Moth had been told by his doctor to take it easy, not walk far and avoid stairs, but astonishingly he found that walking up and down cliffs loosened him up and eased his chronic pain.

The landscape was stunningly beautiful – Raynor writes: “Coves of blue, green and black slipped by, the colours of Cornwall, always lit by the line of white water breaking at the back of the black cliffs.”

Every now and then – not often enough – you come across a book that warms your heart and provides reading joy.

I was born in Cornwall, and it is the part of Britain I know best. I’ve been to many of the towns and villages the Winns passed on their walk, and in one case even to a pub they visited (The Tinners Arms in Zennor, built in 1271 and offering excellent food). I concede this may have had something to do with how I felt about this book – after all, how fascinating can an account be of a mid-50s couple, he very sick, going on a coastal hike with no money and little food?

Well, I thought it was. I loved it.

  • I’m not the only one: The Salt Path was shortlisted for the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize, the Costa Book Awards and was a British Sunday Times bestseller.

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