When a walk does you good

Review: Vivien Horler

Landlines, by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph)

We all know walking is good for you, but some people take it to ridiculous extremes. Like Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth.

They set out on a journey to walk the Cape Wrath Trail, from Scotland’s most north-westerly point down to Fort William, a distance of about 330km. It is described in one internet post as running “across the boggy, boulder-strewn wilderness of north-west Scotland, with no signposts and often without any paths whatsoever. It is easily Britain’s toughest long-distance hiking trail, taking 15 to 20 days to complete”.

And why would a couple in their 60s even think of doing such a thing? Well, it had worked before.

Moth has a degenerative disease in the Parkinson’s family, and was getting to the point where he had to crawl upstairs. He also fell from time to time, and it would seem the disease was close to claiming him.

So Raynor, who must be a force of nature, decided a walk would do him good.

Raynor Winn is the author of The Salt Path, a British Sunday Times 2018 bestseller. Through some ill-advised financial dealings, they lost their home, and with no money coming in, were literally homeless.

Moth had already been diagnosed, and had been advised not to get overtired, and to be careful on the stairs. Well, when you’re homeless you don’t have any stairs, so that was a comfort.

At a loss as to what to do, they came up with the idea of following Britain’s South West Coastal Path, which stretches 1 000km from Somerset to Dorset via Devon and around the foot of Cornwall.

There were few stairs, but many headlands and valleys, they were buffeted by the wind and coastal mists, and their tent wasn’t much good. They had very little money and often went hungry, but they endured and even prospered. And at the end of it Moth’s condition had improved.

Afterwards Raynor wrote her wonderful book, and made sufficient money from it and a second book about a long walk in Iceland, to buy a small farm in Cornwall.

Now, in early 2021, Moth is not doing well and believes he has hit the final stretch. But Raynor isn’t ready to let him go. She begins to leave guides to the Cape Wrath Trail lying around.

It works. Moth agrees to give it a go, but Raynor is beset with doubts and guilt. What if he falls somewhere miles from anywhere and she can’t raise help? What if he falls down a gully and dies? Well, says Moth, then he’d die with no regrets. Raynor feels otherwise.

But they go – not setting off from Cape Wrath which is closed because of army manoeuvres, but from a few kilometres south. The trail is wet, boggy – as advertised – and lonely. Raynor is wearing new boots and immediately gets crippling blisters.

Sometimes the trail is hard to find. Sometimes it snows, despite being May (they had set off in spring to beat Scotland’s notorious midges). One morning the tent zip is frozen shut. Rivers are in flood. Moth trips and cuts his head. Their little stove, essential for hot cups of tea, breaks. Despite the time of year there are midges.

But the views of mountains and lochs are beyond lovely. They meet kind people who go out of their way to help them. Raynor thinks Moth’s gait has improved.

They reach the end of the trail at Fort William and discover it is the jumping-off point for the 150km West Highland Way, a gentler, less rugged path built on old drovers’ roads used to walk cattle to market.

Raynor and Moth eye each other. “I’m not ready to stop,” says Moth. So they carry on. Somewhere along the line they order bicycles which are delivered at the end of the West Highland Trail because, yes, they’re planning to go on, along canal towpaths from Glasgow to Edinburgh and then into England.

Well, you can guess what happens next. Moth is feeling so well they just keep on going, on and on and on, Moth becoming ever more jaunty, until something like 1600km after they set off in Scotland four months ago, they walk back to their home in Cornwall.

On their last night in the tent, Raynor ponders: “Thousands of feet over thousands of years have trodden many of the same trails we have, tracing their passage on to the landscape, imprinting their memories into the soil. What remains are not just paths, they’re precious landlines that connect us to the earth, to our past and to each other… We’re at the point where time and place and energy combine, where we become the path, the walker and the story.”

This is a story of hope, faith, a good bit of pain, fortitude, and concern for the changing environment (Scotland’s midges are moving south as the climate changes). But mainly it’s a story of love.


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