When eviction and ill-health almost crushed Raynor Winn and her husband, they hit the road for a trek that turned into a redemptive adventure, writes Helen O’Callaghan.
“We could just walk” — Raynor Winn was crouched under the stairs, hiding with her husband, Moth, from the bailiffs hammering on their door, who were there to take the farm the couple had built together, where they’d grown “vegetables and hens and two children” and a business that paid the bills.
It had come to this because of a friend’s betrayal and an investment that turned sour — their house, the farm they’d built from a derelict rubble of stones in an isolated spot at the foot of mountains in Wales was about to be taken from them.
“Every stone we had carefully placed, the tree where the children played, the hole in the wall where the blue tits nested, the loose piece of lead by the chimney where the bats lived,” as West-Cork-bound Raynor describes it in her Costa-nominated memoir, The Salt Path.
Yet in that impossible position, under the stairs, Raynor’s intention was born: to walk with her husband the 630-mile South West Coast Path from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall. It was sparked by the book she spotted in a nearby packing case — Five Hundred Mile Walkies, about a man who’d walked that path with his dog.
But the day after the bailiffs came, fate struck an even crueller blow. In a medical consultant’s room, the couple were told that Moth’s shoulder pain, hand tremors and facial numbness added up to CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease, generally fatal six to eight years after onset. Moth probably had it six years already. As Raynor grappled with an impossible reality — that a brain disease would take the “beautiful man I’d loved since I was a teenager” — and with Moth needing to put some space between Wales and them, the couple started their walk.
On a July afternoon in 2013 — Raynor was 50, Moth 53 — they set off to walk the South West Coast Path.
“It wasn’t the most logical thing to do and probably not the most responsible,” says Raynor today from her Cornwall home. “But the idea of going for a walk, of following a line on a map, was something to give us direction in life, a reason to go on – and that’s what the path gave us.”
With a tent bought on eBay (“our new home for £38”) and lightweight sleeping bags (£5 from Tesco), they had just £115 cash and a bank card to draw out their only other funds – the £48 weekly they were due in tax credits.
“It was hard,” says Raynor.
The weather was hard — cold that ate through the tent at 4am, and suffocating heat. Finding shelter was hard: pitching their tent on the edge of Exmoor above the Bristol Channel, every patch of short grass was a mass of ants. And the path was hard, with its vertical 800 foot rises and rapid sheer drops. Hardest of all was the hunger – every morsel of food won with meagre funds.
“We were constantly hungry, eating noodles for weeks. Sometimes one bag of fudge was all we had for two days,” recalls Raynor.
But alongside the hardship, rays of silver shone through — an invitation to camp in someone’s orchard, meeting with two young backpackers, who swapped them couscous for coffee, and hundreds of tiny ladybirds lifting into flight from a lush field (“I clung to the myth of the ladybird bringing good luck,” writes Raynor).
The biggest eye-opener was how people perceive homelessness. At the start, the couple didn’t think of themselves as homeless — just two people without a home.
“When people asked how we had so much time to walk so far, we’d explain we lost our home. They’d almost physically recoil — that reaction came as a shock. We learned how to deal with it — to say we’d sold our house, we were having a mid-life moment, going where the wind took us. And they’d say: ‘Oh Wow! That’s inspirational’. There’s a huge difference between how people perceive selling and losing one’s home.”
On the path, they discovered many others who were homeless — even communities of people who found ways to be homeless. “They were hidden away, communities living together in the woods going out to work every day. They lived in horse-boxes, sheds, all sorts of ways that people find to live if they don’t have a house.”
The other surprise was Moth’s health. “We’d been told it was just a downhill road. But after we’d been walking 200 miles, Moth was moving easier, his footsteps a bit surer.”
It crystallised for Raynor the night they had to get up in a hurry and rescue themselves and their tent from a rapidly-encroaching tide. “Moth had gone from being barely able to put on his coat without help to, within a few months, being able to run up a beach carrying the erected tent on his head.” She doesn’t know whether it was the walking — the constant repetitive movement — or the time spent in nature, but something allowed Moth’s health to improve in ways they’d been told were absolutely not possible.
The walk, which they finished in September 2014, helped in profound ways. Reaching Land’s End on a horrendous day of gales and horizontal rain with not a soul about — just them on the cliff edge with only £2.50 in their pocket — they put up their tent. “It was wet through — only two sheets of wet nylon between us and Canada. It should have been one of the worst moments of my life, but it wasn’t. It was so uplifting. The path had given us a life and a sense of hope we thought we’d never feel again. In that moment, we felt we’d let go of the anger and the bitterness and that we could go forward.”
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Day 19 - Good Morning! About to learn about rocks at the National Trust building on Black Head after the stunning stretch around Lizard Point - it should be at its very best right now in its cloak of wild flowers. #nationalwalkingmonth #naturewriting #walking #southwestcoastpath
Was the walk a pilgrimage? In a sense, yes. “We were looking for a place in the world. What we found, simply by putting one foot in front of the other on that strip of wilderness, was a way to go forward. In that place between the endless horizon of season one side and the ordinary world on the other, we found the mental space to heal in some way. It was a transition from one way of life to another. It was a walking meditation.”
Today, they live in a flat at the back of an old chapel, not far off the South West Coast Path. Moth isn’t as well as when they finished the walk. “But his health is much better than doctors or scans say it should be. He just continues to walk and be in the natural world as much as he can.”
Encouraged by her daughter, Rowan, to find a publisher, Raynor wrote The Salt Path for Moth – so, if Moth loses his memory, she can put it in front of him and make him feel as if he’s on the path with her. “And say ‘Look at this, at what we did’.”
Raynor Winn will speak at West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry on Wednesday, July 17. The festival runs July 12-19