Raynor Winn and her husband Moth were down to their last few coins. Having lost all their savings and, worse, the lovely house they had painstakingly built, their home for more than two decades, to a dodgy investment idea, the couple, in their fifties, decided to take — quite literally — a step that would change their lives forever. They set out to walk the 1,000-plus km South West Coast Path in England. ‘I hoped going out into the outdoors would give me answers to all my problems,’ says Raynor, in an exclusive interview with Friday.
But it would be a few days later, outside a small shop near the North Coast that Raynor would experience ‘the lowest moment’ in my life.
‘I’d fished out the last few coins we had and was counting them trying to decide what to buy because we needed food,’ she says. ‘At just that moment, a lady came by with a huge white dog. It then saw another dog tied up outside the store and leapt, brushed against me, and caught me off balance, sending me spinning.’
Devastated to see the coins flying out of her hands and rolling towards a drainage grill, Raynor threw herself on the road, plunging her hand down the drain in desperation ‘because that was all the coins we had and we were very hungry’. Almost in tears, Raynor was lying sprawled on the pavement trying to grab the loose change when she felt the woman with the dog ‘prodding me with her foot. ‘Get up,’ she was saying, ‘we don’t want drunken tramps here’.
‘For a moment I wondered who she was talking to before I realised it was to me,’ says Raynor. ‘I think it was at that moment that my sense of self belief just disappeared. It was probably the lowest point for me — knowing that while to myself I was exactly the same person, to people I was becoming [someone] socially unacceptable. It was a shocking thing to understand.’
The first shock the couple received was back in 2013. On a friend’s advice, they invested in a business that went bust, and a judge decreed their house be attached to pay for debts that had accrued to creditors.
‘It was our dream house; we’d spent 20 years restoring it. It was full of memories; it was our family home; it’s where our children grew up. We were completely shocked when we heard the order,’ recalls Raynor, who subsequently wrote a much acclaimed book, The Salt Path, that tells their story in sometimes heartbreaking detail.
The farm was the couple’s source of income — they hosted paying guests. Now they were given a week to vacate, and had nowhere to go. ‘We hadn’t expected it and that night we were overwhelmed by the sense of what on earth would come next.’
Worse was in store. A few days after the court order, Moth’s medical reports came in: he had corticobasal degeneration — a terminal neuro degenerative disease that has no cure. The doctor gave him at best a few months to live.
Shattered, Raynor could only hug Moth in despair. ‘You can’t be ill, I still love you,’ she whispered to her college sweetheart, seeing doors closing all around them.
With both their children in university, the couple, hearts heavy, were overcome by emotion. ‘The day the bailiffs came knocking, we just didn’t have the willpower or the strength to take that final step over the threshold, knowing that we would never be able to go back into that house. Ever.
‘Crouching under the stairs we wanted to spend a few last moments in the house,’ she says.
It was then that Raynor remembered reading a book many years ago about a man who walked the south west coast of England. ‘And in that moment, it seemed to be the most logical thing to do — to walk a trail. It offered the opportunity to follow a line on a map. At that point we were desperately in need of a map... something that would show us the way, because we were lost.’
After leaving some of their stuff in a friend’s barn, they packed a flimsy nylon tent, a couple of sleeping bags, some clothes and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — ‘the one book my husband would take with him wherever he goes’ — into two rucksacks, took a deep breath and ‘stepped out in just our clothes’.
Raynor is convinced nature is a wonderful panacea for stress. ‘I was living on a farm for a long time so when we were in such a difficult situation, the idea was to go into a natural environment to find answers. It felt like going to my safe place. I felt it would give me the time to work out things… to talk through all that we were undergoing… find a way forward really.’
At that time, though, neither of them realised what it meant to be setting off on the 630-mile trail. ‘We didn’t know the walk would equate climbing Mt Everest nearly four times.’
On the road, Raynor thought conversation would revolve around the past, the house, what they would do next. But not surprisingly, talk was largely about food — ‘where we’d be able to buy food, if we were able to buy food, and where we would camp at night’.
But walking was therapeutic. It meant not having to look back ‘but put one foot before the other, and take the next step and the next… It became a walk in meditation’. They found that the pain of the loss of the house and the fear of the future because of Moth’s illness had started to fade. ‘It had faded simply in the process of putting one foot in front of another. It was about following the line on the map and finding a reason to get up the next day and go forward.’
Surviving largely on £48 (Dh225) a week — they were due in tax credits, which they withdrew using a bank card — the duo trudged on with only the journey, and not the destination, on their mind.
Did she nurse a sense of regret over the losses?
‘There was obviously a huge sense of loss because we had just let go of the previous 20 years of our life,’ Raynor says, poignancy underlying her words. So she placed her hopes on the walk in the wilderness giving them a sense of purpose and a reason that made sense of their pains of the past. And it worked, slowly. ‘Over time, feelings of regret and loss began to fade away.’
Scrounging, often sharing a tea bag or a croissant, rarely indulging even in a bag of chips, they took life one step at a time, one day at a time.
Although shaken by all the twists in their lives, Raynor maintains an enviable sense of optimism — palpable in her cheerful, lilting voice when she talks about their walk and the future. ‘One of the most moving moments during our walk was the time we were at Land’s End, the most westerly point in England,’ she says.
The couple pitched tents there that night — ‘just two sheets of wet nylon between us and Canada’. It was an awfully cold, windy day. ‘Horizontal rain, incredibly windy gale, it was horrendous weather,’ she says. ‘Battered by the gale, with not a soul around, we, just the two of us, stood at the edge of the Atlantic, looking out to the sea.
‘All we had in our pockets was a Mars bar and a few coins, but I think at that point we realised that we’d got something that we’d never had before. We were free in a way we’d never allowed ourselves to be in our lives before; freedom to make our choices — to walk on or to give up — free to decide because the choices in the future should be things that matter and those that are important to us.
‘Although we’d experienced a huge sense of loss, we could live in a different way and were free to make a choice to do that’.
Possessions can influence your decisions, she feels. ‘When you are surrounded by things you have gathered all through your life, they define your choices in life. But when all that is taken away and there is nothing to focus on, one can take a decision from a far simpler point. The past gave us the freedom to do that which we probably would never had otherwise.’
But while they could take the cold weather and the gale storm in their stride, what Raynor and Moth found a challenge to tread past were the preconceived notions of people.
Early on in their walk, when passersby would ask them how they had so much time to walk so far, the couple’s reply would be that they had lost their home, had become homeless and so had nothing else to do. ‘That would elicit a shock reaction,’ recalls Raynor. ‘People would physically recoil, drag their dog in on the retractable leash, gather their children close to themselves — a sort of weird self-protection.
‘But when Moth changed tack and started saying: “Oh we’ve sold our house and are going where the wind blows us; having a mid-life moment”, they’d say, “That’s so inspirational, we should be doing that”. We didn’t realise the prejudice against the homeless was so strong.’
If some people’s reactions left them shocked, responses from a few individuals left the couple overwhelmed. ‘All along the way, we found that the people who gave us the most help were the people who had very little to give. People who themselves were living in difficult situations offered us shelter, food, every help that we needed. Of those who were in a position to help, very few offered us any help at all. It gave us a revealing insight into human nature.’
Did they feel like quitting at any point, I ask Raynor.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘There were moments when we were close to giving up — when we ran out of food, water. But soon we began to grow stronger physically and emotionally.’
She recalls a moment when they had walked around 300km and arrived at a spectacular cove by the beach. ‘It was the end of a beautiful day, the sea was silhouette still. We went for a swim and dolphins came into the bay. It was a perfect evening.’
They camped by the beach but at 3 in the morning found that the tide was rising and had to scramble out. Moth grabbed their fully erected tent and holding it high above his head ran up the beach to dry ground. ‘That was another turning point,’ says Raynor. ‘Barely a few weeks earlier he’d been struggling to put on his coat without help; now he was holding a tent above his head — we had even been told it would be utterly impossible for him to raise his arms — and running. His health was improving. That gave us the will to just keep walking.
‘In that moment I felt that if I had to keep walking for the rest of our lives and if that kept him in a state of better health, then I would do that.’
Have her experiences led her to believe we need to take doctors’ prognoses with a pinch of salt?
Raynor laughs. ‘Everyone’s different. One person’s physical reactions are different from the next person’s. But it’s increasingly being proven that physical activity, long walks, can help people with the type of disease Moth has.’
The author reveals she had no plans to write a book when they set off on the walk, although she would jot down short notes in their guide book’s margins about ‘where we stayed, some people we met, just to remember the moments’.
But two years later, in 2016, after finishing the walk — Raynor is reluctant to reveal where she and Moth are now lest it be a spoiler for those who are yet to read her book — she began to consider writing about their experiences.
‘I realised that it had not just been a physical journey; it was very much an emotional journey. So I began to write it down properly just so I can remember what we had taken from that walk, what strength it had given us, and what we had left behind.’
Another reason was Moth’s illness. The doctor had said he would start to lose his memory shortly and Raynor wanted to tell him what they had done and achieved. ‘I wanted to tell him “let’s keep trying”, she says.
The walk had an interesting spin off — 53-year-old Moth’s health began to improve so much so that he returned to university to realise his dream — to earn a degree. ‘Last summer, Moth graduated in horticulture and garden design,’ says Raynor proudly, laughing and adding, ‘Tell me if Dubai needs a horticulturalist.’
Luckily for her, getting the book published was a cakewalk. The first step was when her daughter chanced upon the manuscript and encouraged Raynor to get it published. ‘My first thought though was whether anyone would be interested in publishing something from a woman in her 50s who had absolutely no writing credentials.’
Nevertheless, she sent a short piece to Big Issue, a magazine that raises money for homeless people, and it was well received. Motivated, she googled an agent and dropped her an email on a Friday. ‘The following Friday I had signed a contract with them. It was unexpected.’
Penguin picked up the book for publication and it went on to become a bestseller. The Salt Path has also been shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award & The Wainwright Prize Paperback. ‘I feel I’m very lucky. I feel grateful,’ she says.
Looking back, what life lessons did she pick up during the course of the long walk?
‘The most important one is to live in the now,’ says Raynor. ‘It’s the only one you’ve got and we never do it. Stop worrying too much about the future; it will take care of itself. For us at least, that was the most important lesson. It allowed us to appreciate the life we still have for however long and not allow what may or may not happen in the future to overshadow it.’
The other lesson, not surprisingly, revolves around the home. ‘We’ve learnt so much about what a home is. Before we set off, we [believed] what creates home is the walls that we live within and what we put in that. But I’ve realised it’s not that. Home is really a state of mind, it’s whatever makes you feel safe and secure, and for me that was my family — whether it was me standing with Moth at Land’s End with just our rucksacks on our backs, or being with my children. Home, to me, is wherever they are.’
With talks about the book being considered for a movie, I ask her who she would like to portray her on screen.
Raynor laughs softly. ‘Kate Winslet,’ she says, ‘and my favourite actor Greg Wise as Moth.’
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is published by Michael Joseph and available at major bookstores and Amazon.