The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

February 23, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Posted in mental illness, miscarriage of justice, optimism, Simplifying, wild camping | 2 Comments
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Nothing left to lose

I’m travelling through Ireland, en route to a writing residency in County Kerry and the bookshops here are brilliant. A favourite one is Charlie Byrnes Bookshop in Galway. My favourite book from there is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Penguin, 2018).

Sitting before roaring log fires in Shankill Castle’s drawing room (my landlord Geoffrey calls it the withdrawing room), I couldn’t put this book down. But I didn’t want it to end.

The Salt Path was a Sunday Times Bestseller and it’s easy to see why. The author and her husband, called Moth, decide to walk from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall, a distance of 630 miles. They carry rucksacks and a small, lightweight tent, with no money to back them up except a minimal weekly pension and even that uncertain and diminishing for no reason they can fathom or do anything about.

It was an impulsive decision, made when the bailiffs were literally banging on the windows of their farmhouse. They’d lost their home of twenty years, their livelihood from it, and their animals. After three years of endless battle with the courts (using up all their savings), a clear miscarriage of justice had landed them in this position.

Then Moth was diagnosed with a fatal brain disease called corticobasal degeneration.

Wild camping

Raynor and Moth can only afford wild camping – mostly illegal but they simply could not afford the fees for designated camping grounds with luxuries like toilets and showers. Undergoing the vicissitudes of this arduous journey gives rise to intriguing insights about homelessness, among other topics.

They are so poor that they routinely share a tea bag. And yet, she thinks, overhearing an American couple climbing past them discussing work:

‘I stirred the tea with the odd realization that I had no work to concern myself about, no domestic problems to resolve; I had no problems at all really. Except that we were homeless and Moth was dying.’

They’d met at eighteen. She remembers seeing him dip a Mars Bar into his cup of tea. We hear about the changing stages of their relationship, about sex, child-raising and working their farm, and we feel cheered with her at observations like:

‘Hobbling homelessly through Lynton, there was still something about the way he ate a Mars Bar that could lift my spirit in an instant.’

Part of the journey involves acute observations about the animals, birds, geology and history of that South West Coast Path, all treated with the author’s characteristically light, wryly humorous touch. We meet a variety of people – surfers, café owners, a retired Ghurka and nudists, as well as other homeless people.

Raynor and Moth survive on rice, peas and noodles (20 pence a packet). Their gear is not very waterproof and their physical deprivations made a sybarite like me wince. But they begin to suspect that perhaps weeks and months of walking steep coastal paths might be amounting to some extreme form of physiotherapy. For whatever reason, and not before Raynor’s agonising doubts about whether this foolhardy walking idea could be making Moth worse, the symptoms if his disease appear to be vanishing.

Hungry, tired, cold, but free

When they reach Lands End after 250 miles of ‘pain, exhaustion, hunger, wild nights and wild weather’ they could hop on a bus and ride ‘back to the familiarity of Wales, to put ourselves on the waiting list for a council house and find a cheap campsite for the winter.’

They decide to keep walking. They had ‘nothing to lose and everything to walk for. We were free here, battered by the elements, hungry, tired, cold, but free. Free to walk on or not, to stop or not.’

It means meeting some truly terrible weather but also being open to swims like this one in Bigbury-on-Sea when, dirty and smelly, they ‘leapt into the sea, my parched skin sucking up the cool waters, layers of grime and sweat washing away on the tide. We swam in circles, floating on the gentle waves, until all we smelt of was ozone and salt. Our filthy clothes soaked in a rock pool while we dried in the sun.’

The Salt Path is beautiful, funny and profound. It would be memorable anyway, but what will make it endure are the insights about the journey within, sparked by this remarkable physical journey.


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  1. Enjoy your writing residency, Penny. I enjoyed this review .

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Hi Penny, sounds like a beautiful but very sad book. Hope you’re enjoying Ireland, very envious, send a few pics. All the best,

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