WHEN The Salt Path came out last year, it was a Sunday Times best-seller. It was shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award, and also for the Wainwright Prize. This is all the more impressive from a debut author with no background in writing.
And what a great read it is. Essentially a travelogue, like all the best books in the genre, at its heart lies a powerful human story. In this case, that is a story of the triumph of love in the face of disaster.
To set the scene: in 2013, Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, experienced a triple catastrophe. Within a matter of days, they lost both their home and their livelihood, and Moth was diagnosed with a terminal illness. They were in their fifties, and had been married for 32 years. They farmed in Wales, having started from scratch to rebuild an ancient farmhouse and build a life for the family. At the time of the disaster, their two children were at university.
The first blow fell as a result of an old schoolfriend of Moth’s who had persuaded them to invest in his business. They lost their investment when the business went under. Far worse: it turned out that they were responsible for their friend’s debts. After three years of fighting through the courts, without the help of legal aid, a judge decreed that their home should be seized in payment. They were left with almost nothing: just £320 in the bank.
The day after the judgment, Moth, a master plasterer, was finally diagnosed with a rare, terminal condition, corticobasal degeneration, or CBD. He’d had symptoms for some time. The consultant who finally named his condition warned them that there was no cure, only pain relief. The disease was expected to destroy his mind and body within six to eight years.
It was while they were crouching in the cupboard under the stairs, trying to escape the sound of the bailiffs rattling the window catches, that they decided to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path from Minehead, in Somerset, to Poole, in Dorset.
Part of the logic was that they could not rent because their credit rating was shot to pieces. They were low priority for council housing. So they blew the last of the cash on lightweight rucksacks, a tent, and sleeping bags, and headed for Minehead. Then began an epic journey that turned out, in the end, to be life-changing.
The challenges should not be underestimated. Moth was not a well man, and they were no longer in the first flush of youth. Every leg of the journey took far longer than their guidebook suggested it should.
© Raynor WinnRaynor Winn, a former farmer and the author of the best-selling memoir The Salt Path
Add to that the fact that they had just £48 a week in tax credits to their name. They could not afford campsites, and could barely afford enough food to fuel them for the journey. The only option was wild camping — illegal in England and Wales, apart from parts of Dartmoor — and eating a vast quantity of instant noodles.
One of the most striking themes of the book is the attitude of those whom they met on the road. When they told people how far they were intending to walk, a common response was admiration, even jealousy. They were told that they were an inspiration.
That changed when people discovered that Ray and Moth were homeless: almost without exception, fellow hikers winced and took a step backwards. They were suddenly beyond the pale. And then there is their (understandable) rage, which bubbled up from time to time, as they began to process the injustice of what they had been through.
That is not to suggest that the book is gloomy. It’s not, in the slightest. There are wonderful moments of humour, such as when Moth is repeatedly mistaken for the poet Simon Armitage, who was also walking the coast path at the time. The descriptions of the landscape are lyrically observed and magically drawn. The Salt Path is beautifully written, an utterly captivating and immersive read.
Miraculously, after a painful struggle in the early days of walking, Moth found his symptoms reduced by the daily slog. He abandoned his medication and felt better for it. And at the end of their journey, they were offered a home to rent in Cornwall, where Moth retrained to teach his plastering skills and Raynor reinvented herself as a nature writer.
There are clear echoes of pilgrimage throughout the book, although Ray is clear that they are not people of faith. Yet it is clear that their journey was as demanding and redemptive as many a pilgrimage.
Above all, this is a story of love and determination in the face of extraordinary odds: love between a couple who are determined to treasure whatever time they have left together; determination to crawl upwards to the light after the darkness, and to choose hope over despair.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is published by Penguin at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-1-4059-3718-4.
THE SALT PATH — SOME QUESTIONS
- “But who was I now?”. How does the label “homeless” affect the way in which Raynor and Moth are treated?
- Did The Salt Path change your view of homelessness at all? How?
- What did you make of Polly and her “brand of philanthropy”? Is Raynor entirely fair in her description here?
- How does extreme poverty affect the day-to-day decisions made by Raynor and Moth?
- Raynor and Moth lose nearly all their material belongings. How do you think you might cope with that? How might it change you?
- “You’ve felt the hand of nature. It won’t ever leave you now; you’re salted.” Is nature regenerative in this story? How?
- “It’s a great life.” Do you agree with the Aussie surfers that a life with “no ties” is one with “no problems”?
- The Salt Path is a literary memoir about very physical experiences (pain, cold, wet). How do these physical experiences relate to emotional revelations for the pair?
- “You can’t be ill, I still love you.” What does The Salt Path suggest about human approaches to illness impending death?
- Is The Salt Path a spiritual novel? How?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 July, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Aftershocks by A. N. Wilson. It is published by Atlantic Books at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-7864-9605-8).
Inspired by the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Aftershocks is set in the colonial city of Aberdeen, on a fictional island that none the less bears many similarities to New Zealand. Its narrator is a young actress, Ingrid Ashe, who tells the story of her love for Nellie, Dean of the cathedral and a classical scholar. In doing so, she also also tells the story of the people and place of the island, the unfolding destruction of the earthquake, and the changes brought about in its aftermath. Overriding all this are theological questions about faith in the face of destruction.
A. N. Wilson is a newspaper columnist, essayist, biographer, and novelist. Born in 1950, he studied at New College, Oxford, where he later taught medieval literature for several years. Wilson subsequently spent a year training for the Anglican priesthood at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, before focusing on writing full-time. He renounced religion for more than a decade before returning to Christianity. A prolific author, Wilson has written more than 40 novels and biographies, including biographies of Jesus, St Paul, and Leo Tolstoy. He lives in London, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
AUGUST: None So Blind by Alis Hawkins
SEPTEMBER: E.E.G. by Daša Drndic