The Salt Path

by Raynor Winn

When trouble came to Raynor and Moth Winn, it came in an avalanche.

First, they lost a three-year court case contesting their responsibility for the debts of a failed company they had invested in.

That led to their being ordered to leave their farm in seven days. The farm had been their home, their life, where they had raised their children — and their income.

Days later, a neurologist in a Liverpool hospital tells them that the pain Moth has had in his shoulder and arm is due to a rare, degenerative brain disorder. On average, people die within six years of the appearance of symptoms. Moth had already spent about that amount of time seeking a diagnosis.

With no home, no income and no prospects, the Winns impulsively decide to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path. Originally a route for the Coastguard to walk from lighthouse to lighthouse patrolling for smugglers, the path today is England’s longest way-marked footpath and a national trail.

They planned to walk during the day and camp wild at night. They had a small housing allowance that they could use for food on their trip. It would give them a chance to process what had happened — and what would happen — to them now that they were homeless and Moth was terminally ill. It also meant they wouldn’t have to mooch off  friends and family until they sorted themselves out.
In August 2013, at ages 50 and 53 respectively, Raynor and Moth Winn set out from Minehead in Somerset. “Excited, afraid, homeless, fat, dying, but at least if we made that first step we had somewhere to go, we had a purpose. And we really didn’t have anything better to do at half past three on a Thursday afternoon than to start a 630-mile walk.”
Once they hit their stride, they find themselves focusing on the moment, living more comfortably with loss. Amazingly, Moth gets stronger and more able the longer they walk.
Raynor’s book is by turns a travelog, a hymn of praise, social commentary and humor. She describes “a corner where tides, winds and tectonic plates collide in a roar of elemental confusion. A place of endings, beginnings, shipwrecks and rockslides.”
Although technically it’s illegal to camp wild along the path, the Winns did; some nights they slept on cliff tops with only “sheets of nylon between us and Canada.” They experienced starry nights and stormy weather; watched meteor showers and ships leaving the English Channel. They learned the differing calls of seagulls at different hours of the day and watched a peregrine ride the thermals off the edge of a cliff where they had camped.
They quickly learned not to tell people they were homeless. People could get ugly when they thought the Winns were tramps. And yet, they experienced wonderful acts of generosity from other homeless people who were willing to show the Winns the ropes of life on the road.

At several points, Moth was mistaken for Poet Laureate Simon Arbitrage. The two men don’t look alike, but ironically Arbitrage had published a book a year earlier called WALKING HOME. In it, he described his 256-mile walk on the Pennine Way from Scotland to Edale in the northern Derbyshire Peak District.

Once along the southern coast of Cornwall, they are hungry and have almost no money. They arrive a town where a festival is being held. Moth, who had brought a copy of BEOWULF to read on the walk, pulls out his book and starts a dramatic reading. Handsome, charismatic and outgoing, Moth draws people in.  By the time the police chase them off, they have collected nearly £30.

Ultimately, autumn arrives before the end of the full 630-mile path. They spend some months staying in a partially remodeled meat-packing shed that a friend of Raynor’s offers them. They can live there rent-free as long they helped finish the renovations. The following summer they set out from Poole Harbor in Dorset and walk west to the point where they ended the walk the prior summer.

Raynor ‘s book began as a gift for her husband to help him remember their experiences as his memory fails. Encouraged by her daughter, she sought an agent and a publisher. In 2018, it was nominated for the Costa Book Awards and the Wainwright Prize and won the first Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize in 2019.

THE SALT PATH was followed in April 2020 by THE WILD SILENCE, which covers life after their Salt Path walk, including a long distance walk in Iceland’s southern highlands.

This is a wonderful book to read during the coronavirus pandemic. Raynor’s vivid writing carries you away to a wild and wonderful place.

Raynor ends the book by saying, “At last I understood what homelessness had done for me.  It had taken every material thing that I had and left me stripped bare, a blank page at the end of a partly written book.  It had also given me a choice, either to leave that page blank or to keep writing the story with hope.  I chose hope.”

About the Author: Raynor Winn (1963 – )

Raynor Winn grew up on a Staffordshire farm where her father was a tenant. She had a lifelong connection to nature and the land. She also had a dream of becoming a writer from childhood.

She met her husband Moth when she was 18.  They bought a ruined farm in Wales and rebuilt it as they raised their son Tom and daughter Rowan.

THE SALT PATH began as a project to help her husband remember what they had experienced on their walk as his memory deteriorated. Her daughter convinced her to try to get it published. Her second book is THE WILD SILENCE (2020), which delves into Winn’s upbringing and her readjustment to living in a village after she and Moth finished their walk.

Someone who read her first book contacted her about living on a farm he owned if they would look at re-wilding it for him. The project involves finding a way “to restore biodiversity to a silent landscape while still allowing it to be a traditional farm.” After nearly two years, the wildlife started coming back to the farm.

She is a regular long-distance walker and writes about nature, homelessness and wild camping.

Moth’s condition continues to deteriorate, they are planning another long walk.



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