Love and Salvation on the Salt Path
Monday, 27 January 2020
A large audience at Bolton School Girls’ Division was delighted to welcome Raynor Winn, author of The Salt Path, on her first visit to Bolton. It had taken her 7 and a half hours to reach the town from Cornwall by train but that is another story! More than half the enrichment lecture audience had read the life-affirming book so Raynor gave a brief overview before launching into a question and answer session.
She recalled being 18 and meeting her partner for life, Moth, whilst she was studying for her A levels – being captivated by his white shirt and piercing blue eyes. She told how, in their early thirties, they bought a dilapidated Welsh farmhouse and over the next 20 years transformed it into their rural idyll, where they kept animals and converted the outbuildings into accommodation that could be rented out. She briefly touched upon the business venture with a friend that went wrong and which left them liable for debts owed by the company, including their home! They were given one week to move out. Just when things, it seemed, could not get any worse Moth attended a regular hospital check-up – he was having problems with stiffness in his shoulder – and was diagnosed with corticobasal degeneration or CBD. It was an illness that was going to drastically limit his life and they were told he probably would not live more than two years. Hiding under the stairs with the bailiffs at the door, Raynor glanced a copy of ‘Five Hundred Walkies’ by Paddy Dillon, a book about trekking the South Coast Path and in that moment a way forward became clear. Having packed a tent and sleeping bags, they set off to walk the 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset, in utter despair.
The first thing they learned, Raynor said, was that light weight sleeping bags are light for a reason – they contain no stuffing! The second thing they learnt was that 630 miles is a long way, the equivalent of climbing over 4 Mount Everests! To start with Moth could hardly put a coat on as he was so stiff, however, step by step his health and their mood began to improve! She told of wild camping and how, because the path is so narrow in parts, they fell into conversation with other walkers. Not everyone reacted well to homelessness with some physically recoiling! Over time, they adapted their story to say they had sold their house to undertake the walk and found that people were a lot more friendly, seeing this as romantic and inspirational.
Considering the question of whether she had written before, Raynor said as a child she had always thought she might but somehow life had got in the way. She said how, initially, she wrote about their walk for Moth, presenting him with 40 pages on his birthday. It was only when her daughter read it and said you should do something with this, did she think of developing it and having it published.
Would the experience have been better with more money (they lived on £48 per week benefit payments)? Raynor thought not, saying the lack of money sharpened the wits and enhanced the memory; you simply found a spot, erected your tent and ate noodles. There was a lovely simplicity to life. They realised how material items really do not matter and that home is in the mind, it is not an actual place. When asked, she said she did not have a spiritual moment on the walk but there was something magical and extremely special. They started the walk angry and threatened but the path allowed them to let the bitterness go; she told how the magic of the path filtered into their existence.
It took them 100 nights to do the walk, sometimes walking 10 miles in a day and other times just a couple of miles as they allowed the walk to “seep into them”. Asked which were her favourite bits, she singled out the walk from Fowey to Looe – tough but beautiful - and from St Ives to Portcurno, which takes you past Land’s End.
Raynor recounted how they met the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage on the path and an agile wit in the audience pointed out that if she came to Bolton in a couple of months’ time she would meet him again as he is appearing as part of the enrichment talks at the school! For him, a book was also spawned out of the walk “Walking Away”. She told how they befriended him and how one night they even managed to eat a lasagne that had been cooked for him and how, in payment, Moth recited an old poem about a goat!
Asked about her husband’s health, she explained how things started to change on the walk – the doctor had said “don’t get too tired and be careful on the stairs” but, whilst Moth had good days and less good days, his health did gradually improve. She also told how Moth defied the doctor’s prediction and last year completed a degree in horticulture and landscape design at the Eden Project. Despite now living in Fowey – it took them several weeks to move in after sleeping in a tent in the garden - she told how they vowed to walk and spend as much time as possible outdoors as they can. They have been back and re-done bits of the path and, last August, had “an amazing experience” trekking and wild camping through the mountains of Southern Iceland to the south coast – it was the first time Raynor had had noodles since the Salt Path walk!
Considering whether, if she could, she would go back to her old life on the farm, Raynor felt not, saying that they might not have found a way of forestalling her husband’s illness and they may not have found these extra years. Also, she said, I would never have written the book and would not be here in Bolton talking to you tonight! The best way is always forwards.
When asked to reflect on the court case and the losing of her home, she said it boiled down to running out of money to pay for a good barrister and, after that, the outcome is predictable and it became like a Premier League football team playing a third division team.
Asked what question a local reading group should consider when they read the book, Raynor suggested: “What would I do if I lost everything?”
She finished by talking about young people spending time outdoors, saying if children create a bond with the natural world then they will work towards protecting it.
Her next book, The Wild Silence, is due for release in April.
The talk was part of a series of Arts and Sciences Enrichment Evenings hosted each year by the Girls’ Division. Click here to view the full programme of events for 2019/20. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates and reminder emails about forthcoming enrichment evenings.
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