Slowly, the wildness of nature and the landscape became the reason to go on. It released our thoughts, we could be in the moment. We could let go of our despair and anxiety.
I have just been given three very useful tips: “One, never run out of water. Two, take sunscreen. And three, stand still, suck it in – it’s the most life affirming thing you’ll ever do.”
As author and walker Raynor Winn offers her advice to me about long-distance walking, I am reminded of Mary Schmich’s 1997 life-affirming and life-assuring essay ‘Wear Sunscreen’ - made famous by Baz Luhrmann’s spoken word song.
And having read her book, The Salt Path, I’m adding a few extra tips myself. Four, take alternatives to noodles and fudge bars - they are not fun food for very long. Five, don’t walk through coastal towns when hungry and near-penniless - self-will is no match for pasties and cream teas.
Solace in walking
Raynor and I both have a connection to the South West Coast Path – a 630-mile trail that runs from Minehead in north Somerset to Poole in Dorset, traversing both coasts of Devon and Cornwall in-between.
I have lived and worked in places along the path and will be walking stretches of it in June of this year. But Raynor’s connection is altogether more visceral and affecting. In the space of one week, she and her husband Moth lost their home in the Welsh countryside, and with it their holiday rental business. On top of that, a doctor told Moth he had a rare neurodegenerative disease and would die.
And so - running out of options after a period of sofa surfing - they started walking the path. “Walking initially was just a reason to get up every day, to put one foot in front of the other,” she told The Ecologist. “But slowly, the wildness of nature and the landscape became the reason to go on. It released our thoughts, we could be in the moment. We could let go of our despair and anxiety.”
Moth’s illness made days on the path unbearable at first. His consultant had advised gentle strolls and avoiding stairs. The Coast Path takes in ascension equivalent to climbing Mount Everest almost four times. But with no home to go to, and no long-term options with friends and relatives, they kept walking.
“As we continued though, Moth improved. Getting out of the tent in the morning became easier. He had less stiffness and pain.”
There is a moment in the book where Raynor and Moth run away from an incoming tide. Moth runs, carrying the tent above his head. “In that moment, I realised how far he’d come. Doctors had told us that he eventually wouldn’t be able to move.”
Since the walk, Raynor has been researching the connection between being in nature, endurance activity, and the impact on the body and on Moth’s condition.
“It seems to positively impact the build-up of a faulty protein in the brain. There are so many benefits to being in nature. Whatever the physiological reasons - we have experienced it.”
Perceptions and belonging
There is comfort in familiarity, in routines and habits that bring stability. “We lost everything that represented home,” explains Raynor. “I thought home was contained within our four walls. But the roots of home vanished overnight.
"Then, walking, we gradually met people who made us think about what home really was.”
Communities living in horse boxes, in tents, in barns, in the woods: these are the hidden homeless, “but their lives were here; the wood was their home. They didn’t want to be alone in the city, they wanted to be in community, in nature.”
Our perceptions are powerful lenses through which we see the world. When asked about what brought them to the path, Raynor and Moth had two stories: first, that they had sold their house and were going on an adventure. And second, the truth: that they were homeless and didn’t know what they were going to do next.
The first story provoked inspiration, the second repulsion. “Our perception of ourselves was unchanged, but other’s perceptions were so varied. We hadn’t expected that.”
In one story, as Raynor stands counting their last few coins outside a shop, she’s knocked by an over-enthusiastic dog. Coins flying and rolling into a drain, she falls to the ground. The middle aged, middle class owner of the dog comes around the corner and says: ‘What are you, drunk I expect?’, proceeding to castigate Raynor for being homeless.
“People’s perceptions changed us as much as living wild did. I now find it hard to listen to people’s views when they’re based solely on perceptions.”
Realities of rural homelessness
The hidden realities of rural homelessness can jar against the rural idyll. Tourist spots desperate for seasonal income would rather rough sleepers were out of sight – holidays should be free from problems like poverty and homelessness.
“But if the beautiful British countryside is to have any integrity, we must open our eyes to the desperate need of people who are not on our doorsteps, but in our hedgerows,” Raynor said in the original Big Issue article that led to her book deal.
One report puts Cornwall as having the third highest rate of homelessness in the country. But homeless haunts can be hard to spot in the countryside, which may explain why rural homelessness is often overlooked compared to rough sleepers and people asking for money in cities.
The walls we build and the things we own can enclose us, make us protective. “We noticed that generally, the people that could help us didn’t help, and those that couldn’t help us, who had nothing, did help us.”
Like Colin in Plymouth who - homeless himself - still shared his one can of birthday beer with them.
They reached the Lizard – the most south westerly point of the country – in September. “We saw the swallows massing, waiting for their moment to leave. In that moment, I knew I belonged there, on the path,” she tells me.
“Home was watching Moth’s footprints ahead of me.
“Going into nature has always been my safe space. So losing our house, I thought I’d also lost my connection to the land. But a storm on the north Cornwall coast reinvigorated my sense of being a part of nature. This is how I re-found myself.”
The Salt Path is part memoir, part nature writing - “though I didn’t need to write about nature, as the story was nature,” she says. It is a valuable lesson in how we cannot spend our lives planning the future.
“We can only live now. We were experiencing the moment – not many of us do that, but nature helps you to. It’s a gift. The path was a gift to us.”
Re-formed by the elements
Raynor and Moth now live in Cornwall with the coast path on their doorstep, after a chance encounter at the end of their walk with someone who offered them a space to live.
They have a dog called Monty who they walk with, every day, on the path. Moth is studying for a degree at Plymouth University, defying his consultant’s predictions.
The Salt Path pommelled me like Atlantic winds. It carried me along on a rain-soaked, sun-burnt, despair-infused, hope-driven walk. The writing is at times raw, poetic, funny, shocking. It is consistently honest, vulnerable, clear.
I finished the book reminded of the importance of really hearing people’s stories, of the healing power of the natural world, and of our individual and collective now.
“Our journey had drained us of every emotion, sapped our strength and our will. But then, like the windblown trees along our route, we had been re-formed by the elements into a new shape that could ride out whatever storms came over the bright new sea.”
About this author:
Elizabeth Wainwright is a contributing editor of The Ecologist and a former editor at the Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. She co-leads the community development charity, Arukah Network, and is based in Devon. Twitter: @LizWainwright.
The Salt Path is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House.