On the road

A home­less cou­ple’s 630-mile walk

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On a Thurs­day af­ter­noon in Au­gust 2013, Raynor Winn and her hus­band, Moth, set off from Mine­head in Som­er­set to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path. She was 50, he was 53. They had a tent bought on eBay, a cou­ple of cheap, thin sleep­ing bags, £115 in cash and a bankcard with which to draw out the £48 a week they were due in tax cred­its. They were broke and bro­ken.

Through a com­bi­na­tion of bad de­ci­sions and bad luck – a friend who turned out not to be a friend, and a toxic in­vest­ment – they had lost the farm­house that was their home and their source of in­come – rent­ing to hol­i­day­mak­ers . It was also the place where their chil­dren had grown up and to which they re­turned dur­ing univer­sity hol­i­days.

When the bailiffs came bang­ing on the door, it seemed things could not get worse. But the bomb­shells didn’t stop. Around the same time, Moth was di­ag­nosed with a rare de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease, CBD. The spe­cial­ist told him that death usu­ally comes six to eight years af­ter the on­set – and that he had prob­a­bly had it for about six years. “You can’t be ill, I still love you,” Raynor told the man with whom she had been since sixth-form col­lege.

The idea of walk­ing the coast path came to Raynor when she spot­ted a book she had read in her 20s in one of their pack­ing cases. Five Hun­dred Mile Walkies was writ­ten by a man who had done the South West Coast Path with his dog. The walk gave Moth and Raynor some sense of pur­pose, and, she says: “We re­ally didn’t have any­thing bet­ter to do.”

Their jour­ney – which they split over two sum­mers, win­ter­ing in a friend’s shed – ended a year later, in Pol­ruan, Corn­wall, with an of­fer from a kind stranger of ac­com­mo­da­tion – a flat at the back of an old chapel. That is where I have come to­day, over on the lit­tle ferry from Fowey, bear­ing well-wrapped fish and chips.

Moth is not here – he has gone for a walk. He is not as well as he was when they fin­ished the big trek in sum­mer 2014 (walk­ing all day, with a big pack, kept his phys­i­cal and men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion at arm’s length), but he is still here, and still walk­ing. He can have his fish and chips later, heated up, says Raynor. There is a mi­crowave, plus a cooker, fridge, wash­ing ma­chine, pic­tures on the walls … and a ket­tle. She makes tea. On the coast path, they scrounged hot water and shared teabags. On a few in­dul­gent oc­ca­sions, they shared a bag of chips.

Raynor wrote an ar­ti­cle about their walk for the Big Is­sue, and then wrote a book for her­self, but mainly for Moth. It was a gift to him: a big fat love let­ter, and maybe a re­minder for when his mem­ory be­gan to fade. Their daugh­ter read it and said her mum should try to do some­thing with it. They be­gan by Googling lit­er­ary agents and ended by meet­ing Pen­guin. (When Raynor was lit­tle, grow­ing up on a Stafford­shire farm, it had been her dream to be a writer and have pen­guins on the spines of her books.) Now, The Salt Path – Raynor’s beau­ti­ful, thought­ful, lyri­cal story of home­less­ness, hu­man strength and en­durance, has been short­listed for the Costa book award.

Home­less­ness isn’t some­thing Raynor had thought much about be­fore it hap­pened to her. If she saw some­one in a door­way, she might have given them 50p, but never dreamed she would end up like that. “I thought I had more con­trol,” she says, be­tween mouth­fuls of fish and chips.

Peo­ple in ur­ban door­ways, prob­a­bly with ad­dic­tions and/ or men­tal health prob­lems is the gen­eral per­cep­tion of home­less­ness. But it is not the whole pic­ture, she says. “Peo­ple in ru­ral en­vi­ron­ments keep them­selves hid­den,” she ex­plains. They could be in work, “but be­cause their jobs are tem­po­rary, or sea­sonal, or very low waged, or zero hours – a vast ar­ray of rea­sons – they aren’t ac­cept­able to land­lords. And where do you go?”

You sofa-surf, or you live in the woods, or in some­one’s horse­box. Or, in the case of Raynor and Moth, ev­ery night you wild-camp in a dif­fer­ent place on the South West Coast Path.

With pre­con­cep­tions come prej­u­dice, that home­less peo­ple are to be a bit afraid of and dis­ap­proved of. Raynor and Moth ex­pe­ri­enced that. “When you’re pass­ing peo­ple on the path, in­evitably you ex­change a few words: where have you come from; are you go­ing far? When we said we were go­ing a long way, peo­ple would say: how come you’ve got so much time to walk so far? Ini­tially, we’d say it’s be­cause we were home­less, we had nowhere to go. And they would phys­i­cally re­coil, draw the dog in on a re­tractable lead, gather the chil­dren.”

Early on in their jour­ney, Raynor dropped some of the few coins they had left out­side a shop. She was on the ground try­ing to get them out of a drain when a woman with a dog started “pok­ing me with her foot, say­ing: ‘Get up, you drunken tramp, we don’t want peo­ple like you here.’ I was think­ing: Who’s she talk­ing to? Then I re­alised she was talk­ing to me. And I think that was the point where my sense of self fell apart, the sense of who I was. From that point, it’s very easy to give up, to look for ways to get away from that feel­ing.”

She thinks that loss of sense of self “is the fun­da­men­tal, big­gest is­sue about be­com­ing home­less. That sense of who you are and how you iden­tify your­self, once you’ve lost that, it’s a long way to climb back, to re­build.”

How did she man­age not to lose that com­pletely? “I think be­cause we were walk­ing. And be­cause we were to­gether.” They de­vel­oped strate­gies; when peo­ple asked how they had time to walk so far, they would say they had sold their house and were just go­ing where the wind blows, hav­ing a midlife mo­ment. “And peo­ple would be like: ‘Oh, wow, fan­tas­tic, in­spi­ra­tional!’ That huge dif­fer­ence in at­ti­tude be­tween you sold your house and you lost your house. It’s so so dif­fer­ent.”

As well as chang­ing how she thought of home­less­ness, Raynor be­gan to see home dif­fer­ently on the path. She had thought of home as the walls around her, and when she lost that, it felt as though she had lost ev­ery­thing. “So much of be­ing a par­ent is wrapped up within the fam­ily home. In so many dif­fer­ent ways, I had to work out how to go for­wards. But, as we were walk­ing, I started to re­alise that home is a state of mind, it’s what makes you feel safe – and you don’t need walls for that. You can de­fine home in a dif­fer­ent way, and for me that would al­ways be my fam­ily, whether they were 100 miles away or there with a ruck­sack next to me.

Na­ture plays a big part in Raynor’s book and her sense of be­long­ing and safety. Grow­ing up on a farm, she says, meant “be­ing in na­ture was like my safe place, some­thing I un­der­stood, and at that point I didn’t un­der­stand much at all”. There was a bib­li­cal ex­pe­ri­ence with la­dy­birds, mean­ing­ful meet­ings with swal­lows, kestrels and a pere­grine fal­con,

‘If we said we were home­less with nowhere to go, peo­ple would phys­i­cally re­coil’

a bad­ger, a bizarre en­counter with a tor­toise on a lead.

When wild-camp­ing, you are not just look­ing at na­ture, you are im­mersed in it, she says. “When you’re out there, day af­ter day, night af­ter night, you start to feel as if the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment has got a co­he­sive el­e­ment of its own,” she says. “The wind af­fects the water, and the clouds … it’s like one big whole, and af­ter be­ing in it for a while I knew I was part of that big cir­cu­lar move­ment of mol­e­cules.”

We have lost that con­nec­tion, she says. “If we re­ally saw that – as a peo­ple rather than in­di­vid­u­als – our en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems would start to be re­solved be­cause we would know that it wasn’t a sep­a­rate thing we were caus­ing a prob­lem with, it’s all one thing of which we are a part.” Then she adds: “That’s a bit preachy, isn’t it?” Well, we are in an old chapel.

Walk­ing it­self is im­por­tant, she thinks, be­cause it is what we were built for and meant to do. “Af­ter a while that be­came the rea­son to go on, just to put one foot in front of the other.” It took them for­ward in a way that stay­ing out – camp­ing in one place, a wood or a field – could never have done. And, mirac­u­lously, al­though it left them fa­tigued and blis­tered (over the 100 or so days they were walk­ing, they climbed the equiv­a­lent of Mount Ever­est four times), it seemed to be good for Moth.

Where they walked was im­por­tant too, “a strip of wilder­ness, with or­di­nary life over to one side, and that end­less hori­zon to the sea over to the other side, it’s like a world of its own”. And not un­like their predica­ment – walk­ing a thin line be­tween life and death.

All of which sounds very gloomy. The book isn’t though, nor its writer. It is funny, some­times up­lift­ing. Raynor talks about how they got to Land’s End in ter­ri­ble weather, hor­i­zon­tal rain, and had to de­cide whether to carry on. “There was just me and Moth on the edge of the At­lantic, with a Mars bar and a few pounds in our pocket, and two wet sheets of ny­lon be­tween us and Canada. It could have been the most aw­ful de­press­ing mo­ment in our lives, but it was a mo­ment when we re­alised we were com­pletely free in a way we’d never al­lowed our­selves to be be­fore. In that mo­ment, we knew that we could start to rein­vent our lives in our way, how we wanted.”

When the op­por­tu­nity of a roof even­tu­ally arose, in Pol­ruan, they took it, grate­fully. It wasn’t al­ways an easy tran­si­tion; for a cou­ple of weeks, they had the tent up in the bed­room and slept in it. Raynor missed the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, wak­ing up to the birds and the sea, and the free­dom to keep go­ing. “There was some­thing very strength­en­ing about be­ing in that en­vi­ron­ment. Com­ing back into or­di­nary life, we had to rein­vent our­selves again.”

It is nice to have a wash­ing ma­chine though, and a loo that flushes and that isn’t a gorse bush. And the path isn’t far, it runs along the lane in front of the chapel.

One day last year, Raynor was walk­ing on it again when she held open a gate for a man with a back­pack. They ex­changed a few words. The usual: where had he come from, was he go­ing far? He had set out two weeks ago from Lizard Point, the south­ern­most point of mainland Bri­tain.

The man didn’t look like the av­er­age back­packer. He was cov­ered in pierc­ings and wore a yel­low hivis work­man’s jacket, his ruck­sack was an old fash­ioned one with the frame on the out­side. He told her he had been sleep­ing on the streets of Ex­eter when he had read an ar­ti­cle in the Big Is­sue mag­a­zine by a woman who had walked the South West Coast Path when she, too, was home­less. He had bor­rowed and begged a few things, and here he was.

Raynor asked if he would like to come back to hers for a cup of tea, or maybe some­thing to eat? No thanks, he said, he had to find some­where to pitch his tent, and to carry on, be­cause the walk had changed things; he wasn’t go­ing back to his old life.

Raynor didn’t tell him that the home­less woman in the Big Is­sue ar­ti­cle was her.

Moth re­turns from his walk. Moth and Monty, a big man with a lit­tle dog. I am sur­prised they have a dog, be­cause, in the book, in­ter­ac­tions with dogs – and with their own­ers – are not al­way good. But Monty was the runt of the lit­ter that nobody wanted, so they took him.

Moth’s di­ag­no­sis hasn’t changed: he is still ter­mi­nally ill, but he con­tin­ues to defy his prog­no­sis.

“Strad­dling the void be­tween life and death,” is how Raynor puts it. But somehow she finds a pos­i­tive. “When you live with that sort of di­ag­no­sis, that’s how it feels, but I think in do­ing so you ap­pre­ci­ate life so much more,” she says. She is not talk­ing about bucket lists or round-the-world trips, but an ex­tra vi­brancy in the or­di­nary when time is run­ning out. “When the bis­cuit tin is empty, they taste so much bet­ter than they did when it was full.”

In the book, Moth is mis­taken for Si­mon Ar­mitage, the poet, by peo­ple who clearly have no idea what Ar­mitage looks like. He looks much bet­ter than I was ex­pect­ing, a bit pale but with a big smile, a soft voice and a warm pres­ence. He does feel slug­gish though, and stiff. He says of his daily rou­tine of walk­ing and phys­io­ther­apy: “I feel like I’m con­stantly train­ing for an Olympic event I’ll never com­pete in.”

He can’t feel his feet a lot of the time. He is notic­ing that his mem­ory slip­ping. “Don’t give me a ques­tion, or a choice of things to do,” he says. “I’m start­ing to feel the chal­lenge now that I’ve been pre­pared for.”

The mem­ory of the big walk is still alive. The book helps to take him back there. And he is in­cred­i­bly proud of Raynor’s Costa nom­i­na­tion.

He tries not to think about his own mor­tal­ity too much. “When the first dead­line was given to me, yes, I thought about it al­most con­stantly,” he says. “I found it hard to block out that noise: it’s like some­one blow­ing a trum­pet in my ears the whole time, con­stantly un­for­get­table.”

Now, like Raynor, he tries to live in the mo­ment, but, he says: “You can’t get through a day with­out think­ing about it.”

He is mea­sured and thought­ful, but some­times an idea runs away from him. “But I think, erm … I think, erm … I think …”

“I think you’re ready for a cup of tea now,” says Raynor, and she goes to put the ket­tle on.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is pub­lished by Michael Joseph, price £14.99. To or­der a copy for £13.19, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p on or­ders of more than £10, on­line only. Phone or­ders min p&p of £1.99.

‘It is nice hav­ing a wash­ing ma­chine and a loo that flushes and isn’t a gorse bush’

Raynor in the flat in Corn­wall where she and Moth now live

Moth has de­fied his prog­no­sis. He is still here and still goes out walk­ing

Raynor dur­ing her time walk­ing the South West Coast Path

Raynor and Moth in Pol­ruan with their dog Monty

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