Author Q&A: Raynor Winn
The Salt Path (Michael Joseph, £9.99)
The Salt Path (Michael Joseph, £9.99)
In one terrible week Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lost their home just as her husband’s diagnosis with a terminal disease also robbed them of a future together. Not knowing what else to do, Winn and Moth started to walk. They followed the South West Coast Path, a 630-mile trail starting in Somerset and ending in Dorset, and taking in Devon and Cornwall along the way. The Salt Path tells the true story of the people they met along the way, the landscape they traversed and the transformative effect the walk had on both their lives.
Do you ever consider what life would have been like if you hadn’t lost the farm and started on this walk?
That’s a hard question. Obviously in many ways it would have been easier as we’d still had our home and a familiar way of life, but Moth’s illness would still be a fact. If we hadn’t walked 630 miles we wouldn’t have discovered how walking could improve his health, or the many other life-changing things we learnt about ourselves along the way. Hard as it was to lose the farm, given the choice I wouldn’t change what happened.
What does home mean to you now and how has that perception changed as a result of what happened?
I started the walk believing that home was the walls that surround us. But surprisingly as time passed I found that view changed. Home is what makes us feel safe and secure and for me that would always be my family, whether we were together under the same roof or not. Standing on the wild cliffs of Cornwall with nothing but a Mars bar and £2.50 to our name, I still had everything I needed. Moth was by my side and home had become what it remains – just a state of mind.
What particular challenges do rural homeless people face?
Many of our rural areas are places of high value housing and holiday homes. Unfortunately they’re also areas where many jobs are seasonal and pay only minimum wages. As we walked we met many people who worked in rural communities but were unable to afford rented accommodation, so lived in sheds or woods, under bridges and in cars. Distance and the cost of public transport leave many without access to the facilities and services available in larger towns and cities. Coupling that with the policy of some local authorities to support their tourism industries by keeping the streets clear of rough sleepers, and rural homelessness is a problem that remains mainly hidden.
What challenges were there to turning actual events into a narrative?
We’d recorded our walk as a series of scrappy notes written in the margins of the guidebook. Two years after the end of our walk I started transferring them to a word document, mainly because as Moth’s illness progressed and his memory failed I wanted to have a record of the walk that I could show him and say look at this, look at what we did, don’t give up. But as I followed the path again through the guidebook I began to realise what an important emotional journey it had been for Moth and myself, so much more than just a walk. Then I had to keep writing and found that I wasn’t just writing notes, I was actually telling the story in narrative form. In doing so the characters we’d met and the wild environment came to life and I felt as if I was walking the path all over again. The biggest challenge then was choosing what to leave out.
Moth’s condition seemed to improve while you were walking, and deteriorate when you stopped. Was it a difficult decision to stop when you were finally able to?
I’m not a scientist or a doctor and I’d hate to give anyone false hope, I can only talk about what happened to Moth. There was no doubt that when he started the walk he was struggling to put his coat on without help, but after about 200 miles of backpacking and living in that wild, natural environment his health improved in ways we had been told were impossible. When we stopped walking he deteriorated very quickly, but on returning to the walk he improved again. There has been some scientific research surrounding his type of illness and endurance training, but it’s still early days and there’s no conclusive evidence. But a huge body of research has proved that simply spending time in a natural environment has the power to heal the human body in incredible ways that we’re only just beginning to understand. When we finally stopped, we knew that we should expect him to decline, as we’d already experienced that. And he did, so we continue to walk as much as we can and have a few long distance walks planned for this year.
Have we lost our connection to nature and if so, how do we get it back?
I think, for most people, the natural world is something to observe, maybe to go out at the weekend or for the occasional holiday in the countryside. So we’ve lost that strong interactive connection with nature that humans like all other animals have always had. In losing that we seem to be forgetting how important our natural world is to us. Growing up in the countryside, nature was a part of everyday life and it’s still my safe place, the place I run to when all else fails. Science is starting to show that the human body interacts with the chemicals emitted by plants and trees on a molecular level. Maybe if we can begin to understand that connection then we might start to accept that nature doesn’t just make a nice TV show, it’s what we actually need to survive, it’s the most important thing we have.
You eat a lot of noodles in the book. Have you ever eaten them since?
No, not one single noodle and it could be a very long time before I do!