Raynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.
But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.
The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.
Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed. Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..
While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.
The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them: a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes. In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.
They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did, they would just put one foot in front of the other.
Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility – of people they met along their way.
Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill . “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner. Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :
A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.
Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger. So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.
What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.
All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor Winn has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.
But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.
The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.
The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year. Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path. Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.