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When you’re out there, day after day, night after night............


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[h=1]Nature was my safe place’: Raynor Winn on homelessness and setting off on a 630-mile walk[/h]

Without a home, and facing terminal illness, Winn and her husband decided to walk the South West Coast Path. She talks about the experience – and her Costa-nominated memoir, The Salt Path

Thu 6 Dec 2018 06.00 GMT Last modified on Thu 6 Dec 2018 13.12 GMT

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 bankcardwith 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, 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 big 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 high-vis 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.

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