SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BOOK AWARD
The true story of a couple who lost everything and embarked on a transformative journey walking the South West Coast Path in England
Just days after Raynor Winn learns that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, is terminally ill, their house and farm are taken away, along with their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.
Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea, and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter, and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable and life-affirming journey. Powerfully written and unflinchingly honest, The Salt Path is ultimately a portrayal of home–how it can be lost, rebuilt, and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.
I feel like I could just make a list of relevant adjectives and leave my review at that:
Not enough? Okay, here goes, with a bit more commentary.
I remember hearing something about The Salt Path when it was released, but didn’t really know what the book would focus on or whether it was really for me. Having just finished the audiobook, I can emphatically state that yes, this IS a book for me, and I suspect for many others too.
In The Salt Path, author Raynor Winn shares the painful story of how she and her husband Moth lost their family farm after a lengthy legal battle stemming from an investment with a friend. While not all that much detail is given about the case itself, it sounds as though this long-term friend was fairly shady and went after Ray and Moth to cover his expenses when the project tanked. Not able to afford counsel in the drawn-out court case, the couple had no choice but to represent themselves, and ultimately ended up losing everything on what seemed to be a technicality.
Given a week to vacate their home, Ray and Moth are thrown into despair, compounded by a visit that week to a doctor who confirms that Moth suffers from a degenerative neurological disease that will kill him after a painful decline at some point in the near future. If this were fiction, a reader might be tempted to protest the melodrama of having characters lose their homes and livelihood AND get a terminal diagnosis all in the same week, but this is real life, and it really happened this way.
The choices available to the couple are slim. They’re left with public benefts that amount to about $60 a week, and can go on the wait list for public housing — but because Moth’s illness isn’t in end stages just yet, they don’t have priority. They can stay with family and friends temporarily, but are afraid of becoming burdens and outstaying their welcomes. And then a strange whim occurs to them as they’re sorting through the remains of their old life — why not just walk? Now in their 50s, Moth and Ray haven’t done any serious outdoor adventuring in many, many years, but the idea of walking the South West Coast Path grabs hold of them as a way of being somewhere, with a purpose, rather than completely buckling under the weight of their bad luck and inauspicious prospects.
And so, they gather gear, put most of their belongings into storage with friends, and set out to walk the Coast Path. It’s not easy. Moth’s illness is painful, to the point that he can barely get out of bed some days. And yet, they’re determined to walk rather than sit still. As they move forward, they face ongoing shortages of food, scraping by on their meager weekly allowance (and eating lots of noodles), camping wild wherever they can find a spot to pitch the tent, and slowly, mile by mile, falling into a rhythm that has a beauty all its own.
Ray and Moth have a marriage that the rest of us can only envy. Together since their teens, the love between the couple is strong and unbreakable, shining through Ray’s writing on every single page. It’s heart-breaking to hear Ray’s thoughts on how much this man means to her, and what the future might hold for both of them as his disease progresses.
Meanwhile, each chapter brings fresh insights and wonders. Parts of the book read like an ode to the natural beauty of the landscapes and seascapes they see on their journey. It really sounds spectacular. There’s also sorrow and harsh realities — the author includes statistics and background information on homelessness in the UK, and shows how the official numbers are only a small representation of the true homeless population.
Homeless themselves, Ray and Moth again and again face the general dislike and fear that most people seem to feel toward the homeless. They meet many people along the path — fellow hikers, local residents, random strangers. When seen as older backpackers with presumably enough wealth to take weeks away from the world to walk the path, they’re applauded and warmly greeted. But when Moth explains to previously friendly people that they’re homeless, the others shrink away from them and can’t seem to distance themselves fast enough.
The writing is simply beautiful. Ray shares her pain and her sorrows, but also reveals the growing sense of belonging that she finds through the path:
The country towered above me, a blank empty space containing nothing for us. Only one thing was real, more real to me now than the past that we’d lost or the future we didn’t have: if I put one foot in front of the other, the path would move me forward and a strip of dirt, often no more than a foot wide, had become home. It wasn’t just the chill in the air, the lowering of the sun’s horizon, the heaviness of the dew or the lack of urgency in the birds’ calls, but something in me was changing season too. I was no longer striving, fighting to change the unchangeable, not clenching in anxiety at the life we’d been unable to hold on to, or angry at an authoritarian system too bureaucratic to see the truth. A new season had crept into me, a softer season of acceptance. Burned in by the sun, driven in by the storm. I could feel the sky, the earth, the water and revel in being part of the elements without a chasm of pain opening at the thought of the loss of our place within it all. I was a part of the whole. I didn’t need to own a patch of land to make that so. I could stand in the wind and I was the wind, the rain, the sea; it was all me, and I was nothing within it. The core of me wasn’t lost. Translucent, elusive, but there and grown stronger with every headland.
A note on the audiobook: Narrator Anne Reid is lovely, making the story feel alive and vibrant, capturing the emotion of Ray’s first-person narration in a way that makes it feel like a friend telling you a story. Really a treat to listen to.
There’s so much to love about The Salt Path. I found Ray and Moth’s journey and their devotion to one another so inspirational. And, this book really made me want to get out and walk a long path some day!
Don’t miss this book. It’s a beautiful work, and is worth taking the time to savor.
Title: The Salt Path
Author: Raynor Winn
Narrated by: Anne Reid
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: March 22, 2018
Length (print): 288 pages
Length (audiobook): 11 hours, 2 minutes