I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but every so often a book comes along that just captures my interest. I’d had this one on my reading list for some time, but what gave me the kick-start I needed was that one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme asks you to read a biography or memoir.
The Salt Path is the story of a couple in middle age who are at a period in their lives when everything has just turned to custard. They’ve lost their home of twenty years which as a farm and accommodation business was also their income. Around the same time Moth, the author’s husband, is diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness.
With few options and nowhere to live, other than the kind of emergency housing that could be utterly soul destroying, the pair buy a tent on E-bay, load up a couple of backpacks (rucksacks if you’re British) and set off on the Salt Path. This is a six hundred and thirty miles coastal walk around the south west corner of England from Minehead to Pool. You can’t be homeless if you’re hiking, can you?
But from the outset, Moth and Raynor are doing it tough. They have only a few hundred pounds to their name, and by the time they are walking the path, rely on a small dribble of cash turning up in their bank account from welfare. This barely pays for their food, often noodles and chocolate, or tuna and rice when they feel flush. They scrounge hot water at cafés for tea. You would think that the strain of the walk and lack of good nutrition might make Moth sicker, but it doesn’t. In fact he gets fitter and becomes almost pain-free.
In the pink half-light of dawn, the holes were everywhere. Fresh droppings piled up under the flysheet of the tent and as I undid the zip tens of rabbits hopped only feet away. I could have just reached out and taken one to put straight in the pot. Instead we made tea. Moth found a hairy wine gum in his pocket, so we cut that in half.
Raynor Winn chronicles the people they meet: the other walkers, often with much better equipment, but usually friendly; the people who turn up their noses at their unwashed shabbiness; and the other homeless people, not usually walking but eking out an existence in the towns. It’s quite an insightful look at the homeless problem in UK – how easy it is to drop out of the system, the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation, especially in rural communities where holiday lets drive up the rent astronomically.
The other thing Winn does really well is describe the wild environment of the coastal path. Not just the wildlife she encounters, the plants and the sea, but what it’s like to be amongst it all. Her writing is amazing. You’d think she’d been writing all her life but this would seem to be her first book. Winn’s story is heartfelt, immediate and real. Not surprisingly, The Salt Path was short-listed for the Costa Biography Award and a Wainwright Prize.
“It’s touched you, it’s written all over you: you’ve felt the hand of nature. It won’t ever leave you now; you’re salted…”
But more than that, The Salt Path is also the story of a marriage, of a couple’s devotion to each other and their determination to find a way forward. I found it both an emotional read and an inspiring one. Maybe it’s time to dust off the backpack and the hiking boots once more to remind myself why walking in the wilderness, for all the sore feet, the ache of the pack on your shoulders and the slogs uphill on uneven terrain can be so uplifting. Or maybe I’ll just read Winn’s sequel, The Wild Silence. The Salt Path gets a four and a half out of five from me.