Postal Reading group
June 2021
Notes on the book The Salt path by Raynor Winn

When Moth and Raynor Winn explain their predicament to the surfers, they are asked “Wow. That’s a story, right?” (p. 130) Sadly, for them at least, it wasn’t a story. Although it has left us with this remarkable account of walking the South West Coast Path, I can’t imagine many readers thinking that this book would be adequate compensation for Moth and Raynor losing their “house, business, everything they’ve ever worked for”.

The truth, of course, that Moth and Raynor lost out by doing all the right things and helping a long standing friend is somehow much worse. We like to kid ourselves that hard work is rewarded, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Conversely, the ‘friend’ who was involved in rather dubious financial practices, and who’s company eventually failed, was laughing all the way to the bank. Similarly, the judge and lawyers would be handsomely rewarded regardless of the fact that they had just rendered a family homeless.

Perhaps Moth and Raynor had very little option but to just walk and see where the path took them. However, its striking how walking the entire 630 miles of path would be seen as a wonderful thing as long as people thought that they’d sold up to do the walk, but didn’t want to know when they found out they were actually homeless. Similarly, no doubt, had they have completed the walk when they were younger, they would have been called irresponsible. Many of us would probably love to do a similar thing, but never get round to it, telling ourselves that we are being responsible by saving to buy a first home or for retirement. If this is the way that society and the legal system rewards ‘being responsible’, then what’s to stop us being irresponsible?

Like others in this group, I found The Salt path to be quite an emotional read. Anger at the judge of course, and to a lesser extent at the doctor who could break the news that Moth was terminally ill in quite such an indifferent way. Similarly we share in the Winn’s despair at their situation, but also their wonder at some of the people they meet along the way, and the natural world. Finally there is the joy and delight when they have noodles, a student loan and a roof!

When I first saw this book, I thought of the book by Bill Bryson, A Walk in the woods, which was circulated in this group last year. Although the two are obviously so different as to make comparisons meaningless, the connection is that both are about walking long distance paths. It was also interesting to compare and contrast the Winn’s approach to that of Bill Bryson and his friend. Despite Moth’s illness, the Winns were arguably fitter, but Bill Bryson was considerably better equipped and didn’t have any shortage of either food or money. For what its worth, I feel that the Winns were arguably more successful, and their approach must be more in keeping with the spirit of walking as an act of freedom. Yes, they did meet those who felt they were irresponsible for not having the right kit, or selfish for not raising money for charity, but it is worrying if even walking becomes regulated.

One thing which the Winn’s story does show is just how little you really need: both for walking and simply to survive. Of course, that is not to say that such an approach would be recommended, and it should be admitted that having the right equipment arguably makes anything, walking included, more enjoyable. The Winns did quite quickly regret the bargain price sleeping bags, and anyone seeking to complete the walk for their own pleasure might make other changes too. Their walk also shows how much we have to rely on others for food and shelter: a precarious position which does not trouble other members of the animal kingdom quite as much.

The very fact that this walk had been undertaken as a result of being rendered homeless demonstrates that, all to often, that support is not forthcoming, or comes with too many conditions. A recurring theme in this book is the plight of the homeless. It is a sad indictment, in a wealthy country, that some will even call a shed balanced on the edge of a cliff home. Worse still that the local council wanted to take even that away. Ultimately we learn that society will happily make us homeless, and then treat us like criminals when it succeeds.

In conclusion this was a surprisingly enjoyable book which gives an insightful account of the South Wast Coast Path, replete with anecdotes such as the “You’ll walk with a tortoise” prophecy. Beyond that, the book does a good job of highlighting the plight of the homeless, and the need to take the problem more seriously than we currently do. For that reason alone, this book deserves to be widely read. Although the Winns made the best of their situation, that option isn’t always open to everyone. Was it fate? Like them “I’ll stick with coincidence” (p. 269), and let us hope that their predicament is not repeated too often.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler