By the time one gets to middle-aged, one has usually already experienced a life-shattering event of some kind. Something that up-ends one's view of the world and how it 'should' be. The shockwaves zap around for months and years after: be that the death of a loved one: sibling, partner, spouse, parent gone to soon, a child; a life-limiting illness, bankruptcy, divorce, an industrial or car accident causing a disability. These are the things that happen to 'other people' until they happen to you.
One never truly knows how one is going to deal with it, or not, until it happens. As I sit here today, my thoughts routinely go out to my friendship group: someone somewhere is, dealing with one of those things right now. I'm years away today from when it happened to me - and yet I feel its effects on a near daily basis. For that reason, I tend to avoid misery lit as what was once a fascinating tale, is now all too relatable. I simply cannot stomach it. And yet, this book I'd heartily recommend.
The Salt Path is one woman's story of such an event, not one but two. Raynor Winn was living the dream: her own farm, married to her soulmate of thirty-two years, having brought up two now university-aged children. Financially comfortable they'd had enough money to invest at a friend's recommendation. And then, following a three-year battle in court, they'd had their farm forcibly repossessed as the investment they'd made hadn't materialised but instead backfired: making them liable for its debts.
In the seven days that followed, she'd packed up their personal belongings, rehomed all their animals, buried her old favourite sheep, and learnt her husband and best friend, Moth, faced a nerve-degenerating illness which would take just two years to kill him - slowly and painfully. Ironically crossing farmland, and a field of sheep, I sobbed years of repressed pain in sympathy for her plight as I listened to The Salt Path on Audiobooks. Raynor Winn dictates her own book, she has an accented narrative rather than clipped elocution tones that many writers read aloud with. She's a warm, friendly voice, although nasal and it takes a bit of getting used to.
As they hid under the stairs the day the bailiffs arrived trying to put off the inevitable, she'd picked up an old copy of a tale of a man who'd walked the South West Coast Path, a six-hundred thirty mile trek across Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, considered Britain's hardest. As soon as the bailiffs successfully entered their abode, they were homeless. They had absolutely nowhere to go, friends could only put them up for a few days until they wore out their welcome. Their children in single rooms at university. Parents gone. Their local council, like all UK councils, unable to help.
Raynor Winn pulls no punches on the government statistics on homelessness: a pile of crock in the means used to measure the problem and the numbers that are supposedly 'out there'. She smashes the belief that all are addicts or alcoholics, and focuses on the real challenges: the problems of getting a rental when one's credit rating is diminished, getting benefits without an address, finding safe places to rest. Eye-opening stuff. And sobering stuff. Raynor Winn joins their number. Their solution? Camping. Or rather, wild camping as they matched across four counties as they really had nothing better to do.
With her husband's medical consultant suggesting that he takes things easy, goes very carefully on the stairs, and limits himself to short walks the idea of a trek was insane. Having to live off £48 a week they felt they had no other option. This story charts their endeavour: not just describing the challenging weather, the immense pain of endless uphills and downhills, and the claustrophobic-inducing tent; she also recalls their interactions with locals, fellow hikers and homeless in fascinating detail, learning to mask their 'truth' to avoid adverse or incredulous reactions.
Their 'luck' comes in strange ways: not least because Moth is apparently taken to be a doppleganger of Simon Armitage many times over.
He looks more like Martin Kemp to me.
Raynor Winn truly epitomises the notion of just taking one day at a time. Only once succumbing to the temptation of thieving food, when their £48 a week budget had been unexpectedly sliced to £11 - a failure to cancel their car insurance. They learnt to order a pot of hot water in cafes as often they came with no charge, and added their own smuggled in tea-bags. Judge if you must, but it's more of a case of what would you do?
And yet, the kindness of strangers rains down softening the more unpalatable moments - the disenchanted waitress who gives them a free meal, the millionnaire who invites them back to his house for lasagne, the follow hikers who pay for a two-night stay in a hotel when Raynor is stupefied by flu. There are no such things are coincidences some might say - whether one believes in them or not, the book asks its reader to question that notion. I'll not ruin the ending: it is for you to conclude. I'll say this - I had to listen to it twice as I'd drowned out so many details with yet another tear-fest. This time those belly-wobbling happy sobs had drowned out Raynor's words.
Usually I listen to audiobooks when I'm training for my fifty-kilometre hike. I enjoyed this book so much, I found myself yearning to listen to it when I was off-trail: in the bath, instead of the telly or music. In fact, one night I ended up driving nearly a 100kms purposelessly because I simply didn't want to stop listening. The person who demanded I read it hadn't finished it because they hadn't been wowed by it. I was. I loved it.