I was struck by the popularity of Raynor Winn’s memoir, The Salt Path, which seemed to be everywhere upon its 2018 publication. I am always drawn to non-fiction titles, particularly those which deal so much with nature, as this tome promised. The Salt Path was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Wainwright Beer Book Prize, and became a Sunday Times bestseller. I had heard nothing but positives about it. Although it took me a couple of years to pick up a copy from my local library – which I still had to reserve, and was placed on a waiting list for several months before I got a copy – I sat down, expecting to love the book. And, for many reasons, I didn’t.
Just days before the couple faced a long court case, which resulted in the loss of the family home and farm in Wales, Raynor Winn’s husband, Moth, was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease, the effects of which he had been suffering from for years. The pair had been married for over thirty years, and everything was beginning to crumble around them. With very little left, ‘and little time, they impulsively decided to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall’ during the summer of 2013.
Winn writes about their decision to drop everything and set off on their journey in the very first chapter. She comments: ‘I was under the stairs when I decided to walk. In that moment, I hadn’t carefully considered walking 630 miles with a rucksack on my back, I hadn’t thought about how I could afford to do it, or that I’d be wild camping for nearly one hundred nights, or what I’d do afterwards. I hadn’t told my partner of thirty-two years that he was coming with me.’ At this particular moment in time, Raynor and Moth are sheltering in a cubby hole beneath the stairs, as the bailiffs have turned up at their now repossessed home, lost unfairly due to a shady business deal. Here, the couple ‘pressed together, whispering like scared mice, like naughty children, waiting to be found.’
The Salt Path begins with an illustrated map of the South West Coast Path, which stretches from Minehead to Poole, running alongside the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. The map which the couple carry with them, however, only covers a very small tract of land along the coast. Winn writes: ‘Our world had become this narrow passage, with half a mile of land to our left and a wet infinity to our right.’
On their journey, Raynor and Moth discovered ‘a new, liberating existence’, free from the confines of ownership and sensibility. They set off with the bare minimum, carrying everything which they needed in just two rucksacks. They do forget essentials such as suncream, however, and have to deal with excruciating sunburn as the summer beats down upon them.
In many ways, their journey is a perilous one. They set off with little preparation, and very little money, and even forget to pack Moth’s extra pain medication, which swiftly runs out. Moth’s illness, of course, overshadows the entire walk. Winn reflects: ‘Knowing the blackness was coming, waiting in the background, had put him on constant alert; every rustle in the grass was his nemesis creeping up. We knew it wouldn’t be sudden, that we were on a downward slope with a long way to run before we reached its end.’
I found The Salt Path to be rather a problematic read, in several ways. There was far too much focus upon the individuals which the couple met along the way. Tedious exchanges are written out verbatim, and these felt highly unnecessary, adding very little to the book. The prose is rather uneven, and the descriptions – oddly, given that this book should be so focused upon nature and landscape – are few and far between. I also felt very detached from the narrative, which is curiously distanced throughout. Given Moth’s precarious diagnosis, I expected that there would be a lot of emotion packed into the pages of The Salt Path, and in reality, I found very little of this.
The writing in The Salt Path is also highly repetitive. Winn constantly repeats her story, both to the reader and to those she meets, and writes about every single occasion. She also mentions, every few pages, the plain food which they eat; this very rarely varies from rice, pasties, chips, instant noodles, and ‘mini fudge bars’. She describes, over and over again, about the perception the general public have about the homeless, and of the myths perpetuated about the alcohol and drug dependencies within this marginalised group. This information was important to mention once, of course, but I found it highly unnecessary to do so multiple times, using much the same language.
Oddly, given the subject matter, The Salt Path felt far too cold to me, and wholly underwhelming. Whilst it is a brave act to write about such a difficult and tumultuous period as this, I did not feel as though it was very well executed, or edited. Suffice to say that I won’t be picking up the sequel to The Salt Path, which was recently published.