A photograph of Raynor Winn and her husband Moth on top of a hill
A photograph of Raynor Winn and her husband Moth on top of a hill

Ten minutes after sunrise and the glow has reached the other side of the valley. Mist rises from the creek, frost bright in the orchard. Cider has been made here, near the River Fowey on Cornwall’s southern side, for eight centuries, and now Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are the custodians of these ancient apple trees. This is the view she writes to, first thing in the morning before he wakes up, with a cup of tea to hand.  

Winn is an author now, but that wasn’t always the case. She hadn’t written a word until autumn 2016, when she sat down to capture the 630-mile coastal path walk she and Moth undertook a couple of years earlier. Both in their fifties, the endeavour wasn’t a late-onset gap year so much as a last resort: a bad investment and prolonged legal battle had left them homeless. They could sign up for a council house, or take a second-hand tent around the furthest reaches of the UK. They opted for the latter.

The couple’s situation was worsened by Moth’s brutal diagnosis of corticobasal degeneration, or CBD: an incurable degenerative and chronic disease. Still, they walked – and amazing things happened. Moth’s condition improved, drug-free. His memory, though, was fading. So Winn began another marathon, writing a story that became The Salt Path. As she explained in her second book, The Wild Silence: “I could write myself on to the Coast Path and in doing so put Moth right there next to me, so when he read it he wouldn’t just hear the wind, he’d feel it.”

 

A black-and-white photograph of Raynor and Moth's hands holding the Paddy Dillon guidebook
A black-and-white photograph of Raynor and Moth's hands holding the Paddy Dillon guidebook

There was only ever meant to be one copy of The Salt Path: printed on fading ink, tied up with string. A birthday gift for Moth. Five years later and it and The Wild Silence, have sold nearly a million copies at home and abroad, with The Salt Path spending nearly two years in The Sunday Times bestsellers list.

I’m visiting Winn to talk to her about it. She still lives in Cornwall, a destination at the end of a couple of trains and a drive flanked by verges of primrose and wild garlic. Winn and Moth are outside their home as the car pulls up, arms and smiles wide, offering the kind of welcome borne of learning what it is to be lost. We chat in the sunshine, Monty, their runt-of-the-litter terrier, excited by our ankles.

Across from the house – handsome against the cresting hill – sits the cider barns. We are here, all of us, because of what The Salt Path brought Winn. Hundreds of readers’ letters and conversations at events and – unbelievably – the offer of a home. “A complete stranger gets in touch and says, ‘I've just read your book, and it felt like a 300-page CV. Do you want to come live on my farm?’” she recalls.

The farm was, however, a borderline ruin. The owner worked in London and had struggled to restore it as he had intended. In The Wild Silence, Winn describes the house as “oozing like a sponge, sucking up water when it was raining and squeezing it back out when it stopped”. She deals with a “town of mice” in the attic in a feat of athletics and courage that wouldn’t go amiss in a horror film. The land was worse: overworked and lifeless, Winn writes of a silent dusk, devoid of birdsong. “When we came, it was so grim,” she says. Winn speaks softly and with thought. Both she and Moth – teenage sweethearts – carry the Staffordshire accents of their upbringing. “There’s so much agricultural waste,” she continues. "The hedgerows were just dead, there was hardly any wildlife.”

Even broke and without a permanent residence, the decision to take the farm wasn’t an easy one to make. The fall-out from losing their previous home had left deep scars. “We really just didn’t trust people,” she tells me. “It was quite a barrier to get over. But then we came here, and it was so remarkable. We kept coming back. One evening, a deer walked in front of the house and we thought, ‘We’ve just got to do it.’”

 

A photograph of an old apple tree, on a frosty morning, against a valley
A photograph of an old apple tree, on a frosty morning, against a valley

That was in late 2019. Barely 18 months later and the Georgian farmhouse is bright and beautiful, fires roaring away and late afternoon sunshine spilling in. The air is ripe with spring birdsong; the first swallows of the year appeared two weeks ago. Pheasants dart across the orchard. The trees are fruiting properly for the first time in years. The cider barns, air thick with apple-steeped wood, are in operation. Winn shows me around and my arms prickle with goosebumps. “There's a real sense of age in here,” she says. “You can really feel that generations, hundreds of years and people have walked in here.” Plans are afoot: for a new press, a place for volunteers to learn and stay on the farm. Winn and Moth have done it all, largely by themselves.

InThe Wild Silence, Winn explores her challenging childhood on a farm, her retreat to the coast path, the complex tug of grief from the death of her mother. “It’s quite a difficult emotion to put across, a connection to nature,” she tells me, sat on a picnic bench in the orchard, tucking her pale hair around neck and away from the wind. “I didn’t have an academic background to bring to it, so I was trying to find a more emotive way to explain it.”

Winn jokes that she wrote much of The Wild Silence on the M5, hurtling between the dozens of events she found herself speaking at in the midst of The Salt Path’s ballooning success. “I thought, I've got so much more to say than just a sequel,” she says. But the books dovetail closely; you could read them in either order. Together, they tell a story of human strength in adversity being supported, rather than challenged, by the extremities of the outdoors.

A head-and-shoulders portrait of Raynor Winn

'I thought, I've got so much more to say than just a sequel': Raynor Winn. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

In originally writing The Salt Path just for Moth, Winn gave the book an irresistible intimacy. To read it is to feel the couple’s hunger, their weary bones, the relentless patter of daily needs that become acute when you’ve lost all else. “My memory is starting to go now so I do read The Salt Path, over and over,” Moth tells me. “It’s like looking at a photograph that you took years ago.” We’re walking up the hill that gives a panoramic view over the valley; the sun is setting, it’s time to take photographs. 

Winn’s books have been categorised as nature writing, but while reading I couldn’t help but think of them as love stories. In both, she tenderly captures long-term love, from courtship through elopement and the trials of middle-age. Moth, she writes, is her “thin place… where it all became clear and there was no separation between worlds or time.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” says Moth, when I tell him this. “I do feel that when I read it, it touches me every time, it really does.” Homelessness, bestselling book, fortuitous farmhouse: the pair still cling to one another most of all. “I've got a Ray, and every day she gets me up in the morning. And she'll remind me that today is worth living for,” he says, grin spreading across his face.

A head-and-shoulders portrait of Moth

'It’s like looking at a photograph that you took years ago': Moth. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

It’s difficult to read either of Winn’s books without wondering about Moth’s condition; the good news is that the pair continue to put one foot in front of another. This spring, they will walk the length of the UK – from the top of Scotland back to their new home.

For now, once she’s spent the morning writing, Winn will join Moth in his work on the farm, gently restoring the soil to goodness, ushering in the wildlife. Otherworldly piles of sticks are dotted around the orchard – a rarely seen, centuries-old technique for drying out wood he’s brought back. They’ve become such sites of ecological interest that academics from nearby universities have been studying them.

It’s an existence, Winn says, that is similar to that on their farm in Wales, before any of this journey began: “After the madness of The Salt Path to suddenly go back into this way of living is something very soothing, very calm and very real, as well.”

I ask if it feels like home, and she pauses. “I think it possibly does, yeah.” She laughs quietly. “I don't quite feel the same about home now, I don't really associate it so much with house and walls as I did before.” Winn turns her head, looks over the apple trees, across to where the creek lines the valley. “I think it's more to do with what makes you feel like you. And I think you can take that with you no matter where you are.”

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin

  • The Wild Silence

  • The incredible Sunday Times No. 1 bestseller from the million-copy bestselling author of the phenomenon and­ 80-week Sunday Times bestselling The Salt Path

    LONGLISTED FOR THE WAINWRIGHT PRIZE 2021

    'Beautiful, a thrill to read . . . you feel the world is a better place because Raynor and Moth are in it' The Times

    'Brilliant, powerful and touching . . . will connect with anyone who has triumphed over adversity' Stephen Moss, author and naturalist

    'A beautiful, luminous and magical piece of writing' Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
    _______

    'It was the land, the earth, the deep humming background to my very being'

    In 2016, days before they were unjustly evicted from their home, Raynor Winn was told her husband Moth was dying.

    Instead of giving up they embarked on a life-changing journey: walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path, living by their wits, determination and love of nature.

    But all journeys must end and when the couple return to civilisation they find that four walls feel like a prison, cutting them off from the sea and sky that sustained them - that had saved Moth's life.

    So when the chance to rewild an old Cornish farm comes their way, they grasp it, hoping they'll not only reconnect with the natural world but also find themselves once again on its healing path . . .
    _______

    'Confirms Raynor as a natural and extremely talented writer with an incredible way with words. This book gives us all what we wanted to know at the end of The Salt Path which is what happened next. So moving, it made me cry . . . repeatedly' Sophie Raworth, BBC

    'Winn's writing transforms her surroundings and her spirits, her joy coming across clearly in her shimmering prose' i

    'Unflinching . . . There is a luminous conviction to the prose' Observer

    'Notions of home are poignantly explored . . . wonderful' Guardian

    **Nominated for the Holyer an Gof Memoir Award**

    Praise for The Salt Path

    'An astonishing narrative of two people dragging themselves from the depths of despair along some of the most dramatic landscapes in the country, looking for a solution to their problems and ultimately finding themselves'
    Independent

    'This is what you need right now to muster hope and resilience . . . a beautiful story and a reminder that humans can endure adversity'
    Stylist

    'The landscape is magical: shapeshifting seas and smugglers' coves; myriads of sea birds and mauve skies. Raynor writes exquisitely . . . it's a tale of triumph; of hope over despair, of love over everything' The Sunday Times

    'The Salt Path is a life-affirming tale of enduring love that smells of the sea and tastes of a rich life. With beautiful, immersive writing, it is a story heart-achingly and beautifully told' Jackie Morris, illustrator of The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

  • Buy the book
  • The Salt Path

  • Bring nature into your home with the uplifting true story of the couple who lost everything and embarked on a journey of salvation across the windswept South West coastline.

    FROM THE MILLION-COPY BESTSELLING AUTHOR

    'This is what you need right now to muster hope and resilience . . . a beautiful story and a reminder that humans can endure adversity'
    Stylist

    'A beautiful book, it really lives up to the hype . . . an enjoyable, gentle yet moving read' Pandora Sykes on The High Low
    _________

    Just days after Raynor learns that Moth, her husband of 32 years, is terminally ill, their home is taken away and they lose 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, via 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 journey.

    The Salt Path is an honest and life-affirming true story of coming to terms with grief and the healing power of the natural world. Ultimately, it is a portrayal of home, and how it can be lost, rebuilt and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.
    _________

    THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER, WINNER OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY LITERATURE CHRISTOPHER BLAND PRIZE & SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2018 COSTA BIOGRAPHY AWARD & WAINWRIGHT GOLDEN BEER BOOK PRIZE 2018

    GUARDIAN BEST BOOKS OF SUMMER

    'A beautiful, thoughtful, lyrical story of homelessness, human strength and endurance' Guardian

    'Mesmerising. It is one of the most uplifting, inspiring books that I've ever read' i

    'The most inspirational book of this year' The Times

  • Buy the book

Read more

We use cookies on this site to enable certain parts of the site to function and to collect information about your use of the site so that we can improve our visitors’ experience.

For more on our cookies and changing your settings click here


Strictly Necessary


Analytics


Preferences & Features


Targeting / Advertising