Hazel McHaffie

Somerset

The South West Coast Path

Moth and Raynor Wynn are in their fifties when, within a matter of days, they lose everything. Betrayed by a close friend, bankrupted by a failed financial transaction and punishing solicitors’ fees through three years of fighting a court case, their home and land possessed by the bailiffs, they are then weighed down with Moth’s diagnosis of a rare degenerative brain condition. There are no drugs to halt the progress, no therapies to keep the disease at bay, and time is running out. Their hopes and dreams lie in tatters.

Raynor is determined not to waste a moment of the time she has left with her beloved husband of thirty-two years. Now officially homeless, in the summer of 2013, they decide on an impulse to leave Wales and take on the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset via Devon and Cornwall – all 630 miles of it. Home will be a tent bought from eBay, camping in the wild, at the very edgeland of life.

No facilities, often no food, scant possessions, stinking from neglected hygiene, pain in their joints, battered and bruised feet, sunburnt, cut and bruised skin, headaches, dizziness and hunger constant companions, frequently accused of being disgusting tramps, or drunk.
A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower; I had responsibilities, respect, pride …

Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Stupid to think we could walk this path, to not have enough money, to pretend we were homeless, to get the court procedure wrong, to lose the children’s home, to not have enough water, to pretend we weren’t dying, to not have enough water.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But gradually, as time goes on, they readjust their thinking, find new values, new dreams, learn new survival skills. Against all medical predictions, Moth’s health improves dramatically. And their own generosity of spirit shines through. Even though eeking out starvation rations themselves, Moth instinctively shares his last chocolate bar, a sausage sandwich, pasties, with fellow destitutes. By contrast, it’s sobering to hear of a vendor refusing even a cup of cold water. Not knowing their story, being downwind of them, how would I have reacted, I wonder?

This tale has so many resonances for me. I grew up in Cornwall. Yet I hadn’t been aware that depending on which statistics you read, Cornwall has the second or fifth highest rate of rough sleepers in the country, outside of London.

I had to smile at the picture of Raynor cutting her ripped leggings off at the knees with a tiny pair of nail scissors to make shorts. I once sliced the bottom off a posh full-length evening skirt with nail scissors when I realised I’d completely misjudged the dress code for an evening Conference dinner in Australia.

When the Winns were forced to put their boots back on because the soles of their feet were being burned by the scorching hot sand, it brought back vivid memories of a similar situation on a baked beach in Greece in 1968.

Raynor Winn has the skill to conjure up a wonderful combination of sights and sounds and smells and emotions in her writing:
Mozzarella, basil and tomatoes combined in some kind of wind-whipped, gull-swirling heaven. I sat with my back to the football and the wind in my face, looking out over the end of the Bristol Channel and the start of the wide, endless Atlantic Ocean. It’s wild here, a corner where tides, winds and tectonic plates collide in a roar of elemental confusion. A place of endings, beginnings, shipwrecks and rockslides. The viewpoint by the railings caught the air and rushed it up in a jet of cold, oxygenated, sea-spray fizz. I flew with the power of the uplift; alive, we were alive.

She searches for meaning in their new life:
On a basic level, maybe all of us on the path were the same; perhaps we were all looking for something. Looking back, looking forward, or just looking for something that was missing. Drawn to the edge, a strip of wilderness where we could be free to let the answers come, or not, to find a way of accepting life, whatever that was. Were we searching this narrow margin between the land and sea for another way of being, becoming edgelanders along the way? Stuck between one world and the next. Walking a thin line between tame and wild, lost and found, life and death. At the edge of existence …
What they did find was redemption, renewed purpose and hope.

Small wonder that this remarkable author has been in hot demand on the speaking circuit since The Salt Path was published, and is now commercially successful in her own right.

On a personal note, I’m staggered by how often serendipity/coincidence bring ideas together in life. I was in the middle of this book when BBC2 showed thwarted foreign-travel-writer Simon Reeve’s travels through Cornwall as the county emerged from the first lockdown, and explored what the future holds for a stunningly beautiful tourist hot-spot, riven with homelessness and poverty and inequality. The sight and sound of a fellow-writer forced to live in a run-down shed linger.

It’s been a nostalgic journey to the land of my youth, but provided sobering insights into lives lived beyond my experience. And challenged my values and priorities.

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The privilege of ready access to books

With a whole lot of quite ridiculous chasing up and down the country over the past fortnight, we’ve seized the opportunity to visit interesting places en route to relieve the boredom of long drives and give the spine a chance to decompress. I’m not going to wax lyrical about architectural phenomena, nor indeed regale you with tales of great families and grand alliances, nor yet conjure up visions of loveliness twirling parasols on the avenues while dashing young beaux pay court in the rose garden. No, for the purposes of this blog, I want to home in on one of my favourite topics: books.

Tyntesfield

Tyntesfield in Somerset has been on my to-do list since it was taken over by the National Trust in 2002, and it was conveniently on the way to Cornwall two weeks ago. Secondhand Bookshop, TyntesfieldIt has a fascinating history based around an ordinary family who acquired extraordinary wealth  from the sale of guano (yes, indeed, bird droppings!), and I was haunted by the vision of the last owner, unmarried and alone, living in just three modest rooms but surrounded by magnificence and beauty which he had carefully shrouded and preserved for generations to come after his death. It more than lived up to my expectations; in my view one of the loveliest houses in the Trust. A veritable Gothic extravaganza set in superb gardens and surrounded by gorgeous period estate houses and ancient trees. With so much to see then, it was intriguing to find … a second hand bookshop at the entrance!

A big tick for the love of books, huh?

Belton HouseA week later Belton House near Grantham in Lincolnshire was only a swerve away from the A1 to London. A quintessential country estate, it’s much smaller and less spectacular than Tyntesfield but still well worth visiting, especially with its direct links to the abdication of Edward VIII. But the reason to include it in my blog is twofold. First because the Trust has cunningly converted the stables into a series of most attractive bookshops with used volumes on every conceivable subject crammed into each stall. Wouldn’t you just love to perch here and lose yourself in a period tale or two?

Converted stables at Belton HouseStalls at Belton House

 

And second because of the library in the main house.

Main library at Belton HouseA beautiful light and airy room with a huge collection of books. But most notable of all, back in the days when an army of servants scurried up and down uncarpeted back staircases to avoid being seen by the family, here they were encouraged to pop up to the family library and borrow books from it to improve their reading skills and their knowledge – provided they put them back, of course. Amazing! A remarkably advanced approach to staff welfare.

So our dalliances during long excursions became unexpectedly book-orientated and uplifting. Long live the physical book.

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