A review of The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn
Raynor Winn’s tale of her and her husband’s destitution is a story that must be heard in our public conversation. She charts the emotional and physical journey of her and her husband Moth as they walk the 630-mile path on the coast of Cornwall. Beginning at Minehead they then travel down to Lands End and across to end at Poole in Dorset, having been forced from their family home and only source of income. When I first picked up the book, I expected a story of a journey, of sleeping under the stars and finding profound meaning in nature. It is that, in many ways, but it is so much more. Winn brings the reader along for the hardest period of her life, a walk that was not chosen for pleasure but born out of necessity, born of a need to place one foot in front of the other until the world made sense again.
‘At last I understood what homelessness had done for me. It had taken every material thing that I had and left me stripped bare, a blank page at the end of a partly written book. It had also given me a choice, either to leave that page blank or to keep writing the story with hope. I chose hope’.
The most profound parts of the book for me were her reflections on homelessness. Her tale stands as an accusation against the society that failed her: ‘Does it take a time of crisis for us to see the plight of the homeless? Must they be escaping a war zone to be in need? As a people can we only respond to need if we perceive it to be valid?’ It was visceral and striking how people reacted to them, and how they were treated by strangers and even by life-long friends: ‘I was alone among friends. Homelessness had taught me that however much people think they want to help you, when you enter their home, you quickly become a cuckoo in their nest, a guest that outstays their welcome.’ She describes an experience early in their walk where she is knocked over by a woman’s dog. ‘What’s the matter with you, are you drunk?’ she was asked and then told, ‘you tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting’. Within a matter of months, she had lost her humanity and identity. It’s a powerful story which prompts the reader to think about how easy it is to move and exist in public spaces as someone who is clean and well-dressed and the privacy that external appearance guarantees.
Raynor and Moth often neglected to tell people their story along the way, letting the people they meet assume they had sold up and set off into the wild as part of some romantic adventure. Many expressed jealousy at their freedom and abundance of time, remarking that they are the lucky ones. Framing it in this way was simply easier and more palatable than the truth. It is a tale that shines a light on what it means to have no security and stability, at how isolating the experience of sudden homelessness can be: ‘but now we were cast adrift, with no safe haven to return to, floating through fog on a raft of despair with no notion of where we would come ashore, or if there would be a shore at all.'
Raynor describes the feeling of being both invisible and on display, not a member of society but a pest in the eyes of many they encountered, of having no space of one’s own, and the narratives that feed into assumptions about homelessness: ‘of course there’s a high proportion of addicts on the streets, but whatever makes you homeless, you still deserve help.’ Throughout the book Raynor argues fiercely through her words, she uses her narrative voice and their story to show us where society has failed the most vulnerable.
A model for compassion
The power in Raynor’s story is that it encourages the reader to face how we treat others, the most vulnerable in our society, by giving the subjects a human face. The Bible is very clear on this, ‘do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life’ (Proverbs 22:22-23). The Lord is an advocate and champion for those in need and as such we recognise the compassion He models for those who are vulnerable: ‘You [Lord] have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat’ (Isaiah 25:4).
The charity Shelter estimates that around 320,000 people are homeless in Britain, a statistic that is likely to be an underestimation of the problem has it cannot take into account the ‘hidden homeless’ – those who are living insecurely in sheds or cars, or sofa-surfers. Winn asks poignant questions about our attitude to those on the streets: ‘it’s this fear, and the fear of the problem of the homeless affecting tourism, that provoked attempts by central London authorities to ban rough sleeping and make soup kitchens illegal. Is starving this embarrassment off the streets really the answer?’ The Salt Path illustrates the power and importance of speaking truth to injustice and we should encourage the space for individuals to tell their stories.
We must be unafraid to revisit the question of what our vision is, as Christians, for loving the poor and those in need, those who are relationally impoverished, and those who have no safe space of their own to inhabit.
Hannah Eves is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. She graduated from the University of Nottingham with an MA in Governance and Political Development.