By RAYNOR WINN
Excerpted from The Salt Path
We’d expected extremes of weather while we were on the Coast Path, British weather. Wind, rain, fog, occasional hail even, but not the heat, the burning, suffocating heat. By lunchtime we’d crawled out of the shade of Woody Bay into an intensely hot afternoon. We shared a cereal bar and banana, looking west across some of the highest cliffs in England. Near vertical faces rising as high as 800 feet and stretching away to the Great Hangman, at 1,043 feet, the highest point on the whole of the South West Coast Path. But between us and the Hangman was a series of savage rises and falls, which even Paddy admits are steep. From the cliff top to near sea level, from sea level to the cliff top. And repeat. This was why I’d wanted to start in Poole. Then it got hotter.
“We brought sunscreen?” My nose was throbbing in the heat.
“Should we wait for it to get cooler?”
“If we do we’ll be stuck on the cliffs when it gets dark. I think we’ll be lucky if we find a flat spot here.”
“Oh dear. We’d have loved this when we were thirty.”
“Old as you feel?”
Legs, hips, shoulders screaming, we reached the top on the other side of the valley and turned toward the sea cliff. The rock path reflected the heat back at our burning faces in waves. A blue wind lifted beneath my rucksack and with my arms outstretched I could fly; the freedom of the height took my breath away. My eyes were watering, my skin burning, and in the distance the coast of Wales seemed farther away. Every corner was a wash of vertigo and exhilaration. Moth walked with a lean away from the sea and toward the cliff, but I had heather and salt air in my veins and flew with the gulls.
On a smooth stone ledge before another gorge roller coaster, we met our first backpackers. They looked very young, fresh and efficient in their matching blue hiking shorts and neat, crisp backpacks. But they were backpackers: I felt connected, had to know everything about them.
“Where are you camping? Are you doing campsites or wild?”
“We’re wild camping, but it’s mad. We get to about six o’clock and all we can think about is flat ground. We couldn’t find anywhere last night and ended up on that piece of grass in front of the pub in Lynmouth.”
“Where are you heading?”
“Combe Martin, so we’re finished today. We’ve only got the weekend and I’ve never wild camped before. I’m ready for a shower.” The girl had bouncy brown hair and looked squeaky clean to me. I suddenly felt very self-conscious and moved downwind. “What about you, where are you going?”
I looked at Moth; where were we going? After yesterday I wasn’t sure, but he replied as if he still knew.
“Land’s End. Who knows, depends on the weather, maybe further.”
“That’s amazing, you’re so lucky to have time.”
We watched them stride out along the cliff and waved as they passed the headland. So lucky to have time. I put my hand on the back of Moth’s arm as his hand rested on his hip belt. His skin was hot to the touch and pink below the line of his T-shirt sleeve; same skin it had always been, but wrinkled above his elbow in a way I hadn’t noticed before. Did we still have time?
Moth had a hat: a green canvas hat that sat on the top of his head like a cake tin, but a hat all the same. How could I have come without one? I could feel my scalp burning and watched my nose pulsate out of the corner of my eye. We thought we might make the Great Hangman by evening, but it was still a way off. The coastline’s deceptive. A viewpoint in the distance seems to be just around the corner, but inevitably the headland in the foreground will be hiding valleys and bays and even entire stretches of moorland in between.
“My head’s on fire. Have you got a bandanna or something?” We headed out on to Holdstone Down; it was late afternoon, but the sun was still hot.
“You should have said—with all that hair I never think about you needing a hat. I’ve got the old hemp one in my pack.”
I shoved on the beatenup hat with its skinny one-inch brim, bought long ago from a hippie market in Ibiza. It held the heat from my boiled head and soon I felt ten times hotter.
Sitting on a bent hawthorn branch, I watched the sun set behind the Hangman and away into the west. The tent was pitched low among the gorse and heather where Moth scribbled in a notebook. We’d eaten rice and a tin of peas, but hunger wasn’t far away
Down, down, down into Combe Martin, a pretty little Devon village on the beach, with supposedly the longest village street in the country, winding two miles inland up the narrow valley. We wandered around the beach area with one focus: a cash machine.
Supplies in the rucksack, twenty-five pounds still in the purse, chips in our hands, sitting on the beach, leaning against the rocks in the heat of the day, nose burned to a frazzle: it could be any ordinary day on the beach. Living in Wales within a drive of the sea, we’d had many of those. Long days of sand-covered kids, blowup dinghies, tuna sandwiches, digging holes, rock pools. They’d grown up free to roam the woods, the mountains, the beach. Even now, after they’d been gone for a few years, whenever I felt sand beneath my feet it was with a slight twinge of loss. I had to get over that or it would be a totally dismal summer.
The day got hotter and hotter as we trudged through the sharp rises and falls beyond the village. The pack was much heavier with its new supplies and I dragged along through the dust, following Moth’s heels along the path, his feet barely seeming to lift from the ground either. The heat was unbearable. Unexpectedly, a campsite appeared, oasis-like, from the haze ahead of us. The Coast Path passed right through it.
“What do you think, should we see how much it costs? We could just rest, not have to look for a spot to pitch tonight, have a shower.” The look on Moth’s face said, I’m not asking, I’m begging. “We can ask.”
The site was busy with families, children, bikes, old couples and dogs, lots of dogs.
“That’s fifteen pounds for a tent.”
“Fifteen pounds? It’s a small tent, we could squeeze in a corner.”
“Fifteen pounds, any size.”
“But we haven’t even got a car, we’re just walking the Coast Path.”
“Well, you should have said.” The site attendant pointed at a cardboard notice by the door. “Five pounds each for backpackers.”
Ten pounds. We’d got enough dried food to nearly last the week. Moth sat on the plastic chair, wiping his face with a blue spotty bandanna.
“Okay, just one night.”
The showers were hot and free-running with no time limit. I relaxed into the heat and maybe it was something to do with tiredness, or a second of just letting go, but I couldn’t stop crying. I gasped into the running water as I shed a layer of skin and sweat, bitterness, sadness, loss, fear. But only a layer. Whining self-pity: I couldn’t afford to let it in.
I dried myself as well as possible on the super-thin, quick-dry towel and rummaged in the tiny toilet bag for a toothbrush. The toothpaste, a hair bobble and a tampon fell onto the floor. A tampon? I picked it up in shock. I’d packed a few, expecting to need them anytime soon, but as I held it in my hand it suddenly struck me that in the melee of our lives over recent times I hadn’t realized that it had been over three months since I’d actually used one. Really? What to do in the menopause: become homeless and walk 630 miles with a rucksack on your back. Ideal. Plenty of weight-bearing exercise: at least I wouldn’t have to worry about osteoporosis.
We left the campsite clean and rested, but the path to Ilfracombe wound on in a relentless mess of up and down, in and out and heat, and we were quickly as tired and dirty as we had been the previous day. The town was heaving with a midseason swell of wheelchairs, polyester and walking aids. The smell of food was torture, every corner had a new edible choice, but the campsite indulgence meant we could only look.
We shared a bag of chips and left Ilfracombe as quickly as we could, camping on the hill with the lights of the town still shining below. The next day was an exhausting drag. Had we not been so tired it would have been a day of endless photos and admiration of amazing views, but we could only focus on moving our feet.
“What’s that blob out there?” I could see something in the sea that hadn’t emerged from the haze before.
“West, down the coast, where the land runs out.”
“Looks like an island.”
“Could it be Lundy already? Bet it is—Wales is getting farther away so where the coast runs out must be where it turns south.”
“Such a long way off.”
Walking along cliff tops, ankle deep in the seed heads of wildflowers, should have been a delight, but as we passed Bull Point, Moth became slower and began dragging his leg oddly. The miles crawled by. I picked some wild thyme and dandelion leaves and stirred them into rice, as the sun set. Woolacombe arrived the next morning: our ninth day walking. According to Paddy Dillon’s guidebook, we should have been here four days ago. His timescale seemed to bear no relation to our days. After we’d been driven by the tide onto the leg-raining soft sand of the upper beach, it was a relief to reach solid ground on the cliffs that led to Baggy Point. Even in our foggy, exhausted state, the view took our breath away. A long way out, but Lundy was now in full view and beyond it the coast of Wales curled to the north, then slipped out of sight. Was I relieved to let it fall off the horizon, or did I need it, still tangible, still real? I couldn’t answer. And away, away to the west, at least forty miles away, Hartland Point, where the coast would take its second dramatic turn south. As the sun started to dip, we put the tent up in the wildflowers and ate more dandelions.
“Mum wouldn’t let me eat these when I was little; she said they’d make me wet the bed.”
“The amount of times you get in and out of the tent every night, I don’t think it can make any difference.”
“Shall we get the bus around the estuary, skip Barnstaple and Bideford?”
“We could, but it’ll be days before we get more money, and the Braunton Burrows looks really interesting: massive sand dunes made of windblown shells.”
“Okay, but if you’re in too much pain or your leg’s hurting, or you’re too tired, we’ll cut in for the bus, okay?”
“Okay.” Under the sunburn, black rings were spreading beneath his eyes.
Heat climbed up over the cliff and bound us in a cloak of airless, flat suffocation as we headed out onto Greencliff. Black rock sliding away into the sea, in layers of dark molten exposure. This seam of blackest black runs from Bideford to the cliff edge and fades into fingers running out to sea. It used to be mined as fuel to fire the lime kilns that scattered this patch of coast, turning Welsh limestone into fertilizer and building materials. Now Bideford Black is used as an artist’s pigment, fueling the cash tills of trendy art galleries.
And it got hotter. My nose was glowing red, the new skin burned before the old skin had shed. Moth was stumbling more often and for the first time tripped and fell, grazing his arm and leaving him shaken.
“I’ve got to stop. Can you get the water?” He drank, trying to satisfy an unquenchable thirst, until there were only two inches of water left. We’d filled the bottles in the bar in Westward Ho! and used most of it overnight, but now were quite some distance from a tap, unless we diverted inland in the hope of knocking on someone’s door.
“Shall we carry on? It looks like we’ll cross a stream near Babbacombe Cliff.”
We shuffled on, as Moth got slower and I became increasingly anxious. By the time we crossed the dry streambed, the afternoon had become a burning shimmer. No shade, no trees, just cliff top, sea and sky. At three o’clock Moth dropped his pack and lay on the ground.
“I’m done, I’m just done. I can’t do this. I feel shivery.”
“Do you think you’ve got sunstroke, or are you just exhausted?”
“I want to go home, get in my own bed and never wake up.”
I lay on the grass next to him and stared up at the sky. Don’t even think it. Don’t let the thought in. I sat up, found my glasses and read Paddy’s map.
“We’re nearly at a little ravine, think it’s called Peppercombe. There’s a stream there and trees, so we can get out of the heat. You’ll feel better if you cool down.” The heat had built until I could feel all the moisture evaporating from my body, turning me to parchment. We couldn’t stay there.
“Well, I’ll leave my pack here then and just go and have a look.” I walked away from him; without the weight of the rucksack I had springs in my boots and balloons on my shoulders, but anxiety didn’t let me appreciate it. Don’t let this be real. Don’t let him be getting worse, please don’t. Let it just be the sun.
A stripe of green trees and undergrowth followed the narrow valley toward the sea and the sound of water. Crouched by the side of the clear-running salvation, I splashed the icy coldness against my burning skin, feeling sure I could hear it hiss. I drank over and over from my cupped hands before filling the two-liter bottle to the brim and heading back up the hill.
“You have to come down. It’s so cool under the trees, you’ll feel a lot better. Only half an hour and you can drink this, when the water-purifying pill has done its thing.” I didn’t tell him I’d drunk a pint before even considering bacteria.
“What if this is it, what if I’m dying?”
“You’re not dying; it’s probably sunstroke. Anyway, this thing isn’t going to hit you in the afternoon and you’re dead by tea.”
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. We were both nervous all the same. I had thought, in the days after leaving the farm, when we were packing rucksacks and preparing, that walking together over a vast distance would give us the space to think things through. Time to talk about the huge loss we were feeling, and calmness to try to face a future not with corticobasal degeneration in it, but carved out by it. But I hadn’t thought much at all, and we’d mainly talked about food and the heat, or the rain. I’d plodded along as if my head was in a paper bag, thinking of nothing, just taking it out occasionally to shake it around and see if there was anything inside. Putting one foot in front of another in a metronome of blankness was strangely satisfying and I didn’t want to think. But as Moth struggled on, one thought had crept in; how stupid it was to be doing this, the irresponsibility of dragging him here. Clearly he was getting worse. If we weren’t walking, he wouldn’t be going through this daily muscle-grinding torture. I hardly dared to look in the guidebook; from the tiny glimpses I’d taken, I could see it would soon get harder. What if by suggesting this insane trip I’d accelerated the CBD? It would be my fault. After all, the consultant had said, “Don’t tire yourself, or walk too far, and be careful on the stairs.” All I’d thought about in those days of planning was leaving Wales, running away, forgetting that we’d lost our home, that our family was spread all over the country, that Moth was ill. I once heard a lecture by Stephen Hawking, when he said, “It’s the past that tells us who we are. Without it we lose our identity.” Maybe I was trying to lose my identity so I could invent a new one.
“Have you taken the Pregabalin today?” Moth had been prescribed this drug, not for its use as an antidepressant, but for relief from nerve pain. It seemed to work, but I didn’t know how it could relieve pain and not have the antidepressant effect. He certainly seemed slower since he’d taken it. Less pain, but less Moth.
“No, I took the last one at Baggy Point. I forgot to say: have you got another box?”
“No, you’ve got them.”
“Oh shit. Why didn’t you say? We’ll have to get some more. We can walk back to Westward Ho! and get the bus to Barnstaple, see if your GP can send a prescription.”
How could we have forgotten them? As I thought about it, I could see them sitting on a bag in the back of the van ready to be put into the rucksack. Completely forgotten after the encounter with angels. There could be a town inland, a pharmacy within a short walking distance, but we would never know. Paddy Dillon’s great little guidebook contains copies of Ordnance Survey maps covering the entire South West Coast Path, fantastically comprehensive and detailed; you couldn’t want for anything better. The drawback is, they only cover roughly half a mile inland. Our world had become this narrow passage, with half a mile of land to our left and a wet infinity to our right. The path covers vast tracts of English coastline and only a few places can be considered remote, but on that beach it was as clear as the saltwater running over the Bideford Black that civilization exists only for those who can afford to inhabit it, and remote isolation can be felt anywhere if you have no roof and an empty pocket.
“They’re in the van. We could get them posted somewhere. To Clovelly maybe.”
“No, Jan’s on vacation until late August. Like you say, it’s just sunstroke. Let’s make some tea and eat something. I’ll be fine.”
“You’re not supposed to just stop taking them. This could be withdrawal; it could make you worse.” What had the doctor said? “Whatever you do, don’t just stop taking the Pregabalin.” The immense list of withdrawal symptoms could begin with headaches, nausea, diarrhea and sweating, and lead to insomnia, anxiety, depression and suicide. That’s if you’re lucky.
He couldn’t eat, but after heaving up a few spoons of rice, he drank and drank. The shakes became more pronounced as we erected the tent on a flat patch behind the hedge. He put on the clean Tshirt he’d kept at the bottom of his pack while I washed sick into a rock pool.
In the pitch black of the night I could see nothing in the tent; there was no moon to give even a faint outline to anything. Every moan and whimper made me switch the flashlight on, checking on what I’m not sure; it wasn’t as if I could do anything anyway.
“Water, need some water.”
There was no phone reception and by four o’clock the battery had died in the cold. To get help I’d have to leave him there and try to find a house. I didn’t want to leave him. I switched the flashlight on, recklessly wasting the batteries.
“Smell, that smell, sickly shit smell, what is it?”
“I can’t smell anything.”
All I could smell was washing powder on the only clean Tshirt.
“Lotus flower and melon. Try to sleep.”
I ran the flashlight around the tent, checking everything was in its place, familiarity soothing the panic. Over the days on the path, the green dome of the tent had become our home. Every evening we began a ritual of filling our home with our possessions. The self-inflating mattresses first, then a small fleece blanket over them, then the sleeping bags, then us, then the rucksacks by our feet at the entrance. Then we unpacked the rucksacks, putting cooking equipment in the porch, then clothes spread across the remaining uncovered groundsheet to block the cold, before attaching the flashlight to a carabiner hanging from a loop above the entrance zip. Finally, I made tea while Moth read from the tiny, slim volume of Beowulf, the only book we carried. Is it human nature to crave ritual? Is it instinctive to construct a safe environment before we allow ourselves to sleep? Can we ever truly rest without that security? It was all I could cling to in that tent, somewhere on the coast, with a dying man falling into withdrawal from a central nervous system depressant.
I lay close to Moth to stop him from shivering and passed the night flicking the flashlight on and off, imagining myself two hundred years ago attracting smugglers to the shore. I gave up on sleep when a faint light crept into the green. He was finally peaceful and breathing deeply. I quietly got out of the sleeping bag and unzipped the door but managed to fall out of the tent, breaking the leg off the stove support as I went. My torch-flashing had done no good: never a crate of rum when you really need one.
Moth eventually woke at nine, as I was sticking the stove leg together with a roll of micropore plaster. He’d stopped shaking but had a crushing headache, his joints ached and the shoulder pain was worse. I made tea, twice, and then went to the stream to get more water. Mugs of hot tea had become a lifeline. Initially the soothing effect of the hot liquid on jangling nerves had been priceless, but now it filled a hole where food should be. I couldn’t be bothered to take the tent down and Moth wasn’t strong enough; if someone came to throw us off, then I’d pack it away. The rock pools made a perfect washing bowl and I scrubbed the clothes with water and shampoo; they smelled better but dried crusty with salt and slightly sticky. I cut the ripped leggings off at the knees with a tiny pair of nail scissors to make a pair of shorts, and left everything to dry on the rocks.
The Bideford Black stretched and split into the sea like a muscle of land reaching to its farthest point. In the narrow gaps between the shiny, smooth blackness, dark pools formed in hidden depths of saltwater. The sunlight reflected from the surface, but when I put my hand in to feel the empty, smooth, cold rock at the base of the pool, it wasn’t there; the hole went down and down, opening wider as it went. No ammonites or crabs, but a deep, mysterious hole that might hold unknown caverns and mysterious creatures. Slightly spooked by what could be beneath my feet, I scoured the beach for driftwood, building a small fire as the evening began to cool, slowly feeding it as Moth huddled in his sleeping bag next to me and shivered. Then another night of wasted batteries.
Wandering along the beach in the early light, I collected more bits of driftwood for a fire. On the sharp grass at the top of the rocks, among the pink thrift, was a rough shelter made from bits of wood and washed-up plastic. Someone had put benches inside and hung seaweed around. I was playing house, arranging some shells with the seaweed, when Moth hesitantly walked over the rocks toward me with two mugs held precariously in front of him. I took the mugs of tea and we sat inside.
“Welcome home, Ray. What do you think of our new place?”
“It’s great. I always wanted somewhere with lots of light and a sea view.”
“Should we go back to Wales, camp somewhere and beg the council for a roof? Or shall we just stay here, make the shack better, live on the beach? I mean, what exactly are we going to do when this is over?” The great unspoken question. What would we do?
“I don’t know.”
We sat around in the shelter and in the shade of the hedge, watching a group of turnstones. Compact and beautiful little wading birds with white chests and mottled chestnut backs, hopping deftly between the black rock and the seaweed on spindly orange legs. Their strong pointed beaks quickly flipping stones to find the edible treats beneath. They must have been on their way north or south, or perhaps non-breeding birds just hanging out for the summer. We hung out with them: Moth, cold and aching in his sleeping bag, dozed fitfully in the sun, while I collected more driftwood and dried seaweed for the fire. As the sun set, we realized that we actually couldn’t see Wales anymore. It had slipped away without us noticing. The only land mass was Lundy, getting much closer. The fire crackled to embers and Wales had gone; we were alone on a beach in Devon, no home, no hope of getting one, just the path and our feet.
Moth groaned through the night, the aches in his joints getting worse until finally he fell into a sound sleep. Was the Pregabalin hell over? I lay and watched him, but he didn’t wake, and finally my own eyes closed. He woke around midday, more alert, a little stronger, ate a cereal bar and was ready to move on.
“We can’t stay, we’ve only got food for one more day. Let’s go to Clovelly. We can get some more supplies there, I’m sure, and it can’t be more than five miles.”
We climbed up from the beach and back onto the path that rose and fell in relentless jerks. Very quickly Moth was exhausted. The little shop in Bucks Mills had closed ten minutes before we reached it, so we headed up into the woods. Not even halfway to Clovelly and we had to stop. A glimpse of green through the trees made us scramble through the undergrowth, throw our packs over and paratrooper roll under an electric fence into a lush green corner of a field, surrounded on three sides by trees and in a slight dip, completely hidden from view. We pitched the tent and, desperately hungry, ate the last of the rations, leaving four digestive biscuits for breakfast.
Since travelling the South West Coastal Path, Raynor Winn has become a regular long-distance walker and writes about nature, homelessness and wild camping. Her first book, The Salt Path, was a Sunday Times bestseller, NPR Concierge Best Book of 2019, and shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Award. She lives in Cornwall with her husband Moth.
From THE SALT PATH by Raynor Wilson, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Raynor Wilson.