Not all happy endings are straightforward.
After Raynor Winn published The Salt Path, readers could have been forgiven for believing that all would be well from now on. Her moving account of how she and her husband, Moth, lost their farm, found themselves homeless just as Moth was diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease and subsequently rediscovered happiness while walking the South West Coast Path, proved a commercial and critical success.
The 2018 book ended with Moth enrolling at university, the better to keep his mind functioning, and the couple being offered rented accommodation in Cornwall thanks to a kind-hearted acquaintance. Meanwhile The Salt Path would go on to be nominated for the Costa Book Awards and the Wainwright Prize, and won the inaugural RSL Christopher Bland Prize.
It should have been the happiest of happy endings, yet Winn, whose second book The Wild Silence is published next month, admits the reality wasn’t that simple. “I think when you’ve lived that way in that complete natural state then returning to what we would consider normal felt abnormal,” she says. “It felt completely false to be living in a village and there was also this almost overwhelming sense of not being able to walk away.”
The Wild Silence, intimate in feel and ambitious in scope, is an attempt to wrestle with those conflicting feelings. It delves deep into Winn’s past, covering her childhood as the daughter of a tenant farmer and follows her life as she struggles to deal with the progress of Moth’s disease and with the illness and death of her mother. Throughout it all she retains her faith in the importance of having an almost visceral connection to the land.
“It is a book about love, loss, rediscovery and self-belief and at the core of it is the idea that these things are all bound up in our connection to the earth,” Winn says.
“One of the biggest things we had learnt while walking the salt path was to live in the moment. We learnt to stop worrying about the future and what horrors it might hold and appreciate what we have right now – and I found that really quite hard to do once we went back to living under a roof because what had given me the strength to feel that way and to cope with everything that was happening was being out in the natural world.”
It’s easy to imagine Winn struggling with the demands of a more populous life. Softly spoken and self-admittedly shy, she has spent most of her life in remote, rural places and notes in The Wild Silence that her experiences as a child, working on her parents’ farm, occasionally spending time with cousins, “picking potatoes rather than hanging out in the park with my friends” were very different even from those she went to school with. “I’d never lived in a village before we moved to Cornwall,” she says. “I’d never lived among people. Other people might find living in isolated spots difficult – I had the opposite problem. I felt as though I’d moved into an alien environment. I wasn’t sure how to cope.”
She would find herself hiding behind the converted chapel in which they lived to avoid talking to people, begging Moth to speak to them so that she didn’t have to and, when things got really bad, erecting their old tent in their new bedroom and sleeping in it.
Adding to the stress was the fact that Moth’s disease was continuing to progress. While he had seen some improvement during the long walk along the South West Coast Path, the university course did not seem to be having the same effect and he would often forget where he was supposed to be and why.
“It was really hard because as anyone who cares for someone facing this sort of illness know all of your instinct is to wrap up that person and keep them warm and comfortable and safe but I was torn because I knew he had been better when he was walking so I kept driving him to keep moving and active when instinctively I just wanted him to lie down.”
It is no spoiler to say that the turning point in The Wild Silence comes when she and Moth are offered the chance to live and work on another farm, albeit one owned by somebody else. Winn describes herself as the farm’s “guardian” and admits it’s not quite the same as working their own land.“We were still carrying quite a lot of distrust because of what happened before [the couple lost their farm thanks to an investment deal with an old friend that turned very sour] but it seemed to offer the wonderful possibility of hope – a hope we hadn’t felt since we were walking. The question was could we take that leap?”
She’s glad now that they did, even though it has been an “uphill battle”: “There isn’t that intense connection you feel when you farm the land for yourself, but at the same time it has been wonderful to be back in the cycles of nature and the seasons and there has been a real sense of getting back to the core of who we are.”
Moth, too, has benefited: “If I’m honest, he’s not as good as he was when we finished walking the salt path, but he is so much better than he was. It helps being on the farm.”
Winn feels lucky to have been able to continue walking throughout the pandemic thanks to their rural location and hopes too that lockdown has if not changed then at least challenged our responses to nature. “Many people with urban lives feel that they have no connection to nature, but you can feel that connection anywhere – in small changes, for example like hearing the birds, or seeing the leaves changing,” she says.
As for the future, working on the farm is “pretty intensive” but she hopes to do another walk with Moth “although I can’t say where yet”. For now, however, she has taken the tent down.
The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (Penguin Books Ltd, £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.