A theme that emerges frequently during writing workshops is the influence of place, the landscape, and physical journeys on our psychological well-being, whether through the powerful memories they evoke, the comfort they can bring, or the opportunity for reflection, self-discovery, and processing of trauma they seem to unleash.
I was reminded at a recent end-of-summer workshop of a book that really touched me over the holidays – The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. A poignant and memorable read by someone who had not been published before, but had chosen to chronicle an incredible journey, born out of a shocking and traumatic life-event.
Raynor and her husband Moth lose the home and business they have built for themselves in Wales overnight when a trusted friend’s investment opportunity goes badly wrong. Not only do they have a week to move out, but they find out that Moth also has a degenerative illness that leaves him in constant pain. The trauma of having to contend with all of these practical issues plus the injustice of the court’s decision, the behaviour of someone they thought was a friend, and the coming to terms with Moth’s life-shortening illness feels impossible, on top of their newly homeless status.
Choosing to walk the 630 mile South West Coastal Path from Minehead to Poole was a snap-decision taken whilst hiding under the stairs from the bailiffs’ knocking. With no money left, they are relying eventually on £30 a week tax credit cheques. Yet their subsequent story, which unfolds as they put one foot in front of another, day after day, following the path and allowing it to take the lead, is enlightening and uplifting in so many ways.
One of my workshop participants revealed that he too had embarked on walking the South West Coastal Path earlier this year. This was a mammoth achievement for David Bradshaw, who in 1996 developed ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and was told by his doctor there was nothing that could be done to help. Embarking on a long-held ambition, just getting to the start of the walk at Minehead – as with Raynor and Moth – was an achievement in itself for David, who has recorded his journey in the blog ‘David’s Pilgrimage’ in a diary of words and stunning photographs taken along our beautiful south coast. Of his walk, David said:
“For me this is really a ‘soul-journey’ or ‘pilgrimage’. The routine of walking and camping (with occasional B&B’s) allowing space and time for reflection, to be open to encounter and to connect with nature, turning it into more of a meditation, the route providing a structure for this.”
Although there was surprisingly little spare time in between rising, carrying out the tasks involved in preparing food, packing up his tent, walking and planning where he would stop again, David takes the time to regularly write down not only this physical journey, but a psychological one too. Reading through the blogs – as with reading through Raynor’s trek along the same path, feels like a therapeutic journey, reflecting many personal processes being grappled with through the landscape, the walking and the often serendipitous events which present themselves along the way.
From the outset, Raynor is grieving already for the anticipated loss of a future that she had taken for granted following her homelessness, and husband Moths’ recent diagnosis, and carries uncertainty each day as to whether he will be able to get up and walk. David also has doubts and fears about whether his body will carry him forward, but charts in his blog of how he learns to find a rhythm, to explore his relationship with the physical pain he experiences and manages to surprise himself:
“I think this is an important lesson in life, it’s not what happens to us but the story we tell ourselves about those events; change your point of view and it all looks very different and one’s mental and physical response changes. I’ve known about this before but today I really felt as if I knew it. I believe there’s a huge difference between experientially knowing something and just knowing about it.”
David’s blog can be found at: https://davidspilgrimage.wordpress.com/