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“In rural England the homeless are a problem to be hidden…”

When Raynor Winn and her husband became homeless and he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, they packed their rucksacks and began walking the South West Coast Path. She tells her extraordinary story of prejudice, hidden communities and finding home

I was hiding under the stairs when I decided to walk. I hadn’t carefully considered walking 630 miles with a rucksack on my back – I hadn’t thought about how I could afford to do it, or that I’d be wild camping for nearly 100 nights, or what I’d do afterwards. It just seemed like the best response to the door-hammering of the bailiffs.

It was the end of one of those weeks that happen to someone else. A financial dispute with a lifetime friend had led to a court case that lasted for three years, culminating in us being served with an eviction notice from our home of 20 years. Two days later a doctor sat on the edge of his desk and told my husband, Moth, that he had a rare neurodegenerative disease, that there was no cure, no treatment and he was going to die. The only help available was physiotherapy that may help retain some muscle strength. My world and all that kept me stable slipped from beneath my feet.

It’s a shock, making the leap from owning your own home and business, to living wild at the edge of the land

No-one would rent to us now we had a CCJ [county court judgment] on our credit record. The local authority refused our application for priority housing, saying Moth “wasn’t ill enough” to qualify. Local hostels prioritised dependents, mental health issues and the young. There was no place for us. We camped and sofa-surfed for a while, as I walked on my hands and our life spiralled into chaos.

We grasped the idea of physiotherapy as if it was a lifeline, and as Moth threw himself into a punishing exercise routine the idea of the walk grew. Not only as a form of extreme physio but also in the hope that by following a line on a map we would find a reason to put one foot in front of another, a way to rebuild our lives. And I desperately wanted a map, something to show me the way.

We filled two rucksacks with the bare essentials and headed south to walk the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path – the wild strip of land that surrounds the whole south west from Somerset, through North Devon, Cornwall, South Devon and into Dorset.

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It’s a shock, making the leap from owning your own home and business, to living wild at the edge of the land, homeless, with very little money, where every day is a struggle to just keep moving and your priority is finding food. A bigger shock is the instant shift in public perception and it doesn’t take long for the illusions of life to roll away.

For me it happened outside a shop in Lynton, North Devon. I was counting the few coins we had left before going into the shop, unaware that I stood next to a labrador dog tied up by the door. A woman came around the corner, middle aged, middle class, only weeks before she could have been a guest in our holiday rental, holding a huge white dog on a long lead. The white dog lunged for the labrador, knocking my arm, sending the coins spinning down the street.

Moth ran down the hill after a pound coin, I fell to the ground as one slipped between my fingers and into a drainage grill. Lying on the pavement as the woman castigated me for being a tramp: “What are you, drunk I expect.” That was the moment my sense of self finally collapsed.

It seems that in rural England the homeless are a problem to be hidden. In the land of high-value housing, holiday homes and tourists, the authorities regularly run campaigns to clear the streets of rough sleepers. Maintaining the public view that there is no homeless problem. Consequently, the few that are seen in rural areas are shunned and prejudice levels are high. But the rural homeless are still there. We met many hidden communities, in sheds, barns, woods, in caves and under bridges. Unseen, but very real, staying hidden because of the prejudice.

The authorities regularly run campaigns to clear the streets of rough sleepers. But the rural homeless are still there

We were regularly asked: “How come you have enough time to walk so far?” When we told the truth, children were held closer, dogs retracted on leads, doors were closed and conversations ended very quickly. The view from the rural idyll is that losing your home and becoming homeless makes you a social pariah. So, we twisted our story – we had sold our home and become homeless, and the general view then was that we were inspirational. It became a game, to observe how changing one word changed reactions.

Help and kindness did come, but from the most unexpected places. Sheltering inland away from a storm, we discovered an invisible community. A group of people, who lived and worked in a beautiful spot, but couldn’t afford to rent even a room in an area of high-value holiday rentals. After work, they drifted along a wooded valley to sleep in hammocks strung in sheds, horse boxes, and grain silos. Not travellers, or dependent rough sleepers, but average people who just couldn’t afford a home in the countryside where their livelihood was.

They took us in to sleep in their shelter, without question. But possibly the most poignant of all was the night in Plymouth, when a rough sleeper insisted on sharing his only can of beer, because it was his birthday.

At the very lowest ebb, we walked. In putting one foot in front of another, the burning sun turning our skin to leather and horizontal rain driving through our clothes, we found an unexpected salvation. The metronome of movement didn’t allow us time to think, it stopped us from thinking and the basic need to find the next meal wiped out any material thoughts.

Living in a landscape of sea and sky, as wild as the badger sniffing in the tent flaps and the oyster catchers sharing the cold sand through long black nights, we were held back from the edge of despair. The path had become a walking meditation, rebuilding Moth’s strength and our self-belief.

The view from the rural idyll is that losing your home and becoming homeless makes you a social pariah

I found some seasonal work as a wool wrapper with a sheep shearing team, giving us enough money for a rental deposit. But we were still homeless so returned to the path and kept walking – until, by chance, stopping for water at a café on a beach, we met a woman who listened to our story and offered us her flat to rent. Overnight our homeless life came to an end.

We were lucky, we found a home at the end of our trail, and now live where the Coast Path runs past the front door. But for the unknown numbers of hidden rural homeless that never happens. If the beautiful British countryside is to have any integrity, we must open our eyes to the desperate need of people who are not on our doorsteps, but in our hedgerows.

Read more about Raynor Winn’s journey in her book The Salt Path, being published on March 22

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