Nagged by doubts about living a life of adventure as she gets older, Frankie Dewar decided to hunt for role models, cycling nearly 2000 miles around the UK to interview older womxn still living adventurously.
Between the first and second lockdowns in 2020 Frankie Dewar cycled 1,972 miles in a loop around England, Wales, and Scotland - starting and finishing in Shoreham by Sea, just outside of Brighton. The loop took me 71 days to complete, travelling around 37 miles a day, documenting the trip and interviewing outdoorsy and adventurous womxn and folx along the way.
Although I had never ridden a bike before, the idea to do a cycle tour had been with me for a while. Lockdown was really the catalyst. Having to move out of our van and spend time in one place made me start to look creatively for new ways to get outside. A few weeks in, myself and my girlfriend decided to buy some cheap second-hand bikes just to give us something to do.
I remember being so scared of cycling the 200m on the road from the bike shop to the van, and being completely unable to take my hand off the handlebars to indicate. Neither of us had a clue what we were doing; we wore climbing helmets because we didn’t have any cycling gear. As we got more confident we started to go further and further, and with no overseas travel allowed I started wondering if it would be possible to plan a bike trip around the UK instead.
Lockdown also made me feel really stuck. I started questioning whether it was right to try and live in a van and whether I really just needed to draw a line and try and get a “normal” job. I love climbing, skiing, hiking, camping, and getting out on adventures of all kinds, but I don’t see myself doing them forever. I think part of that is because I don’t always see the stories of other people who I resonate with who are older than me doing those things. I don’t see why things have to have a time limit, but there are so many messages around us that make it seem like adventure is a young person's game: questions from family asking when you are going to settle down, or when people say “enjoy it whilst you are young” when I tell them about my next trip. I had internalised these messages so much that I would only ever plan just one more year, just one more season, just one more trip. It’s hard to imagine doing more when you don’t have anyone to look up to.
I would have these moments of doubt where I questioned my life choices. Trying to prioritise adventure within my life would feel like trying to go against the grain. Things can go wrong in anyone’s life, but every time I hit a bump in the road I would feel as if people were ready and waiting to say “I told you so” or ask me if that means I’m going to live a “normal” life now. In moments of doubt, all I wanted was someone to look up to; someone older than me, who’s already been through it and knows that it’s going to be okay.
Every now and then I would meet someone who is older than me, and it would fill me with hope. I’d realise that there isn’t some sort of dead end, and be able see my future in them. Given I felt this way, I wondered whether there were other people who felt like this too. Maybe it would help to try and find some of these stories and share them with the people who needed to hear them.
I had the idea of incorporating the search for adventurous and outdoorsy stories with a bike trip, cycling around interviewing people as I went. I knew I wanted to talk to them about the outdoors and adventure: finding out how they got into the outdoors and what they do now. But I also wanted to ask deeper questions. I wanted to find the people who I could look up to, and ask them about all the doubts I was having. I didn’t just want to know where they are in life, but how they got there. Did they ever feel as if they were going against the grain? How did they cope when things didn’t work out? I drew inspiration for my questions from so many different places: books I was reading, Instagram posts, podcasts. I wrote a list of questions that covered everything from happiness to bravery, authenticity to the advice they would give to their younger selves.
When I first posted about it on Facebook I was actually really nervous that no one would understand the idea, or that no one else would feel the same. I was so anxious about it that I had to shut my laptop and walk away. I told myself that if I got six replies I could just go and visit those six people and that would be the trip.
In fact, I had an overwhelming response and ended up with a map covered in over 200 pins marking different people I could visit. I made a plan to try and visit as many of them as possible in the time I thought I had, and as lockdown one lifted I decided to jump in and go for it.
On the 15th August, with little cycling experience, my old second-hand bike, and borrowed panniers, I set off to cycle around the UK. I can remember pushing my bike along the seafront on the first day, a heavy mist soaking everything. I was nervous, completely underprepared, and had no idea what was about to hit me.
The first day was the hardest. I got soaking wet, broke down and got lost. I had placed so much emphasis on trying to just get through the first day that having to cut it short was devastating. But we managed to get the bike fixed and with interviews lined up I had no choice. Looking back, I’m actually really grateful that so much went wrong at the start when I still had people with me to help. After ironing out all the teething problems, the miles started to fly by. Before I knew it I was in Wales, then Scotland, and then pedalling the homeward stretch. People would ask me how tough it was but honestly it felt more like a holiday than anything else. Just a very wet UK holiday!
I did part of the trip with panniers, camping, wild camping and staying in people's gardens along the way (with permission). Then, for part of the trip, my girlfriend joined me to film and take photos, and we would stay together in her van overnight. I was blown away by people’s openness and generosity in the form of cups of tea, meals, camping spots and water refills. It’s as if helping me brought them a piece of adventure without them having to leave their house. Being in the UK made it much easier; there was never any worry of needing to be understood or not knowing how to ask for help.
When I planned the trip I didn’t have much time to think about where I would be cycling, but what really surprised me was how many incredible places there were. I had expected some places to be beautiful, like the Peaks and the Lakes, but it was all the in-betweens that blew me away. Wherever you live in the UK there is somewhere stunning to cycle, whether it’s over rolling hills, flat roads that stretch out with wide horizons, or cycle lanes around busy cities. I was lucky to cycle through the New Forest, Wales and Scotland, but really everywhere I went was amazing. I remember cycling into Liverpool after a week in the countryside and looking up at all the buildings. It was as if I had never been to a city before!
My favourite route of the trip ended up being from Clitheroe to Skipton - places I didn’t even know before I started! Quiet country lanes rolled over hills, with grey stone walls and blackberry-filled hedges, it felt like I spent the day cycling through the packaging of a box of Yorkshire Tea.
A month into the trip somebody asked me if I was tired of wearing cycling clothes all the time (I only had two tops and two pairs of shorts). No, I wasn’t. It was part of the routine, part of the momentum. I would get up in the morning, put them on and have no choice but to go and cycle. It was easy to carry on. But since getting home it’s been much harder. Despite telling myself I was going to do so many trips and mini-adventures, it is so easy to get distracted by life and forget what you have on your doorstep. I feel as if we need to give more recognition to those who are able to turn their back yards into playgrounds than those who go away and find somewhere easy to play.
I finished the trip in 71 days, on an equally wet day in October. Those two months were filled with some of the most open and vulnerable conversations I have ever had. I spoke with 51 incredible folx about their lives and what the outdoors means to them. I found many on Facebook and Instagram but also spoke to people I met along the way. I kept the criteria open, talking to anyone who was older than myself (I’m 27) and who felt like they prioritised the outdoors as a large part of their life. This means I spoke to a huge range of people from different places and backgrounds: swimmers, climbers, mountaineers, hikers, runners, mountain bikers, road cyclists, paddle boarders and everyone doing things in between. I am beyond grateful to everyone who was part of the trip.
I asked people questions about how they got where they are, and what their advice to their younger selves would be. We spoke about so much more than just the outdoors, covering mental health, illness, miscarriage, divorce, coming out. We spoke about bravery, authenticity, and happiness. Having started not knowing who these womxn were, or even if they even existed, it’s amazing to look back and know that there are so many extraordinary folx out there incorporating awesome adventures into their regular lives. I hope that by sharing their stories if there is someone out there who is going through something tough, or who doesn’t really seem themself, they might resonate with the journeys and experiences, and know that they are not alone in what they are going through, that it’s going to be okay.
The people I interviewed along the way would often say, “I’m sure my stories aren’t as interesting as the other womxn you’ve spoken to.” They would say this regardless of how much they had achieved or how much they had experienced along the way, and often when their adventures were more local. It seems as if accomplishments are devalued when they are undertaken close to home as if they are not wild enough, not exciting enough. But I would argue they are harder. You have to be more motivated and more creative to step outside your front door and make an adventure versus going away on a prescribed trip.
Having spoken to so many incredible womxn, I feel so much less alone. The doubts, worries and fears I have, seem almost universal. Questions like “Do you feel like you had a clear sense of direction through life?” would be answered with a loud laugh and a solid “No!” - even from people who seemed like they knew exactly where they were going. It’s so much easier to see a future for myself now, with so many different possibilities. The womxn I spoke to have all chosen different paths: some work in the outdoors, some part-time, some freelance, some work in offices and adventure around their careers. Many quit their jobs and retrained, sometimes twice or three times. Some didn’t find the outdoors until their fifties and are now retired and making up for lost time.
What came from so many of the interviews was a resounding feeling that you should just go with what makes you feel alive - to try not to worry about what others see for you or what other people will think but just follow what it is that makes you happy, and all the rest will fall into place. When you feel as if you are going against the grain, it’s not time to stop going, but to find a new forest.
I feel lucky to have spoken to so many incredible people and to be able to carry their stories and advice with me. Knowing that there is an entire community of people out there getting outdoors, adventuring and carrying on in their forties, fifties, sixties and seventies is absolutely the hope and inspiration I was looking for.
I am making every conversation I had into a podcast called Extraordinary Ordinary Womxn. The first season is already available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and all the usual podcasts sites, as well as the podcast’s own website. All the womxn I spoke to had incredible stories and some amazing insights - including the six womxn below.
Nikki Jones, 48 (she/her) - horserider and cyclist
Nikki’s life changed dramatically when she became ill with trigeminal neuralgia, a severe face pain. Since then she has been discovering new ways to spend time outside. She recently joined a pilot with Muddy Care enabling people to access the outdoors.
"I started this amazing pilot study for people with chronic conditions called Muddy Care," Nikki told me. "It's an outdoor rehabilitation course basically. We were the pilot study and there were six of us. And the first thing they did with us was surfing. Amazing. It was insane. It was in September, and the first day we did it I ran out of the sea and I just hugged [the woman running the study] and said, ‘I feel so free!"
Maggie, 70 (she/her) - windsurfer and kite surfer
After windsurfing for two years and becoming an instructor, Maggie set up a windsurfing school in 1986 - juggling bringing up young children and sharing her love of the water. She now has grandkids and the family still lives close to one another on the south coast of England near Camber Sands.
"I used to go down to the beach and just windsurf all the time," Maggie remembered. "I would drop [the kids] off at school, go down to the beach, go windsurfing, rush back, pick them up from school and give them cheese salad for supper.
Maggie only started windsurfing ten years ago, in her sixties. "I found it quite difficult," she said. "I don't think it had anything to do with my age. But I've just found it difficult diving the kite and getting up on the board. But I got the hang of it reasonably quickly. I think if you have a level of fitness, to be honest, kitesurfing is not that difficult."
"I just love everything about it," she said of being in the water. "I love being outdoors. I would be out all the time really. I love it in the evening down at Camber. It all sounds a bit romantic, but when the sun is setting and the birds are there, it is just so beautiful, it really is."
Carrie, 36 (she/her) - walking in every square of her local OS map
A keen hiker and snowboarder, Carrie wanted to find a new way to stay motivated and inspired to get outside in her local area in Sussex in 2020. She decided to try and walk in each square of her local OS map. At the time of doing the interview she had walked in 125/564 of the 1km squares.
"I was out walking one Saturday afternoon at Barcombe Mills, which is near Lewes - a lovely river area on the Ouse," Carrie recalled. "I was walking around with my trusty OS map, and just had this idea pop into my head: what if I could walk in every grid reference on this map, which is the Brighton and Hove OS Explorer map? By the end of the day, it was a thing."
"I haven't done much of the city stuff yet," she said. "I've been saving it for the winter. A lot of the summer months, I've been off exploring up on the hills because it's quite exposed in some of those places, and I wanted to make the most of the good weather."
The challenge has taught her a lot about the area. "Until I started doing it, I didn't really realise that there are just so many different things to see. Some of the landscapes can be a little bit samey because it's all chalk downland, but then we've got little bits of woodland that aren't even really on the map, and you just kind of wander into them. There is obviously all the farmland, all of the kind seaside areas of city areas - places I just never would have thought to visit otherwise.”
Fiona, 44 (she/her) - breaking the Coast to Coast down to weekends.
Fiona lives in sunny Clitheroe (it rained the entire time I was there) in Lancashire and is a huge fan of the local area. She hikes and works local adventures into her busy life around bringing up her children, other family responsibilities and work.
"I had travelled previously in my younger life before having kids and stuff," Fiona recalled. "I'd gone around the world a couple of times and done, you know, all the usual sort of backpacking, touristy things, and then lost sight of travelling and getting outdoors as much as I was a single mum for a while. With work you're just on the treadmill. So when you get off the treadmill, when the kids were back at school I started just sneaking out for a walk locally with my husband. And this reminded me how great it felt, you know, no matter what, just to get out, and it felt like a weight was lifted being out in nature. It's really cliche to say that, I know it is, but it's so true"
In 2018 her and her husband challenged themselves to walk the Coast to Coast trail. "We didn't really have babysitters and we won't make the kids walk for two weeks at a time ... So we split it into twelve sections and said 'We’ll do one a month, and we have to stick to it" - you know, because life still just takes over when you've got a family and it's just non stop."
They started with some of the high routes up in the lakes. "I just got the bug for getting up in the mountains. I mean, it's such a hard slog. Since we were wearing all the wrong gear - you know, weighed down by all these big heavy coats. It was January. You're supposed to do it between April to October... February was absolutely covered in snow. We kind of just learned as we went, but we had the best time and it really pushed me out of my comfort zone."
Fredi, 53 (she/her) - football coach and runner
Fredi is a football coach, and one of the kindest people I have ever met. With lockdown on and football practice cancelled she turned to running, and regularly visited the local park that backs onto her house.
"You know what: running, I like it," Fredi told me. "Because when you run sometimes you get people who wave to you across the road ... We're both struggling but we'll wave to each other. And it doesn't matter if you're a five k-er, ultra-marathon runner, multi-marathon runner or walker with a bit of running going on. I love it. I love running for that. It just gets you out. It doesn't cost anything apart from your trainers, and you meet all sorts of people ... It's been lovely for me. Lockdown has made me really appreciative of what's close by.
Soraya, 34 - Bamboo Bike
There’s not much Soraya doesn’t do. She rides horse, hikes and sails. She’s been canoeing and SUP'ing. She climbs and built her own bike from bamboo. Soraya loves trying new activities and wants to see an outdoors community where more people feel welcomed and like they can just give it a go.
“I think that sometimes it can seem intimidating because of the things that we see. What's permitted is people doing these super-extreme things. When actually being outdoors is just going for a walk from your house after work or taking your bike out or going for a wild swim and actually being in the water for only about 30 seconds because it is so cold ...
I do think we need to talk about that more, and we need to stop glamourising this whole, 'You need to be like the dirtiest, the most extreme, the least prepared.' It's fine to be the person who's like, 'Yeah, but just checking: if I go really far out there, what actually happens? Actually, maybe I don't really want to do that, I just want to paddle.' And that's fine, because that's your experience of the outdoors.”
This interview is tied to our resolution to continue celebrating local adventures through 2021. If you know about a story showing the value of local trips that don't require flying or driving, we’d love to hear about it, either as a tip or a pitch.