55-year-old Jo Moseley finds herself, rather unexpectedly, on the forefront of British paddleboarding. Rediscovering the outdoors just a few years ago, she now lives and breathes adventure. Last summer, she spent 11 days on her paddle board, cruising across the country and picking up litter along the way.
What sparked your passion for the outdoors?
As a child, I loved spending time in nature and I’ve lived in the countryside for most of my life. I’d play outside with my brother, throwing ourselves in the sea. I’d ride my little bike up and down the hill. My dad would take us on walks in the woods. But as a teenager, I became very academic. I also lost a lot of confidence in my body. Looking back, I struggled with an eating disorder, but we didn’t talk about those things in the eighties. The balance was restored when I attended university on the coast. I travelled to the US, Alaska and Tanzania. Then I got married and retreated back indoors again. I just slipped into the traditional family role of putting my needs way, way down the list.
This sounds like a classic story arch that ends in a pivotal moment. What was yours?
When I divorced, my dad was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was juggling a lot, so when my sons went to see their dad on the weekends, I would go on walks to process everything. That’s when I first experienced the soothing and healing aspects of nature. In 2013, I reached a real low. Both my parents were undergoing chemotherapy; I was a busy single mum and I was experiencing the symptoms of menopause for the first time. In the middle of the supermarket, I dropped my shopping bags and burst into tears. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
When I recounted my meltdown to a friend, she asked me how much exercise I did. Truth be told, it wasn’t much. So she lent me an indoor rowing machine and within a couple of weeks, I started sleeping better. Exercising obviously helped, so I started exercising more regularly.
When my mum died later that year, I started a big fundraising challenge for Macmillan Cancer Support and rowed 10,000 meters every other night, for 8 months. I then rowed a marathon five days before my 50th birthday and on the first anniversary of her passing.
How did your body react to all of this?
It loved it. Because of menopause, I was suffering from a lot of anxiety and sleep deprivation. There is a lot of research on how moving regularly reduces the symptoms of menopause. It’s good for our muscle mass, bones and heart but also for our mental health. Exercise reduces our stress levels. Being active whilst outside adds an extra level.
Since discovering that being active was absolutely crucial for my well-being, I’ve looked for other activities to do. I went for a swim in the sea, picked up running, found an old bodyboard in the back of my dad’s cupboard. I then got my paddleboard as a birthday present. After just one try, I knew: this is it.
Some adventurers build their lives around the outdoors. You did it the other way around and tried to inject the outdoors into your daily life.
As a mum to young boys, I was always busy scurrying around the boys, holding their hands. Both my sons were growing up and that gave me the opportunity to let go a bit. I love my family life, but being a mum brings so many responsibilities. Rediscovering the outdoors gave me an escape. It started with little adventures. These moments are absolute freedom.
When I’m walking up on the crag, nobody at home needs me to do anything, answer anything. When I’m out on the sea with the paddleboard, nobody needs me to make them anything: they just have to find something in the fridge.
Picture by: Claire Wood Photography
You talk about rediscovering the outdoors with a twinkle in your eye. Would you say you’re entering a new stage in life now?
I certainly am. My youngest son is currently at university and my eldest has finished. I used to spend most of my Sundays by a rugby pitch, cheering them on and making sure they have their boots and their lunch. That’s all changing now, and the outdoors gives me the space to think ahead. It doesn’t only offer me a freedom from things, but also a freedom to explore and to rediscover myself again. It’s a different kind of freedom, but both are equally important.
What have you discovered about yourself in the process?
So much! I learnt that I am braver than I thought. You don’t get to 55 without some struggles in life. I had two miscarriages, got divorced, lost my mum. Many things have happened, as they do in life. And a lot of my confidence was knocked. The outdoors allows you to grow. I am now braver, stand up for myself and trust myself more. I always like to please people, but I now listen to myself and my body.
How important is that self-confidence as a motivator for outdoor adventures?
I get a lot of lovely messages from women who’ve said: “I used to tell myself, once I lose 10 pounds, I’ll go and do these things. Your story has encouraged me to go and do them now.” Women – or anyone, for that matter – need to realise they don’t need to put anything off until they look like whatever they think they should look like. You can get fit by being outdoors and enjoying the experience.
When your body is changing, aching and in pain, when you’re tired all the time and your confidence is low, you need to think about yourself. But feeling guilty for putting your own needs first is quite a thing to overcome.
Picture by: Claire Wood Photography
It’s really important to encourage people that they deserve the time and the freedom. That’s why I find it so inspiring to see a whole generation of younger women on social media that have the confidence to put themselves first and go travel on their own.
As a 55-year old paddleboarder with a large social media following, you stand out. Do you think your experiences in the outdoor are different than anyone else’s – or is that just a perception?
I don’t think my experience is any different. If it seems so, that’s just down to perception. During my paddleboarding trip along the canal, some people questioned what I was doing or what I had done. Interestingly, they were all males from my generation or above. It was weird; I didn’t expect them to doubt me. At first it threw me – I never expected anyone to doubt me – but then it frustrated me.
You could say that I don’t look like your average adventurer – whatever that image is. But when I look out of my window on the edges of Yorkshire Dale National Park, I see huge numbers of women much older than me, all the time. They’ve clearly been walking all their life, map read like the best and know these places in the depths of their hearts. You would not know about their existence if you look at the advertising. It often seems that at 30, you drop from the edge of the outdoors.
Do you think that lack of representation keeps older people away?
Certainly not all the time. Some of these women don’t need a magazine or a video to be encouraged to get outside. But there might be women who don’t realise how welcome the outdoors can be. Advertising and what’s happening in the outdoors can be worlds apart.
It’s not just about representation. When advertisers forget a different demographic, they don’t design for this demographic. Sometimes the products just aren’t made for our bodies. There’s this overall vision to just “shrink it and pink it”.
Men’s products are mass-produced in a smaller, shorter size with a splash of colour and they call it women’s apparel. But are they thinking about whether the design will work for women? Do we all want a crop top? And do we really want it in bright pink?
Maybe we need to acknowledge more that age can be an asset too.
Oh, it absolutely is. Once you get to an older age, you know that most things in life work out. There’s a certain pragmatism that enables you to say: “We’ll get there”. You also don’t need the fanfare and the drama. Having been through many years of “work-eat-sleep” has probably taught you about the repetition of life. That helps, because adventure is full of very mundane moments. It’s not fireworks the whole time.
A lot of outdoor enthusiasts focus on achievements. You’ve achieved quite a lot: you’re the first woman to paddle coast to coast. That’s amazing but you barely mention it.
I am really proud of my accomplishments, sure, but more important to me is who I’ve become and the things I overcame. There’s often this focus on conquering nature – and there’s an inherent sense of privilege in that. As a community, we need to turn from conquering the environment, to protecting the environment. We need to look at what we can give, not at what we can take.
You seem to practice what you preach. You combine a lot of your outdoor adventures with litter picking. Why is that important to you?
I’ve always picked up driftwood and sea glass, for as long as I can remember. I loved the fact that something went into the sea, got mushed about and turned out even more beautiful.
As I started to see more litter, I also started to pick that up. That’s the thing: once you see litter, you can’t unsee it. The habit turned into a challenge to do it every day. It also gave me a purpose – and that becomes increasingly more valuable when you get older.
I can still get really angry when I find a post-barbecue beach with a ton of garbage, but I feel at peace when I clean it up and raise awareness on social media. Had I just left it like it is, I would have left only with the negative.
Jo in a nutshell:
FAVORITE NATIONAL PARK:
Yorkshire Dales, England
Paddleboarding and walking
LOOKING FORWARD TO:
Paddleboarding on the sea