The Queenager | Eleanor's Letter
It is never too late and you are never too old for an adventure!
“I hope that by being brave I can encourage other women to be brave too and try a new adventure in their fifties or sixties,” said Shilpa Rasaiah as she set off on her paddleboard on the 160-mile journey from Camden Lock to her home in Nottinghamshire.
I’d got up early to meet her and paddle the first few miles of her epic trip along the Regent’s Park canal. The sun glinted on the water as I climbed onto my Kayak (that’s me and my husband between all the paddleboarders) my bottom was immediately soaked (brrrr) but it was soggy fun nonetheless. The towpath was full of early morning joggers, kids walking to school and groggy looking tourists emerging from their hotels in search of caffeine.
But silhouetted against the graffiti were four midlife women with huge inflatable paddleboards setting out on a 167-mile journey from central London to Nottinghamshire up the Grand Union Canal.
For those of you who don’t get out much, a paddleboard is a cross between a kayak and a surfboard made of super-buoyant, stable plastic. To propel it, you stand on the top of the board with a paddle stroking the water on alternative sides – it’s like walking on water. Beginners often find themselves in the drink until they get their sea legs (it also depends on how wide your board is as I found to my cost once in Dubai!). But with a bit of practice, it is possible to skim along pleasantly for an hour or so, taking in the beauty of the waterways, checking out fellow travellers such as ducks and herons and generally enjoying the fresh air and beauty of the great outdoors.
Traditionally such water-based adventuring has been the preserve of grizzled chaps, lycra-clad talking about riding the Severn bore, or catching waves. But thanks to lockdown and new lighter technology for boards, it has seen an upsurge in popularity by women. Indeed midlife female paddleboarders are the fastest-growing demographic according to British Canoeing, with thousands of us taking to the Uk’s rivers and canals in 2021 alone.
Shilpa Rasaiah, 60, is one of them. She only learnt to swim five years ago and subsequently took up kayaking on the canal in her native Leicestershire. So how come today she is leading an epic 14-day paddle all the way from the capital to her home in Normanton on Soar, and onto the source of the Old Grand Union canal at Trent Lock in Nottinghamshire?
With an enthusiastic, if nervous, grin Shilpa says: “I have never done anything like this before in my life but I am up for an adventure! Indian girls from my era were usually never taught to swim. I only learnt when I was 45. But now I love the water and seem to spend more and more time on it! Initially, I took up kayaking and only started stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) a year ago. Being on the water is so amazing – it revives my soul and helps to keep me fit and strong. I have always had an interest in waterfront development and for a long time felt that canals were an underutilised asset where development had turned their backs on the waterways that had once been the backbone of the industrial revolution. . I am a town planner by profession [Shilpa ran a successful consultancy but is now semi-retired]. I have always been interested in those quirky bits of the UK that are frequently forgotten. And the canal takes you through so many different landscapes, industrial, rural and those liminal places in between. You are part of them, and floating along the water it’s like walking on clouds sometimes.. ”
As Shilpa and her flotilla prepare to set sail – there is much stowing of water-proof kit bags and scruffling in pockets for mobile phones to photograph the departure – she confides that her biggest concern is about her physical fitness.
“My biggest anxiety is about my body and my health – I’m worried that my back won’t stand up to the 167 miles I am doing over the next few weeks. As well as my lunch and some energy bars, I’ve got some super strong painkillers in my kit bag just in case. I’d only ever paddled short distances till I started training for this and 10 miles is the furthest I have ever paddled.”
Although she looks pretty fit, I’m not surprised she is feeling a little worried. Today she is planning to paddle 14 miles – the furthest she has ever gone - taking in the tunnel between Regent’s Park and Paddington basin and then heading out into the north London suburbs before reaching Hayes.
This evening she is staying with her sister Anjana and her husband Arvind in Finchley. She stayed there last night and before she set off this morning they had a special traditional Indian ceremony involving sweets for good luck. Her family are Ugandan Asians, Shilpa arrived in the UK when she was seven and grew up in Leicester (which is on her paddleboarding itinerary home to Normanton on Soar). Her mother worked in a hosiery factory and her father was a cleaner. Shilpa did well at school, went to university and eventually became a town planner; her trajectory is typical of this enterprising community that is often hailed as Britain’s most successful immigrant group. Many fled Idi Amin’s Uganda with nothing but the clothes on their back and have made good lives for themselves and their families in Britain.
As we paddle along the canal, under the railway bridge, past a family of mallards – the cutest baby ducklings – and a collection of tents belonging to rough sleepers (truly all life is here) we chat about the restfulness and variety of the waterways. Shilpa hopes that her epic paddle board journey will encourage others to consider similar activities in their local areas and bring them a new zest for living. “I particularly want to inspire ordinary, older women of colour like me to give it a go,” she says with a smile.
Despite her concerns, to me her paddling looks very expert, smooth and regular; we clip along at a little faster than walking speed (the joggers on the towpath outpace us all). Behind us, the over-50s canoeists from Camden Lock’s Pirate Club spread out. They are a cheerful bunch of predominantly women aged 50-80 plus who go out together in a mix of canoes and kayaks twice a week (they call themselves Upper Deckers and it only costs £5 to join them on a Wednesday evening). They too sing the joy of exercise and being on the water.
“I love the community around stand-up paddle boarding,” Shilpa says. “The majority of my support team have come from social media connections through Instagram or Facebook.” Most she has only got to know in the last six months – one of the great joys of taking up something different in midlife is finding a whole new tribe. As a result of social media, many paddleboarders and towpath walkers are coming to join her for different legs of the adventure. Through her Instagram @sup.loving.shilpa she has mobilised an army of supporters, some of whom are putting her up in their homes overnight, helping with transport and portaging. “I am so moved and grateful for the kindness of strangers,” she says. “Meeting new people is all part of the adventure, I am loving being a #shepaddles ambassador for British Canoeing - it somehow gave me the reason to undertake this adventure.” (If you fancy a laugh you can see me in a kayak on that first morning on her Instagram page).
As we head past a collection of brightly painted longboats I ask Shilpa where she got the inspiration for this trip. “My inspiration came from wanting to do an adventure on my doorstep and the Grand Union Canal has always been a prominent feature in the landscape where I grew up and worked on waterfront regeneration.” It was at the Kendal Mountain Festival where she met Jo Mosely, (@healthyhappy50 on insta) author of Paddleboarding Great Britain, and asked her “if she would like to join me on a SUP journey that went north to south as she had already done 160 mile trip from Liverpool to Goole Coast to Coast.”
Mosely sent Shilpa a book called Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson about a group of Queenagers who set off up the Grand Union Canal on a longboat. Those of you who come to the Noon Book Club will remember it well, Anne came and talked about her love of the canal and how she thinks everyone should have more adventures in midlife! “It is such a touching story, about transformation in midlife, about women going on an adventure – about how much is possible at this age and stage. It confirmed that we were both thinking of the same canal as our choice for this adventure.”
Mosely, 54, is very much the mother of midlife SUP adventurers, her trip from coast to coast became a much-garlanded film Brave Enough: A Journey Home to Joy and she is now working on the second volume of her book which is a guide to wonderful places to paddleboard all over the UK. She was originally going to paddle all the way with Shilpa but is now joining her for the last day only because of a book deadline (if you live nearby go and join them – their itinerary is at the bottom of this piece). I catch up with her on the phone (she sounds breathless having just returned from swimming in the river – we laugh at our matted hair, I have just returned from my daily swim in the Hampstead Ladies Pond, I always go at noon, of course).
“Stand Up Paddleboarding is a great sport for women”, says Mosely. “It is low impact but it builds core strength and is good for combatting osteoporosis. It builds pelvic floor muscles and balance and is a full body work out which still feels like fun. Like many women of my age, I hated sport at school but I love this. So many older women say to me they love it because it doesn’t feel like sport.”
Mosely began paddleboarding after she injured her knee badly enough to need an operation. “I’d been on crutches but paddleboarding was my medicine. I’d also had two frozen shoulders and SUP really helped that as well. It is medicinal, it keeps my body functioning. I feel like a warrior, not a worrier when I get off my board. I love the feeling of standing up, looking around with my head up – I feel powerful.”
Paddleboarding is 51% female – and women in midlife are the fast-growing SUP demographic. You really can do it at any age – my mum who is 78 is a keen SUP-er – and unlike kayaking or canoeing, you don’t have to bend at the hips or heave yourself out.
Its very newness is also a boon to women, says Mosely. “Unlike canoeing or kayaking SUP has no history, no image women have to counter. We are writing its stories as we go along. I find that the positive way it makes me feel spills over into other areas of my life. On the water I feel strong, it is something I do for myself and like many women at this stage much of the rest of the time I am looking after my son or my elderly parents. Sometimes we can feel we are sinking under the responsibility of caring for everyone else. Paddleboarding is what I do for me.”
In the largest research project to date into women in midlife called Meet the Queenagers conducted by Noon with Accenture, 51 per cent of women aged 45-60 said they feel like “this is my time when I finally get to do something for me”. That sense of finally being able to do something for themselves is fuelling the popularity of paddleboarding amongst this demographic, as is lighter kit (new technology means Shilpa can easily carry her board around the locks). Mosely says that women tend to have better balance than men and most take to it easily. Though she recommends having a couple of lessons and getting a paddling license (which gives third-party insurance cover) if you are heading out on the water. “Anyone can paddleboard, we have plus sized paddlers, women from all sorts of backgrounds in all shapes and sizes. This is the most popular paddle sport for women in the UK.”
Back on the Regent’s Park canal, Shilpa is getting ready for her first stretch through a tunnel to Paddington Basin – this one she is paddling herself, escorted by a narrow boat from the Pirate Castle, with a torch-bearing headlight. On the Blisworth Tunnel, which is nearly two miles long, Shilpa will be escorted by a support boat to take her through safely. In total, there are five tunnels to go through on this route. Special rules apply to non-motorised crafts when travelling through them and Shilpa has worked closely with the Canals and Rivers Truston a risk assessment for the adventure.
As she heads towards the dark mouth of the tunnel, we part ways – I head back with the flotilla to Camden, but I wish I could keep going with her all the way home to Loughborough. We chat about how it is never too late and you are never too old to have an adventure – and how that wonderful sense of possibility is so ever-present on the canal – and in Anne Youngson’s book.
As she turns to paddle the 167 miles home Shilpa turns to me and grins: “ I hope that by being brave I will encourage other women to have a go. If I can do it, anyone can.”
If you would like to catch Shilpa on her epic paddle follow her on Instagram @sup.loving.shilpa she is raising money for the Pirate Castle in Camden Town which offers water-based activities to people from deprived backgrounds and is facing hard times following covid. Click here to support her crowdfunding efforts.
We’ll also be following her progress on Noon.
I love Shilpa’s story because it shows that we can all find a new chapter, a new passion, and a new dimension to our lives. Whether that is physical or mental, starting a business or going back to do a degree. This week I ran our first Noon Circle for paid subscribers and it was so brilliant to hear what you are all up to, how this sense of moving into purpose, not doing anything we don’t want to, not suffering fools and trying to carve out some time for ourselves is truly at the essence of all Queenagers.
I hope Shilpa inspires some of you to try something new too – why not come and join us next week at the Noon Walk – on 26th June in Brighton, it is free, you can sign up here. The idea for it came about at another Noon Book Club, the one with Ericka Waller, author of Dog Days. We’ll be walking, wild swimming and finishing up with large amounts of cake. There will be chat! Come and find out about trundl too, a new app which tracks where you walk and helps you raise money for charity. I’ll be there with lots of the Noon crew. Remember it’s never too late and you are never too old… or as we say at Noon – So Much More to Come… come and join a posse of Queenagers for a day out in the sun (hopefully).
Ps. Those of you who are affected or know someone who is - our first Noon Support Group for parents of teens with eating disorders is kicking off on July 12th. There will be a maximum of eight in each group which will meet at noon fortnightly on a Tuesday starting on July 12th. The link above will take you to Eventbrite where you can find out more and register!