We catch up with the inspirational Prue Knowles, who lives in Exeter, about living an adventurous life. Now in her 80’s, she’s a great example of how you are never too old to take on new adventures, only starting with longer distances when she was in her 50’s. She’s modest, fun and her words of advice at the end of the interview will no doubt give you a boost if you are in need of one. Thank you Prue!
Where did your love of the outdoors begin and at what point did this move into bigger adventures?
I think that I’ve always loved being outdoors, and I was very keen on sport at school and college but then work, marriage and children put a bit of a brake on activities. Everything changed when we had a family holiday in a cottage in Dolgellau in N Wales, where the owner had thoughtfully left several pairs of walking boots for anyone to borrow, which we did, and as a family, we discovered a love of walking, which has never left us.
When our children were quite young we took them up all the high mountains in the UK, such as Helvellyn via Striding Edge (aged 9 and 11, wearing their wellies, but in mitigation we bought them walking boots after that), Snowdon over Crib Goch, Ben Nevis, and Scafell Pike etc. Basically, every holiday was spent walking in mountainous areas. Then we discovered the Alps, and spent holidays walking there even when walks had to be interspersed with other activities to maintain good relations with our teenage youngsters.
When my husband and I were younger we did some backpacking but having a dodgy back stopped that, but it improved as I got older and for my 50th birthday I was given a bike and a rucksack, and suddenly life opened up. We started long-distance walking by doing the SW coastal path, in small stages as and when we could, and then we started doing long-distance walking in the Alps once our son and daughter had left home. We’ve walked many of the well-known trails, such as the Alpine Pass Route, the Haute Route, the Tour of the Jungfrau, the Tour d’Oisans (not one for the faint-hearted) etc., staying in mountain huts, B&Bs or hotels. We didn’t start these long-distance walks until I was 55 and our last one was in 2010 when I was 70. We did them unaccompanied in the sense that we planned them ourselves and carried our own rucksacks with all our belongings, so it must be obvious that we didn’t take anything that wasn’t really essential. I weighed EVERYTHING before adding to my rucksack (yes, even my knickers) just to ensure that I took the lightest of what I possessed. Funnily enough, my rucksack always weighed exactly the same – just over 7kg – every year, or so my husband said.
The walks lasted between two and three weeks and on average we walked between 100-200km, with overall height gains of anything from 7000m upwards. The highest col we crossed was Col Lauson in Italy at 3295m.
Can you tell us a bit about all the cycle touring you’ve done and where you’ve travelled to by bike?
Sadly, my husband’s knees were causing him problems so we had to stop long-distance walking, so we took up long-distance cycling instead. I had already done some cycle touring with “girl” friends (in Pembrokeshire, N Devon and Brittany) and my husband was overcome by FOMO which coincided with our women’s group disbanding so we started cycling together. Some ground rules had to be laid down, such as regular stops at coffee shops/patisseries were non-negotiable and an understanding that we were not taking part in the Tour de France but were cycling to enjoy the countryside, but these were quickly established and we have been cycling happily together ever since.
We started by doing easy routes such as the Brest to Nantes canal, and the Loire river route, but gradually progressed to doing much harder routes (this coincided with us getting olderas is obviously normal) such as following from their source, the rivers Inn, Moselle, Rhine (although there is still a section left for us to do) and the Danube, as far as Budapest. We’ve also done part of the Velodyssee but got a bit bored with sea and sand so stopped at La Rochelle. The longest route we cycled was from Passau in Germany to Budapest, just over 700km.
You’ve also done lots of hut to hut hiking in the French and Swiss Alps. How do you plan these trips?
In great detail, it does have to be said. Once Christmas was over, we used to start searching the internet, (prior to the internet we used to bombard travel agencies in places along our chosen route), reading travel books/blogs and trying to decide where to go. Once that decision was made the real planning started, with map buying (downloading I guess these days) and route book buying. A guy called Kev Reynolds was always our go-to favourite Alpine walker/travel writer.
This might sound tedious but for us it was certainly part of the fun as we worked out whether the route chosen was do-able and whether we would deviate from the recommended route or follow it as written. This was followed by checking we could get there relatively easily by train (and I can recommend the sleeper train from Paris which is an adventure in itself) and if all of that worked out, we would book our first night’s accommodation, and book the rest as we went along. This sometimes presented the odd problem when accommodation wasn’t available but we never had to sleep under a hedge.
A word of advice: don’t consider staying in a mountain hut unless you’re prepared to either not wash or wash in freezing cold water/ share not only a dormitory or a loo with lots of other people, mostly men/ and like spaghetti Bolognese.
Of all the adventures you’ve done, what has been your favourite and why?
It’s very difficult to choose and I’m torn between the Haute Route (our first very hard walk) or the Tour of the Jungfrau, with the amazing scenery of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau as a backdrop. My favourite cycling route has to be the second part of the Danube route which took us to Budapest: cycling through what used to be Eastern Bloc countries was just so interesting and so different from anywhere else. So that’s three favourites I’ve chosen.
What bit of kit do you always take with you?
A map (paper or digital), a diary, a camera and a small tablet with lots of downloaded books. Everything else is very basic because weight is always an issue. It’s amazing how freeing it is to have no choice of clothes for several weeks. I once met a woman in a mountain hut who told me that she cut off the extra buttons on her shirts to limit the weight, but I’ve never gone that far! I might be prepared to share a deodorant or even a toothbrush, but not to cut off spare buttons.
What gave you the idea to cycle John O’Groats to Lands End for your 80th birthday? And how were you planning to do this – staying in hotels, did you have set miles planned or were you going to ‘wing it’?
It’s something that has always been a “pipe dream” but which I thought I wouldn’t be able to do, but once we bought electric bikes two years ago it became more of a possibility. When my daughter (thanks, Becki) bought me 2 books about the route, a notebook and a card that said “she believed she could so she did” I really didn’t have much choice.
We had worked it out totally, (winging it at our ages is not our style anymore) and planned to stay in small hotels, B&Bs and with friends and family. We were going to do it in either 2 or 3 stages rather than all in 1 and we had booked our accommodation and were due to go to Land’s End the week that the first lockdown was introduced, so that was that.
Obviously this hasn’t been able to go ahead as planned so what have you done in its place? I saw you found a colder way to celebrate your 80th instead?
We couldn’t do LEJOG, however lockdown provided us with lots of opportunities to go cycling in Devon and we have discovered so many villages, hamlets and lanes that we didn’t know existed and we have loved it. I added up the total distance that we cycled between 23 March 2020 (the date of lockdown 1) and 23 March 2021 and we cycled 3,762 km which is more than cycling Le Jog and back again. As we live in Devon very little of our cycling is along flat routes and I’m writing this having cycled 66km today, with 1300m of ascent, which gives an indication of the terrain around Exeter – but the views are amazing. So although we may not have cycled LEJOG we’ve reached so many unknown places in our own county, so there are always other ways to fulfil the need for a challenge.
As for cold swimming. Again, my daughter has to be “blamed” for that. We couldn’t have a big 80th birthday celebration because of the “rule of six” but Becki and her family came to stay for the weekend and “forced” (she prefers the word “encouraged”) me to go swimming in the sea. In October. The last day of my being in my 70s. How cruel was that? I absolutely loved it and screamed and shouted…..and took hours to get warm again, but it was such fun.
Will you still try and make the LEJOG journey when things open up?!
Unfortunately, I think that time may have passed as it’s unlikely that we will feel comfortable about cycling from place to place this year, because of Covid, and by next year we’ll be another year older. Never say never, but I’m not sure. There will be other things to do, other adventures to have, even if we’re only terrorising teenagers driving our motorised ability scooters.
Is there a motto or ethos that you live your life by?
My faith as a Christian has been the bedrock of my life and defines any ethos or motto but I also think that it’s essential to do things while I still can because I don’t know what the future holds.
Finally, what advice or words of wisdom would you spare for anyone wanting to live a bit more adventurously?
Just try. If there’s something that you really, really would like to do then try to find a way to do it. You may have to be creative (as in cycling the length of LEJOG by cycling up and down Devon hills) but give it a go. Also, try small and progress to bigger if it turns out to be your thing. If you want to do a long-distance walk or bike ride, then try a short one first and beg, borrow or hire equipment to see if it is what you want to do. Do your homework and read other people’s blogs so that you have some idea of what you might be letting yourself in for, but basically just try. You have nothing to lose by having a go. Also, be flexible about your arrangements: mountain weather is totally unpredictable and therefore you may well have to adapt or give up your plans, but that’s life. And enjoy. Life is short and is for living, so live it.
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Bex Band founded Love Her Wild. Alongside running the community, she is an author, blogger and speaker on all things adventure and conservation. For her work championing women in the outdoors, she has been nominated for multiple awards and was named one of the UK’s Top 30 inspirational entrepreneurs.