Previously seen in Frank Magazine
We are sitting in the kitchen of the award winning and architecturally acclaimed Water Tower in Munstead, Surrey, where Elspeth now lives with a full restoration on it after purchasing in 1989. The ceilings are really high, and our talk is echoing around the hexagonal structure, Elspeth reminisces about how her extraordinary journey around the world has come into the public eye after almost 35 years.
Elspeth until quite recently, did not know that she was the first British woman to ride around the world solo on a motorcycle.
It wasn’t something I was of aware of. I got back in 1984 and when I returned, nobody was interested and I basically put all my photos and diaries away and they sat in a box for 30 odd years and got on with my life. It was as only in 2008 when a friend contacted me about my journey, for the BMW website, then in 2009 I discovered I was the first British woman who motorcycled around the world.
There is a gap from 2009 until 2017 when you published the book what happened there.
Slowly as the story started to sort of spread around, there was one image of me on my motorbike in London when I got back from the trip – there was something about that picture that captured peoples imagination, taken in 1984, the photograph had been hanging on my toilet wall for 35 years and nobody apart from my friends and I had ever seen it.
This image, plus others were on the internet now, and in 2014, caught the eye of an agent in Hollywood who, had found my story from some blog or something, contacted me – they wanted to buy my life rights to make a film about my story. So this was all really bizarre, I was whisked off to Hollywood, put in a five star hotel, met script writers and producers and they were all mad keen to buy my story. It had been years since I even looked at my diaries, I couldn’t even remember all the details, they seemed to have their own idea of what story they were going to tell, which wasn’t really what I wanted, so I sort of said thank you but no thank you and I went back home.
But it was that, that really made me start to write the book. It made me realise that my story had something in it.
That’s really exciting though to be able to say thank you but no thank you
Yes I wanted to make an accurate account of my journey which took 2 years to write and luckily I had all my diaries and accounts.
Exactly, the book is so intense with so many details, I love all the listed petrol items, where you filled up and how many litres and how much it cost, along with the details of tools and equipment. But what I want to ask is, so you came back in 1984, and you started writing it in 2015 – luckily you wrote contemporaneous journals, so did you manage to get yourself back into the moment?
Yes I kind of did, and in a very strange way I kept everything. I have no idea why, but I kept everything: journals, letters and photographs. Literally when I came to the end of a country, I would parcel everything up, all the negatives, receipts, shopping and insurance documents, and keep sakes, even admission things to museums in the middle of Texas, and sent it all back home. The thing that was really good was that I made voice recordings for my father on micro cassette tapes and he would send his voice recordings back to me, so I have all these as well.
And I had never listened the tapes or looked at all the parcels, so for writing the book these tapes were all so fundamental, they very much took me back to sitting at the side of the road when the bike had broken down, and were a lot more emotive than my written diaries.
Did you think when you were writing in 2015 what it would be like travelling round to these places now – as the world has changed -politically, boundaries, attitudes, wars have eroded areas, people have changed.
Well I have never stopped travelling and I have been back to Australia, got my pilots license and flew around, then travelled to Tibet and Africa & went around the world again in 2003. And have actually visited many places since. I have already seen massive changes within tourism.
You talk in the book about meeting all sorts of people, have you kept in contact with many of them from your initial travels.
I have and that is one of the great things. I am still in contact with quite a few people, I met these chaps just before I had my first big accident in the Outback, and they were luckily behind me, so they basically saved my life and hadn’t been in contact with them for about 30 years but writing this book we met up in London, and they were really useful, apart from saving my life, I had no recollection of what happened during my accident so meeting up with them again they were able to tell me and I could write it in the book.
You travelled on the BMW R60 tell us a little bit about this bike.
The bike has a 600cc engine. In the early 1980’s, a 600cc was actually considered quite a big bike, today everyone seems to think you need to travel on a 1250cc.
Yes, the travel bikes you see today are huge bikes with paniers and support frames…
I don’t believe you need all that cc. You can’t do 100 miles an hour you can’t even do 50 miles an hour in some places. Even my bike at 600cc there was some days I wouldn’t even get in to third gear and I think 1250cc? I think a lot of it is trying to look cool with a big bike.
Apart from the fact of speed limits, some of the rural places the road surfaces don’t warrant riding super-fast – especially if you want to really see the country and go off into the villages, off-piste.
Yes and to be fair you can ride those big bikes off road but you have to be quite skilled and know what you are doing, but most of the people that buy those big bikes don’t necessarily have all those skills.
When did you start riding
I got my first bike when I was 17 which was a little Yamaha 100cc, simply to get around, I lived in Central London and went to Art College in Chelsea. It was quick easy transport. I never saw myself as a biker – or that motorbikes were going to feature in my life, I bought a Honda 250 about a year later and I suppose then I could travel a bit further and I quite liked that and in those days very few women rode motorbikes.
That was going to be my next question, so what other women did you know who rode bikes
I had absolutely no female friends who rode, but it didn’t bother me, I knew I enjoyed it so that was all that mattered. I didn’t think about it.
Then what made you set off around the world
During my Architecture degree I met and fell in love with this guy, who finished our relationship just before my finals so I was desperately unhappy. I did really badly in my finals, I was just at those crossroads and decided I needed to escape.
I had been riding motorbikes for a good 6 years. I had also bought my BMW R60, which opened up possibilities of making bigger journeys, I had already made some UK and European trips, and I thought you know what, I will see if I can ride my bike around the world.
I think I’d like to leave this interview here Elspeth as it’s a great introduction to your book but finally though, what advice would you give someone now, to ride round the world?
It’s always good to get your confidence up to ride and to travel on your own – take it in small steps and make sure you have a bike that suits your build, not just what the sales person says in the shop, it can put a lot of women off if you get a bike that is totally wrong for you. Start off small and what you feel comfortable with. Don’t listen to other people. Listen to your own instincts. Do your own thing and you will work it out.
Oh Elspeth I have one more question – What is your biggest accomplishment
For me doing the trip was just total belief in myself and whatever people said I still kept on. And that has been brought forward to creating this water tower and today I take on such problematic architectural commissions, that other architects don’t want to touch. It taught me to believe in myself and it totally changed me as a person. That’s the other fantastic thing about writing the book after all these years, I was able to see what the incredible impact my journey had had on the rest of my life.
To find out about how Elspeth got on riding around the world solo, you can purchase her book, which she will sign for you, from her website: https://www.elspethbeard.com