Women in Travel Interviews: Elspeth Beard
As part of Women's History Month in March and International Women's Day on the 8th, we are conducting a series of interviews with interesting and inspirational women in travel. From adventurers to conservationists, guides to rangers, there are some amazing women out there, and here's what a few of them have to say.
The third in our series is adventurer and award-winning architect Elspeth Beard. In 1982, Elspeth embarked on a two-year solo journey that would take her around the world on her beloved motorbike - the first British woman to do so. From the outback of Australia to the mountains of Nepal, Elspeth has travelled through some fascinating places. The great stories behind these places and her achievement as a solo rider have now been, rightfully, turned into a brilliant book, which you can also buy on Amazon! We talked to her about her journey and to find out more about her very cool experiences.
Firstly, let’s talk about your love of bikes! When and why did that start?
I first rode a bike when I was sixteen; a friend was taking his Husqvarna down to Salisbury Plain and asked me along. I can’t say I was instantly hooked but shortly after this I bought a Yamaha YB100 simply as a cheap and efficient way of getting around London. I started to find this limiting and a year later I upgraded to a 250cc Honda, and that was when I first realised the travelling potential of a motorbike. I soon got bored with the Honda and in 1979 I bought my second hand 600cc BMW R60/6 – a 1974 model with about 30,000 miles on the clock.
Did you have any experience of long journeys on your bike before setting off?
With my BMW I felt an immense sense of freedom and really felt that I could go anywhere. Over the next couple of years I gradually travelled further afield, building up my confidence, not only about travelling (much of it alone) but also how to look after myself and my bike. My first trip was a tour of Scotland, then Ireland, and then a two month trip around Europe in the summer of 1980. The following summer I persuaded my brother to meet me in Los Angeles where we bought an old 750cc BMW R75/5 and rode together across to Detroit. It was on this trip across America that the thought of riding around the world first came to me but I never imagined I would ever do it.
Was There A Particular Reason Or Catalyst For Wanting To Set Off Around The World?
It was a combination of events in my life the following year which prompted my hasty departure. During my three years studying architecture I met and fell in love with someone who ended our relationship about three months before my finals. As a consequence I graduated with a very poor degree and started to question whether I should continue with architecture as a career. These doubts combined with being brokenhearted made me decide I needed to get away. Wanting to travel, and with an overwhelming need to escape, I set about preparing myself and my bike with a plan to ride around the world.
What Was Your Most Memorable Experience?
The high point of my trip was (ironically) undoubtedly meeting and falling in love with Robert. Robert was Dutch and had emigrated to Australia but decided to return to Holland and ride his bike home. Having travelled on my own for nearly two years, it changed everything. I had not seen a fellow long distance motorcycle in almost two years, and neither had Robert, so it was a rare sight in those days.
Was There Any Point - Robbery, A Crash, Illness, Bureaucracy - That You Felt Like Giving Up?
I wouldn’t say that I ever really felt like giving up but after I had been on the road for nearly two years I was certainly desperate to get home. But giving up wasn’t an option for me. In those days your motorbike was written into your passport when you entered the country (to stop you selling it) so you weren’t allowed to exit the country without your bike. As flying bikes in those days wasn’t really an option either I had no choice but to sit on it and ride it home!
As a woman, did you receive criticism for your journey?
I wouldn’t say criticism more indifference, it was something most people couldn’t understand or relate to so it was simply never mentioned. I think people thought I was a bit odd.
I read that you had no interest or less than positive feedback from editors in the bike media industry about your journey. What, if anything, would you tell your younger self to respond with?
I didn’t find this out until out until 2008, in those days people travelled for themselves not to try and break or make a record. There was no internet, social media, mobile phones or anything like that so my journey was a very personal one. The response I received from the bike press before I left did make me very angry and I responded with some fairly sarcastic replies but it was this attitude that partly spurred me on.
Have you heard anything from any of the editors or journalists you got in touch with?
Interestingly the editor of Bike magazine who wrote a very condescending chauvinistic letter before I left has been in touch and apologised, took 35 years but we got there in the end!
How has that industry changed? And how do you hope it will continue to change?
I would like to think that attitudes have changed significantly and that the motorcycling industry has finally accepted that women can ride motorbikes. Sadly I think is probably more to do with the fact that the industry woke up and realised there was a large untapped market of women and we were now ‘welcome’ [call me a cynic!]. Whether or not our more recent acceptance is due to market forces, the end result is a good one in that more and more women are riding bikes, which only has to be a good thing. Long may this continue!
Where Was Your Favourite Country Or Place?
I visited so many amazing places on my travels that it’s hard to choose just one, but I loved northern Thailand, Nepal, Ladakh and New Zealand, I would say they are all my equal favourites.
What Do You Think You Learnt From Visiting So Many Countries?
Acceptance of people and cultures, and it made me realise how lucky we are as women to live in the UK where we have education and a voice. There are millions of women around the world who don’t have any of the rights that many of us take for granted.
After Such Adventurous Travels, How Do You Like To Travel Now And Why?
I still love to travel by motorbike, you can turn up almost anywhere in the world on a motorbike and you are made to feel welcome. It has a sense adventure about it which transcends all ages, cultures and races.
You were studying architecture before you left. How easy was that to get back into when you returned?
I found it extremely difficult when I returned as I had no one who I could talk to who understood what I had been through. It was a year after I got back before I returned to college to do my Diploma and the next two years studying was very difficult. I felt very restless and travelled as much as I could during this time.
Do you take inspiration from architecture and buildings from your travel in your work?
Yes I think all the diffident architectural styles and buildings that I saw when I travelled the world definately influenced my work. The way that locals often had to ‘make do’ with whatever materials they could find to build with made for some very interesting houses! There was no set format, architecture can be whatever you want it to be and above all it should be fun.
What made you want to set up your own firm? And what were the challenges there?
After the Water Tower was finished I won several awards and it was on the strength of these I decided to set up my own practice. I had been working in London and commuting for seven years but I felt I had learnt as much as I was going to and wanted to work for myself instead of giving my ideas away all the time. For the first 2 years I worked from home, it was very difficult to start with and I had to take on any project just to pay the bills. But whatever the job, I always did it to the best of my ability. In 2000 I rented a small office and started take people on to help. In 2003 brought a old stable building in Godalming which I refurbished which is where I still work today.
What Would You Say Your Passion Is?
Still adventure travel and riding motorbikes. I have recently bought a ruin in Italy which I am refurbishing which I would eventually like to run motorbike tours from.
Who Or What Inspires You? And What Are You Most Proud Of?
I am inspired by people who are passionate about what they do in life, whatever it is, and I am most proud of my son.
How do you hope to inspire other women?
I find it extraordinary that people are interested in something I did over thirty years ago when, at the time, no one wanted to know. If my story can now inspire other people, especially women to believe that there are no limits to what can be achieved with self-belief and determination then this would bring a whole new meaning to my trip. It’s important in life to face and overcome your fears and take yourself out of your comfort zone, you don’t know the person you are unless you are prepared to test yourself and find out. This gave me the confidence to take on anything life can throw at me without any fear.
What would you say to any women trying to break into a male dominated industry or environment?
I have always believed that if women want true equality we have to earn respect and that actions speak louder than any words, so I just went off around the world to prove them all wrong! Don’t get distracted by any negative comments, it’s important to stay focused. I never took much notice of what other people thought but it’s important to listen, understanding your opposition is key to finding the best way to deal with it. Believe in yourself and your abilities and try and enjoy the process. When I came up against prejudice I always considered it their problem not mine and just carried on doing my own thing.
Follow in Elspeth's footsteps and go on an epic round-the-world adventure...