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«All of a sudden, I was completely on my own, totally free to make every single decision about everything.»
Elspeth Beard, zvg.

«All of a sudden, I was completely on my own, totally free to make every single decision about everything.»

In the early 1980s, British architect Elspeth Beard rode around the world on her motorbike. Upon her return home, she felt estranged.


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What did freedom mean to you when you were growing up?

I was very lucky that my that my parents sort of allowed us a lot of freedom. My upbringing was probably not the normal kind. My father was a very eccentric psychiatrist who actually believed very strongly in allowing hi children a lot of freedom and to make their own mistakes and to learn by them. We were never told to do or not to do something. It was a very sort of unusual way of bringing up children. We used to go on family holidays, my dad would drive this car like all over Europe, us three siblings all stuffed into the back of this car. And he was obsessional about seeing every single thing in the Michelin Guide. So we’d go from church to altarpiece to ruin to whatever, literally the whole day was just spent driving and stopping, driving, driving, driving, driving, and then we’d pitch the tent at night. And then the next morning would be up at six o’clock, tent down, back in the car, seeing everything we could possibly see. That was very much instilled in us at a young age.

That does seem like a very early lesson in being bold.

Traveling was quite normal to us I suppose, because it was something we did every single summer holidays. That instilled this inquiring mind to find out about the world, about other countries and everything. Combined with my parents’ attitude to give us as much freedom as we could possibly have wanted, I think that provided me with a good frame of mind. In my early 20s, I wasn’t frightened of going out and venturing out on my own. I felt quite confident that it was a kind of a normal thing to sort of do. I rode a motorbike. I wanted to see the world. I was at a kind of stage in my life where I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Riding my bike around the world wasn’t really a big thing. In my mind, I just kind of went and did it.

Can you recall the first moment when you really got aware of motorcycling culture?

When I started riding bikes, it really was just a sort of cheap and easy way to get around London. I was expelled from school when I was 16, which actually was a good thing. My parents enrolled me in a college in London to finish off my A levels, which was my kind of exams for me going to university. There I met this group of bikers, and that was my first introduction to motorcyclists to motorbikes, and a friend sold me his little Yamaha 100. That was my first motorbike. It was simply used to get around London, it was cheap, it was easy, it was fast, it was efficient. I really did see it as just a mode of transport. Later I bought myself a slightly bigger bike, a 250. I passed my test on it; back then in the UK, you could ride a bike up to 250 without taking any test at all. That sounds crazy now, but it’s the way it was in.

And you proceeded from there?

After a year, I bought my BMW 600. Suddenly I thought, actually, you could go places on this serious machine. The following year, I flew out to America at the West Coast.  And I bought myself an old 750 BMW 75 stroke five, very cheaply, and rode it from the West Coast to the East Coast. And it was somewhere along that trip, I thought, actually, this is pretty cool,  maybe it’s possible to actually ride a motorbike around the world? Now that seems bit daft, but 40 years ago, people didn’t do it. Very, very few people had written about that, Ted Simon for instance; now I know there were people earlier than that. I’ve been doing my first three years architecture at that point, and just got this crazy thought. The following year, when a whole series of things happened to me in my life, I wanted to escape and get away. So that’s how it sort of happened.

That was the summer of 1982. The Cold War was still going on; many Arab countries were run by dictators, and the Islamic Revolution happened only a few years earlier. How did you decide what route to take?

I was only 23, quite nervous and quite apprehensive. Rather than heading east through Eastern Europe and Iran, I thought I’ll head west, starting in the US. I shipped my bike across to New York. I’d been to America the year before, it was a kind of known quantity, they spoke English, the roads were good. It was a sort of gentle way for me to start, I suppose. Also, having that big stretch of water between me and home made it harder for me to turn back. I rode across America, then Canada and a bit of Mexico, followed by New Zealand, and then I arrived in Australia, where I stayed in Sydney for seven months because I was completely broke. There, I worked in an architectural practice in Sydney and in a pub, saving 6000 pounds in seven months. That got me home. From there, I rolled around Australia, then Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand. Then I had to take the boat across to India, rode around there, then into Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, right across Europe back home to London. I did 35,000 miles in just under two and a half years.

How did you experience Iran after the Islamic Revolution?

Iran was a really strange – the one country that kind of worried me the most, because you couldn’t find out anything about the country at all, and it was at war with Iraq when I was riding through. I didn’t really have a choice. In those days, you sort of traveled in a different way. You couldn’t plan ahead as people can plan ahead now. You left in the morning, and had no idea where you were going to get to, how far you were going to get where you were going to stay – absolutely nothing. It was just a blank canvas. And that was a real adventure, because you had absolutely no idea. In Iran, I managed to get a seven-day transit visa into the country. I found the people very friendly, hospitable, and lovely, but I think they were just frightened of showing any kindness to any Westerners. I think there were always kind of secret police around everywhere watching everybody. But they wanted to be friendly, welcoming and hospitable nevertheless in private.

What were memorable experiences in terms of freedom?

The minute I was on the road, there was this overwhelming feeling of freedom. All of a sudden, I was completely on my own, totally free to make every single decision about everything. There was nobody, and nobody knew where I was, there were no phones, the communication was almost inexistent. Although that was kind of quite a scary feeling, it was this amazing feeling of total and utter freedom. I didn’t have to answer to anybody, I didn’t have to justify what I was doing to anybody, I didn’t have to explain it to anybody. It was just me doing entirely what exactly what I wanted to do.

It also seems quite exhausting.

The consequences could be dire. It was very much knowing that you were sort of living on the edge all the time, you had to keep your wits about you. It was good and bad. But above all, it was this incredible sense of freedom. I learned a lot about myself and about everything. It wasn’t necessarily great at the time – this feeling of being totally and utterly alone. I don’t actually think that it’s possible to feel that anymore in this world.

Isn’t this captured by the ambivalence in your autobiography’s title ? “Lone Rider” hints both at “lonely” and “singular”.

Exactly. Well done. A lot of people don’t get it. They say: “Oh, but you weren’t really alone”, because I spent parts of the journey in company. But it’s not really about that. Riding a bike actually isolated me in a lot of ways which put me in an even more lonely place than I had, as I always felt a little bit like an outsider. Riding a motorbike around the world isolated me from my friends and from my family, who couldn’t understand this crazy idea. When I used to turn up at this kind of hostel type places where other travelers were, I was seen as this very odd person on a motorbike. Even there I was sort of isolated from them. This trip was a very, very lonely place to be. And when I came back, it was just as isolating, because nobody could understand what I’ve done, or wanted to hear it or wanted to know or had any interest in it.

Do you do have an explanation for this? Isn’t it strange that a woman hit the road alone in this time, returns home, and the reactions to that trip turn out to be so modest?

Women weren’t looked at as serious riders in motorcycle culture in the UK at that time.  In bike magazines, the only women were these half-dressed models strewn all over the motorbikes. Before the internet, the only way you could get your story told was for a magazine to publish it and hope people would be interested in reading it. You had to have an editor of a magazine who believed in what you had done and was interested in telling your story. The motorbike press was very, very, very macho – very much a man’s world. And I just I don’t think they wanted to publicize that this woman had done this this trip. I think they just found it hard to accept that I’d done it. At the time, it was quite hurtful.

What about the reactions in your private environment?

I can sort of understand why my friends and family weren’t that interested either, because I suppose it’s like hearing about somebody else’s holiday or looking through somebody else’s holiday pictures. If you can’t relate to it, and you don’t understand it, and it’s actually quite boring. But because my trip was so extreme, it was probably even harder for my friends and family to understand and relate to what I’ve been through.

Did you have to re-adjust upon your return?

Yes. I was completely lost. It took me about a year and a half to sort of work my way back. The other problem was that in those days because so few other people had done anything like that, it was incredibly difficult to find any likeminded person that I could talk to that understood. I felt very much a sort of island in this, another very lonely place to be in.

How do the fields of motorcycle culture and architecture intertwine in your life?

Well, the trip actually had a very important impact on my architecture. In Sydney, I was doing practical work in an architect’s office, going to building sites, and suddenly understood what it was all about. Traveling around the world and seeing all these extraordinary buildings and different cultures and the way that people live in a different way, the use of local materials and seeing houses in different parts of the world – I just loved it. I was absorbing it when I was traveling. When I got home, I decided I definitely want wanted to finish off my architecture course, so I did another two years. I started up my own practice in 1998.

What do you specialize in?

I often do listed buildings like old like water towers, lighthouses, windmills, power stations. Every project is a real challenge, and they’re usually projects that most other architects don’t want to do because they’re so complicated. You have to think out of the box, and approach it in a different way. If somebody says “just design me a standard house”, I usually reply “Well, I don’t want to do that” – because I can do that, but prefer to do something that continues to push my boundaries that little bit further, and to find a solution to a problem that nobody else can find. My trip very much defined the type of architecture that I’ve done for the last 25-30 years of my life. And it’s not about making money – it’s about staying interested. Saving a beautiful old building is 100 times more important than how much money you make out.

Let’s get back to the very first question: What does freedom mean to you today?

Well, in the climate we have been living in for the past two years, I really worry. I feel very sad for the younger generation, and worry that they will never ever know the freedom that I had. And sadly, I don’t feel free anymore at all – I feel as if my legs have been chopped off by all the restrictions. I still fight though, and am still traveling. I went to Mexico this winter, and was riding around, tasting a bit of freedom again. Maybe freedom is still out there. You just have to find it – you just have to search for it a bit harder, and work a bit harder. That’s fine.

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