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Elspeth Beard, first British woman to motorcycle around the world

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The exhibition 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin celebrates Elspeth Beard, the first British woman to ride a motorcycle around the world in 1982-84. At the time it was very rare for women to ride motorcycles long distances. The first male to do such a feat was in 1912. Guest blogger Lisa Hinkins celebrates Elspeth’s story in today’s 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series.

Motorcyclist and award-winning architect Elspeth Beard got her first bike at the age of 17, after leaving Roedean School and heading back to London for sixth form college. In 1979 she purchased her 1974 BMW R60/6. Various trips across the UK and Europe developed her motorcycling skills and in 1980 she rode across the USA with her brother. The catalysts for travelling further afield came through the culmination of leaving university with what she describes as, ‘a lousy degree,’ and breaking up with her boyfriend.

She decided to get away, so saved up £2,600 working four months, seven days a week at a pub. Friends and family humoured her before the trip, saying she would be back in two or three months. Her mother worried, even half-heartedly threatened to disinherit Elspeth in a last-ditch attempt to stop her. The Bike press did not want to know either, but the more she was told she couldn’t do it the more determined she was.

Elspeth Beard, 1982, (c) Elspeth Beard

Elspeth’s BMW motorcycle was shipped over to the US and she flew to New York three weeks later to commence her trip with the bike in October 1982. At the age of 23, with only a vague plan to cross the US, then travel to New Zealand and Australia, Elspeth embarked on a journey that would change her forever.

For me the image by Anita Corbin in 100 First Women Portraits echoes those of 18th century portrait paintings. The photographs in the exhibition are on a comparable scale to many portrait paintings produced during that period. Corbin expertly captures her sitters’ character and their story in the images, in a similar way celebrated 18th century artists Joshua Reynolds and Angelica Kauffman would, using objects, clothing and backdrops. Here Elspeth holds a spanner and a spark plug that represents her mechanical abilities to maintain her motorcycle.

Elspeth Beard, from the series 100 First Women Portraits, by Anita Corbin

In the photograph Elspeth is sat on the 1974 BMW R60/6 that she rode around the world on. The pose is reminiscent of the younger Elspeth in the photograph above, taken 31 years prior. Both feature her astride her beloved motorcycle, dressed in casual clothing that features a leather biker jacket. Unlike the earlier image, this photograph has a mature Elspeth looking confidently into the camera lens directly at the viewer. The image symbolises a woman who through sheer determination forged her own independent life.

The World Tour: 1982-1984

Speaking in 2018, Elspeth said she started off with very Western ideas of planning each day of travel, but quickly realised it couldn’t work like that, especially in the Far East and India. It became an organic process – there were no maps for some countries, and it was a time before the internet. She just had to take each day and at times even each hour as it came.

Taking each day as it came bore out in many incidents which included one in Australia where she cartwheeled over while on her motorcycle. In Thailand she hit a dog. A kind family took her in so she could recover from her injuries, discovering that the meals she and those looking after her were eating consisted of the dog that got killed!

Elspeth’s most enjoyable time was travelling through Northern Thailand. She had been told not to go through this area as it was dangerous – there were bandits in the hills. Everyone had been scared off, resulting with her experiencing beautiful empty roads, fantastic countryside and lovely people.

When asked about travelling alone, Elspeth replied, ‘As a woman you obviously have to be aware that you will be probably seen as more of target than if you are a bloke, but it is also very important to remember, if you are wearing a full face helmet, most people will assume you are a bloke anyway.’  She found that as a woman, many people would help her. In some countries people see it as a duty to help and protect you. She said it is not all bad – there are advantages and disadvantages as a female solo traveller.

Home and Beyond

When Elspeth returned to the UK in 1984, she suffered an anti-climax. People found it hard to comprehend what she had done and consequently she found she could not speak about her experiences. She felt like a different person to everyone else, not being able to relate to anybody and vice versa. She struggled with the isolation of not being able to discuss being away for two and half years, going to hell and back at times.  She threw her motorcycle into the garage where it stood for about four months not even unpacking it. To her it seemed like nothing had changed back home.

Beard said she learnt so much about herself while travelling. She had been pushed to the absolute limits – it was just her, the bike and nothing else. This really focused the mind and gave her confidence. When she returned home, she felt there was nothing she couldn’t do or tackle. Eventually she returned to university to complete the last two years of her architects’ course. In 1988 Elspeth bought a derelict water tower and spent the next seven years re-building it. She did some short trips abroad, but not on her motorbike.

In 1990 her son was born.  In 1994 she obtained her pilots licence that enabled her to fly around parts of Australia with her son, followed by a four-month trip across the county in a campervan together. In 2003, Nick Sanders asked her to be a tour manager for his world challenge. Beard took 23 motorcyclists on a vaguely similar route to her original one, travelling 33,000 miles in three months.

All her journals, tapes and photographs of her 1982-1984 world tour were kept in a cardboard box in a cupboard for years. It wasn’t until 2008 when an article by freelance journalist, Paul Blezard was published that her extraordinary story began to spread. In 2014 Hollywood were interested in her life. It became clear to Elspeth that a book needed to be written first to get the story correct. Dyslexia, completing architectural studies, then purchasing a water tower, the book was never realized until that point. The book, Lone Rider was published in 2017. It was the 2018 winner of the Best Extreme Adventure Book.

In 2017 Elspeth was invited by Liza Miller, founder of Motorcycles and Misfits in the US to join a group of twelve women motorcyclists to ride through the mountains of Northern Pakistan.  They visited schools, to inspire women and girls that they have choices in life through helping them learn to ride and maintain motorbikes. Beard said she met some incredible girls who wanted to become doctors or lawyers. She pointed out that many women and girls are denied education and that needs to change. While travelling the region the motorcyclists came across little pockets where schools have been set up by women and found factories that just employ women.

Elspeth stated, ‘For most of us motorcycling represents freedom. This is how they see motorcycling – it gives them the freedom and because motorbikes are relatively inexpensive compared to cars, it is a form of transport they have got some chance at actually being able to get, to give them the freedom to go out and to do things.’

Elspeth still has her beloved BMW R60/6 motorbike, though she just takes her out on the weekends. She still loves travelling – there are still so many countries she wants to visit.

Lisa Hinkins, MA Student, Museum Gallery Explainer and artist.