Cycling Around The World… With Anne Mustoe

Matthias Pleyer, organiser of the London Cycling Book Club which will be discussing Good Vibrations: Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie in under two weeks’ time (more info on club’s website), has just asked me to answer some questions for the website. His final question was as follows: “Anne Mustoe, author of several cycle travel books, famously quit her job as head teacher in Southwold at the age of 55 in order to cycle around the world. Something that may occur to you as well?” I answered as follows;

Absolutely! Anne Mustoe did it when she was 55 and wrote some seven books so if I retire tomorrow, well… I think I may have to stick to the teaching for a few more years before Iโ€™m in a position to do what she did but why not? It would be a great adventure to just set off in one direction around the globe and keep going until you arrived back where you started. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of people who aspire to do a complete round-the-world cycle but the emphasis does seem to be on speed. If I were ever to attempt such a thing, my route would be a bit more wiggly and my time in the saddle significantly longer than the racers who are able to do it in well under 200 days. There are so many stories out there waiting to be told; there is definitely room on the bookshelves for Good Vibrations: Around The World on a Bike Called Reggie! Would anyone like to pay me to write it?

Well, while I wait for the offers to flood in, it’s worth spending a few minutes reading about the life of Anne Mustoe who must have been a formidable character. She died in 2009 while cycling in Syria and the following obituary which appeared in The Daily Telegraph sums up her life quite well;

“A widow with three grown-up stepchildren, she was on holiday from Saint Felix School, Suffolk, in 1983 when the glimpse of a European cyclist pedaling through the Great Indian Desert in Rajasthan decided her to do the same. She was over 50, out of condition and had no interest in bicycles. But, in the tradition of indomitable Englishwomen abroad, she was untroubled by such trifles.

It took some three years to withdraw from her commitments before pupils and staff gave her a green Condor bicycle, specially built with real leather seat, two sets of brakes, 10 gears and a speedometer. On May 31 1987 they saw her off from Watling Street, near St Paul’s Cathedral, her three panniers filled with clothes, documents, maps and dictionaries as well as Horace’s Odes and letters of introduction to be presented along the way. Heading over London Bridge, she passed through Blackheath and was hailed on the A2 by Telegraph readers who had seen her photograph in the paper, before freewheeling down to Dover’s docks.

After crossing to Boulogne, she found the routine of 50 miles, five days a week, hard going, but was encouraged by friends who came out from England to visit her en route.

Her adventures prompted more than just curiosity from those she encountered, and Anne Mustoe found herself being propositioned by a young French cyclist in knickerbockers, a suggestive father who had to be restrained by his grown-up sons in Italy, and four separate suitors in Salonika, Greece. Outside Ankara she was greeted by a university friend: “You must be Anne. There can’t be two mad women on bicycles on the Eskisehir road.”

By the time she arrived in Karachi, Anne Mustoe had covered 4,000 miles and was conscious of being light years away from the headmistress in a Hardy Amies suit. Unaccompanied women were considered unusual and even provocative, but her bicycle attracted constant interest. She rode up the Khyber Pass until stopped by heavily-armed Pathans and politely sent back to Peshawar. Many hotels had only basic amenities and, in one, she had to contend with an amorous waiter who appeared at the window saying: “My love, my love, open this door.”

In India her main problem was gangs of young cyclists who jeered, jabbed at her, pulled her hair and grabbed the handlebars. Sensing mounting hysteria one day outside a school, she looked in panic to two adult cyclists who had dismounted to watch but clearly intended to do nothing. The crisis brought out the headmistress of old: “I glared around with a steely eye, and controlling the pitch of my voice with great effort, said slowly and authoritatively, ‘Will you kindly step back and let me pass through?’ It worked a charm. Whether or not they understood what I said, they recognised the magisterial tone. They quietened instantly and stepped back. ‘Thank you,’ I said coolly, pushing my bicycle forward and pedaling off with a confident air.”

Only at a safe distance did she lean against a tree “until the trembling had stopped”.

From then on Anne Mustoe progressed through Malaysia and then America with an aplomb that overcame all setbacks until her return to Watling Street. In A Bike Ride (1992) she recorded that she had cycled 11,552 miles in 14 countries over 439 days, in which ยฃ4,898 had been spent on food, accommodation and sundries and ยฃ1,127 on fares. She had lost 23lb in weight.

The daughter of a shopkeeper and bookmaker, Anne Revill was born in Nottingham on May 24 1933 and educated at the High School before reading Classics at Girton College, Cambridge. She first worked as a personal assistant in a management training department of GKN engineers in London, then was secretary to Nelson Mustoe, QC, whom she married in 1960, before teaching classics and economics at Francis Holland School in Kensington under Heather Brigstocke. She next became deputy head at Cobham Hall, Kent, before arriving at Saint Felix in 1978.

There she introduced a more rigorous academic regime. Latin was strengthened and Greek reintroduced. Though not a particularly sporty institution, three ex-pupils made a mark at Cambridge, one becoming the first woman golf Blue and another the first winner of a mixed marathon โ€“ while a boy, who had been in the sixth form, achieved a boxing Blue.

Anne Mustoe was chairman of the Independent Schools Information Service. Meanwhile, as president of the Girls’ Schools Association, she roundly attacked striking teachers for being unprofessional and muddle-headed, pointing out that they were not hurting the government but parents who risked losing their jobs for staying at home to look after their children.

The success of A Bike Ride led her to write Escaping the Winter (1993), a practical guide for those planning long holidays abroad.

But Anne Mustoe was keen to get back on her bike. Lone Traveller (1998) was an account of her second global tour, this time an east-west journey from Rome, via Lisbon to South America, across China (where she was arrested on the Great Wall and spent two days in jail) and home again.

Two Wheels in the Dust (1998) concerned several trips in the Indian subcontinent in which she followed the trail of The Ramayana, the Hindu epic poem; and Che Guevara and the Mountain of Silver (2007) was the tale of a visit to South America along the route of the revolutionary on his motorcycle ride from Buenos Aires. There were also other, shorter trips, which took in the Baltic and the Santiago de Compostela way.

Back in England, Anne Mustoe was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1996. She disliked cycling in London but later became the founder chairman of National Byways, a 4,500-mile cycle route around England and parts of Scotland and Wales.

Anne Mustoe set off on what was to be her last ride in May, still riding her trusty Condor, and was in Aleppo, Syria, when she fell ill and died in hospital on November 10.”

Perhaps my own life adventure is yet to begin…

What do you think?