Rover’s Return

How do world travellers settle down again to their own beds? Or do they ever? LYNNE CURRY went to meet Anne Mustoe

Once the pleasure of cycling takes a grip, many of us start to fantasise about pedalling off into the sunset for a very long time. And unlike other dreams, it can actually be fulfilled. But when it's over -well, then what?

Anne Mustoe is the very model of a woman of a certain age, with a certain status in society. A clever girl from a Midlands grammar school who went, through a quartet of brilliant A-levels, to study classics at Girton College, Cambridge. She was the head teacher of an expensive, academic girls' school in Suffolk, the widow of a Queen's Counsel at the tax bar; a JP; a school governor; chairman of a national independent schools body. She kept a flat in Putney and she drove a red Alfa Romeo. Eh? That flashy red car hinted that Anne Mustoe was not all she might seem. Even as she swept begowned into the chapel at St Felix School in Suffolk and hundreds of girls stood up "as if the great panjandrum was coming in", Anne Mustoe was planning her exit. "I always knew I was, to an extent, play-acting," Mustoe says. "I was good at it, but I was playing a part. I never lost the feeling that I was doing a job, but it was only a job. I don't think women get carried away by position."

When Anne Mustoe sloughed off position and persona eleven years ago, the change was dramatic. She was 54, newly retired, riding a pushbike, wearing knickerbockers and a Sam Browne belt and when she pulled up at a lay-by for a cup of tea, two burly lorry drivers quizzed her about her journey, calling her "darlin"'. She had been embraced, as she put it, into the camaraderie of the road. Anne Mustoe is famous. The Daily Telegraph photographed her after her farewell gathering, in the garden of St Paul's Cathedral (after all, she had overseen the education of many Telegraph readers' daughters). Her book, A Bike Ride - 12,000 miles around the world in 15 months' - has sold more than 20,000 copies and is on its fifth reprint.

Anne Mustoe, the once unfit and overweight novice cyclist who pedalled off heading for the world, one Sunday in May, down Watling Street, inspired thousands of people who dreamed of doing the same. If she could do it, at her age, having never ridden a bike since childhood, why couldn't they?

They warmed to her detailed, endearingly uncontrived account of riding dirty and waterless through India, of finding the Turks the kindest of people, of sleeping in company with rats and goats, of the never-failing generosity and goodwill she received - 120,000 hand-written words of it.

They were charmed by this unlikely world-traveller from the very echelons of respectability. Then Mustoe pedalled back to Marble Arch and went off for tea with her friend Priscilla. And that was that - reader dismissed.

There was to be no insight into post-ride Anne Mustoe. Where did she go, and what did she become? How did she go back to normal life? "I thought for a long time that I ought to finish it with an epilogue," says Mustoe, brewing coffee in her unfrilly flat near Regent's Park, which she bought to move into the city from Putney. But events overtook her. Anne Mustoe never did go back. Having shed more of her possessions, she has been pedalling ever since. Her new book, Lone Traveller, was published in May: round-the-world from East to West (Roman roads, conquistadors, Captain Cook, the Silk Road, the Gobi Desert, guerrillas, and her most petrifying incident, an attack by wild dogs...) There has been another book in between, on how to escape the winter, and a new career as a circuit speaker and travel writer.

Mustoe is now 65, (laser-sharp, utterly pleasant if slightly distant, not especially politically altered, and even better educated than before. She already had a grasp of several languages and now speaks more - a smattering of Urdu, some Mandarin and modern Turkish. She still rides along wearing her Clinique facial products and her nail varnish (which hides dirt). She still takes the same silk suit along, and she doesn't think she is enormously different from that rational and sensible woman who set off. "I don't particularly have an attitude to world politics. I would describe myself as a pragmatic person. The way I did change most was in my attitude to possessions. I gradually came to realise how little I could manage with. There was a part of my life when I thought it was nice to have a house full of nice things [her tied house in Suffolk] but when I got that I found I wasn't particularly interested in it."

Once her domestic life ceased to be the responsibility of a school bursar, her belongings began to feel like a yoke."Even when I was a headmistress and teaching, I didn't have many books. These are mostly reference books." Does she read novels at all? "Oh yes, but I borrow them from the library."

Anne Mustoe has been an inspiration to many, but her intellect, application and self-possession probably mark her out as unusually temperamentally well-suited to handling the disorientation of return and utilising the experience. When she arrived home from that amazing first trip, her flat was still rented out. So she took herself to a hotel in Turkey to write the book. She had been signed up before she went, by agent John Pawsey, who read of her trip at its start (in the Telegraph).

"I hadn't even thought that I would definitely write a book. I just wanted to do this ride. Then a lot of people I used to know through school asked me to go and give talks on my travels. I quite enjoyed that. Then I started to get invitations from bigger organisations to talk and when the book came out, it snowballed. I found it quite easy. If I could hold the attention of 500 schoolgirls at 8.45 in the morning, the annual meeting of Suffolk Wl held no horrors for me. I began to realise that my life had actually fallen into a nice pattern and that I could have a new career which suited me very well. There were a lot of other places I wanted to cycle to. I would be a cycling travel writer."

And so it has been for Anne Mustoe, who sold her Alfa Romeo, stuck with her sea-green Condor custom built (and rebuilt) by Monty Young, and settled down (or not) to a new life of travelling, talking and writing. There have been several trips, long and short, and all alone, including India, where she was taken seriously ill with polymyalgic rheumatica, for which she still takes medication. "I doubt I could have done it when I was young because I wouldn't have had the free time. I also think I would have found it difficult to settle down to marriage and a career. I found Malaysia, in particular, was full of elderly drifters who'd never settled down and were still living on the cheap in rather sordid hotels in Penang. They were rather pathetic.

"What I also learned was how easy it is to have a bath in a third of a bucket of water - it really makes me very angry that peasants in Goa have their water turned off so that tourists in hotels can take unlimited showers - and I've learned to be patient. In so many places in the world, nothing works, so if I'm at a station and the train is late, while other people are charging and stamping up and down, I'll be sitting there with a book."

(This article was written in 1999)

Anne Mustoe sadly passed away on the 10th November 2009. There is an excellent obituary here;