A Bike Ride, Anne Mustoe (1991)

The author gives up her job as headmistress of a girls boarding schools and spends 1987 and 1988 cycling around the world. Following the route of Alexander the Great, this rewarding travelogue is steeped in her enthusiasm for the classics

Virgin Books 1 85227 337 2 Octo 250pp £14.99

This is cycle touring for Radio Three listeners. The culture is high, and the route guided by classical scholarship. Its author won’t deign to mend a puncture. It is an uncommon pleasure, as a result.

Reaching her mid-50s after more than a decade as a head teacher, Mustoe decided to travel – and by a means with which she was almost entirely unfamiliar. Drawing on her classics degree from Cambridge, and a lifetime visiting Italy and Greece, the author sets off on Roman roads, the courses of ancient military campaigns and visiting sites of significant cultural interest.

Her research, before setting off through Kent (on the route of Chaucer’s pilgrims, of course) is considerable. As a result, she is able to follow, pretty accurately, Roman routes through Europe and Alexander’s route into the near east. Doing so, she provides perspectives on the design and construction of such roads that alone make the book worth reading by cyclists. But there is plenty more here than that.

Here she is arriving in Rome.

“I crossed the Piazzale Flaminio and cycled through the Porta del Popolo into the magnificence of the Piazza del Popolo. The inner face of the Porta, on the side of the ancient Porta Flamina, was embellished in 1655 by Bernini for the State entry into Rome of Queen Christina of Sweden. The Piazza del Poplo itself is a breathtaking collection of monuments, from the central obelisk, brought by Augustus from Helliopolis after the conquest of Egypt to the exuberant fountains and statues of Veladier, who laid out the Piazza in honour of the return of Pope Pius VII from France in 1814. The Borghese Gardens to the left and the Baroque churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto complete this overwhelming complex. I parked my bicycle outside the church door and took some photographs..”

She is a very able author, however, and over the book, she makes enjoyably light work of some otherwise forbidding history. Indeed, the book would serve as an excellent starting point for anyone considering a similarly themed tour of Italy, Greece, Turkey or Pakistan, not least because of the detailed chapter headings, that make very easy its use for reference purposes.

Beyond Pakistan (except for Malaysia) is not Mustoe’s métier. She does not like India, can’t understand Thailand and somewhat grudgingly pedals her way across the United States – rather reinforcing the adage that the fly-over states are not so known without reason.

Nonetheless, this remains a landmark travelogue for three reasons. It sold in very significant numbers; opened up to a whole new audience the idea that a tour of this kind was possible in middle age; and, also launched Mustoe’s career as a cycling travel writer. Do date, she has written five further books of cycle tours, and, although now in her mid-70s, is about to embark on another year long exploration.

PS April 09

Sadly Anne Mustoe died on 10 November 2009. Her obituary appearing in many papers including The Daily Telegraph.

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