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Pam Goodall: Travelling the World

Pam Goodall

Published December 2014

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1941. My dad was an engineer and went out to South Africa and married my mother. I went to Roedean School, the sister school of Roedean in Brighton, and I had a wonderful time growing up, completely unaware of the politics of the country. I loved sport and rode a bike to the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg. There were 15 sports for women and 17 for men. My mother was ranked number two in the world at Badminton so I would play sport all of the time.

Even then, it was considered quite outrageous for a child to be riding around Johannesburg on a bike, but I was raised never to have any fear. However, we came back to England in 1954 on the back of what I suppose was a bloodbath. In Kenya, white people were being killed left right and centre, and that fear spread to South Africa. My parents loved their life out there, but with three children they thought the responsible thing was to come home.

I was 13 when I left South Africa, but as I was with my family it didn't really feel traumatic. We moved to Bedford where my dad built steam turbines engines for WH Allen, which was taken over by Rolls Royce. I continued to play squash and tennis and I still rode a bike to school.

I loved ballet and dancing, and after finishing school was accepted into the Royal School of Ballet for teacher training. But I wasn't sure that I wanted to teach something I loved so much to unwilling three-year-olds with pushy mothers. So I bailed out. My parents were quite forward thinking, so instead of teacher training they arranged for me to travel to Switzerland to work as an au pair for a wealthy family in Zurich. Then I went to Copenhagen for another six months to stay with a family.

After returning home, I trained as a secretary -something I vowed I would never do - but it served me well. I found work in London, but at the age of 21, I decided that I wanted to work in America. I had booked a ticket aboard the Queen Mary and my aunt bought me Antler luggage, which was extremely posh at the time.

I went to the American Embassy for a visa, but they said there was a five-year quota for South Africans. I said 'hang on! This is insane, I'm ready to go! I have a British passport!' This Cockney chap came back and said 'Okay, where were your parents born?' Then I knew I was on a hiding to nothing, as my father was born in British Guyana and my mother was born in India. I think he laughed first...

I went back to my job in London, married Jim in 1965, and had twin boys. London was brilliant at that time. They say that 'if you remember the 60s then you weren't there' but it wasn't like that at all. It was just bloody good fun. I made wonderful friends and we would go skating, watch live music in the pubs, and play lots of sport. It was fun and it was safe. I would walk back to my flat at Earls Court late at night without any fear at all.

Soon after I married, we moved to Wisborough Green. I qualified as a squash and tennis coach, which helped bring in some money but it was more about doing something independently. A friend and I bought a shop in Billingshurst, selling frozen food, which was a massive change for us! It was called Billingshurst Frozen Food
Centre, but we changed the name to Igloo and were there for nine years.

When we started, we knew nothing about business, but it was a brilliant learning curve. It was in Jengers Mead. Back then, it had 24 retail outlets around the market and it ticked every box as there was the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. People actually shopped in Billingshurst and it was a real hub.

We sold Igloo as a going concern and I bought the drugstore three doors down. Then Tesco at Broadbridge Heath opened and the business fell apart. Tesco even sent a free bus around the village to scoop up everyone who didn't have a car. It was vicious. Fortunately for me, an Italian chef bought my store, so I was very lucky.

That was the end of my retail experience, but I would say that running a shop was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

I had divorced by this time, and so reluctantly returned to work as a secretary for Sun Alliance, having moved to Horsham. I put an advert in the West Sussex County Times, appealing for a second-hand bike so I could ride to work. That choice changed my life. I found a hybrid bike and bought an expensive D lock as well.

As a family, we always had very active holidays, going skiing, windsurfing and sailing. As a single person, I still wanted active breaks. I saw an advert for mountain biking holidays and as a result, I went to the Himalayas on my second-hand bike. Everybody else had full suspension and wore Lycra outfits. I was old enough to be their mother, but I was very fit and could ride up the mountain and many of them couldn't!

I suppose I'm an adrenaline junkie. On my 40th birthday, my husband bought me a racing experience around Goodwood racetrack. That sporty personality is something I inherited from my parents.

I joined the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC) and trips to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Turkey and The Pyrenees followed. At the weekend, I would ride with the CTC around Sussex and Surrey, usually about 50 or 60 miles each time. Then, on 31 December 1999, the eve of the millennium, the idea to ride around the world came from nowhere.

I left in May 2000, without any support network. I just got on my bike without even knowing how to mend a puncture and rode from my house with a cycling friend who joined me on the first day. I headed for Dover with two photocopied ordnance survey maps and my only plan was to head for the River Danube in Germany and follow it through Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, then head east! This led me to Istanbul, which was brilliant.

I hadn't given myself a timespan for the trip, and as I wasn't being sponsored there was no pressure. But it was not a sightseeing tour. When you are carrying four heavy panniers on the bike, why would you want to lock them up and worry about somebody stealing things whilst you see the sights? So for me, it was just about riding 60 miles every day.

I didn't feel lonely. Honestly, the joy of being on your own is that you have spontaneity and the freedom to make your own choices. In a group or even as a couple, you don't connect with the locals at all, but if you are on your own, especially on a bike, people feel obliged to talk to you. I was regularly offered hospitality, food, even a bed for the night, although I camped out most nights in a tent with my sleeping bag.

There were endless offers of kindness. In Germany, it was chucking it down with rain and a couple invited me in to their home. In Pakistan, a man rode alongside me on his bike and that led to me being looked after for four days in a Muslim community. He said 'Come to the village for 10 minutes for a cup of tea!' I was told not to go to Pakistan. People warned me these places were 'too dangerous' but they were lovely, hospitable people and they even took me out sightseeing.

I visited places you would not visit on a Saga holiday, places tourists don't see. I feel privileged to have experienced such things.

I couldn't get a visa through Iran so was forced to fly to Pakistan and was refused entry to Burma so flew to Bangkok. From there I rode through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and China towards Hong Kong. Again, people said it was dangerous and that somebody would rob me, but they were kind and lovely people.

I remember the traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam, as it was just insane! You see people loading their scooters up with 12 boxes of food or even livestock, with pets, ducks, dogs, snakes, anything. You would see seven children on one bicycle or a scooter, often with one of them riding it!

I had to eat all sorts - you need an open mind! I was presented with a hen's foot in China, but most of the food was brilliant and cheap too. Still, I was glad to reach America where you can recognise the food, and even a McDonald's sign was welcome sometimes as you didn't worry about getting ill.

I could have gone to Canada or America, but America is too wide and boring for cyclists so I went to Mexico City, before heading north on the Gulf Coast and into Texas. I chose not to stay in hotels in America, because even the cheap ones are expensive, with 800 ghastly TV channels! Campsites are useless there, as they are 500 miles apart, so I would find a house with a garden at the end of each day's ride, knock on the door and ask 'can I pitch my tent in your garden?'

Eventually, I would be successful, but sometimes it took two hours of rejection as people would freak out. Women would feel that they would have to refer it to their husband, which I find astonishing. I would think 'I'm a woman, almost 60, on a bike with a tent. Where is the threat?' Sometimes, they would smile and say 'of course!' like they almost expected me. Some would let me use a shower and feed me too.

They were often the beneficiaries as they would phone their friends and relatives and say that a crazy English woman had arrived on the doorstep with a bicycle, and people would come over! Most couldn't believe what I was doing, as the idea of cycling anywhere when you could drive seemed strange to them.

The hospitality didn't really differ around the world, although the level did. So often the people with nothing were the most spontaneous and generous. In parts of China, where there are no tourists, because I was a Westerner on a bike, people would come up to me out of curiosity, and then the hospitality follows. It was just extraordinary and unexpected.

There was only one time I felt in real danger. In Romania, a group of teenage boys held hands across the road, with the intention of stopping me and robbing me. My response was quite instinctive. I put my head down and cycled as fast as I could straight at them. Fortunately, their efforts to stop me failed, and I blitzed through them. I was shaking, but I knew the bike was a good weapon!

If I was a fearful person, I wouldn't have gone in the first place. You can't go off worrying what might happen.

Before I had set off, I had decided to buy a new customised bike, and members of the CTC pointed me to Roberts Cycles in Croydon. He didn't let me down. I didn't need to mend a puncture because there is always a man who wants to do it for you! I'm not being feminist about it -it is a fact! I had five punctures during my entire world tour and on four of those occasions there was a man around who was desperate to fix it for me!

I didn't find it difficult to adjust when I came back, as I did what I set out to do. I had a massive crash in India, where the bike was damaged and I ended up with a bloodied face with black eyes, and if I had given up then I think I would have been angry with myself. But I carried on.

I returned to work in London and spent my free time cycling and writing a book, called 'Riding it Out'. So many people had said I should do it that naïvely, I thought it would just be published, but it wasn't. So I self-
published and was really pleased I did.

A lot of people were interested about my story and so I gave a talk for one of the local Women's Institute groups. After that, word spread and I have given many talks to groups such as Probus and U3A. Recently, I've been to Stan's Shack in Partridge Green for a talk, and they've organised another talk for later this year.

I still cycle, and often ride into town. Being on a bike, people come up to me all of the time just to talk. I still have the same Roberts bike. It is worth spending good money on a decent bike as this bike took me round the world and will last me forever.

I started keeping bees about three years ago. I had no idea how much it would grab me, but keeping bees is extraordinary. I didn't think that, at my age, I could get so excited about something!

Even now, I ride probably over 200 miles a week, as I'm a member of a 40+ cycling club, and riding gives me all the fitness I need. I still go on cycling trips in this country, to places like mid-wales, where the cycling is as good as anywhere. But the big trips are over for me. I'm 73 now, so I'm not going anywhere!


Interview: Ben Morris