My travels: H for hitch-hiking

January 21, 2017

Students didn’t have much money in my day; true, you were given some, in the form of a grant, rather than lent more to saddle you with debt at an early age as today’s students are, and you could sign on as available for work and claim supplementary benefit during all the vacations. This was in the days before cheap coach travel and the invention of the student rail card, so a goodly number of us resorted to hitch-hiking as a means of travel. It cost you the bus fare to the edge of a city and then thumb out, with a destination sign to be helpful if you were organised, and off you went… Some days you were lucky and reached your goal as quickly as if you had been on a train, other days it was a slow and painful collection of short lifts, perhaps standing for ages in poor weather.

But most of the time it was fun: I met lots of interesting people who stopped to give me lifts, both lorry drivers and car drivers. Conversations were interesting: justifying one’s existence as a student of English Literature to a lorry-driver who was supporting me through his taxes could be a challenge… My one regret was I never got a lift in a Rolls: I met several people who had. I’m aware that it was probably safer for males, particularly travelling alone as I did most of the time; nevertheless I did meet solo female hitchers fairly often, and they always got picked up first. And in all my years of hitching – about ten, in all – I can only recall two dodgy lifts.

I used to hitch around Western Europe during my summer holidays. It was relatively easy in Holland and Germany, OK in Belgium although the police were quite heavy about where you happened to be standing, and in France it was very variable: it could take ages to get anywhere, or it could be very quick, but lorry drivers never picked you up; I gather this was something to do with insurance over there. There was a great feeling of freedom: with my necessary worldly goods – tent, sleeping bag, snacks and water – in a rucksack, I’d set off in the morning with an idea of where I intended to get by the evening, but willing to be flexible. I sometimes encountered great adventures: once, heading north from Provence I got a lift with several students, intending to stop off and look at Montelimar. I was told Montelimar was dull and boring (I really don’t know, as I’ve never been there) and invited to join them for a few days up in the mountains of Savoie. Why not, I thought? And had a marvellous time, ate fondue for the first time, went above the snow-line for the first time, stayed in a lovely free campsite near the Italian border, and did some marvellous walking.

I’ve been fed for nothing, offered spare beds for the night, discovered places I’d never otherwise have gone to, had fascinating conversations, spent a drunken evening trying to outwit the French Foreign Legion (not on my own, I had a drunken Belgian companion)… it was truly a marvellous way to travel, meet people and have fun.

And then suddenly, there were cheap coaches, student train fares and Thatcherism, and almost all the hitch-hikers seemed to disappear, certainly in Britain. And as I got older and slightly wealthier I managed to be able to run a small cheap car, and kept a look out for kindred spirits, but found very few of them…

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