Hitch-hiking was the best way to travel for me back in the ’70s.
I’d pack a rucksack and sleeping bag and head for the nearest motorway service station. I always picked the height of summer, July or August, and went for it. I’d save around fifty quid for the trip. Most of that would be spent on food. Travel expenses amounted to a ten pound return foot passenger ticket from Dover to Ostend. I never had a fixed destination. I would go wherever I ended up – someplace, somewhere. Armed with ‘O’ level German, I was open for any experience that landed at my feet. I liked being off the beaten track, away from the tourist traps. I was not sight-seeing, more ‘life-tasting’. I immersed myself in other countries like trying on other people’s clothes.
Hitching was a solitary existence for me. I preferred to travel alone, beholden to no one. I could wait for up to an hour for a lift to stop, maybe longer, so I developed patience and acceptance. I’d sit down and smoke, one arm with extended thumb resting on my knee, or I’d read a book. I once wrote a sign on some discarded cardboard ‘Excuse me, have you got a light?’ (that worked a couple of times!) I had a tennis ball to bounce around, to amuse myself while I waited for some kind soul to stop. Sometimes, I could be climbing out of one car and another would pull up before I could roll a fresh cigarette.
I got picked up by some interesting people. I’ve been given lifts by a Labour MP; a Lake District artist; a guy driving a hearse (complete with an occupied coffin); a family of eight Bangladeshis; two guys who had a machete and a sawn-off shotgun stashed on the back seat. They said they’d knocked over a couple of post offices. But it was mostly travelling sales people or lorry drivers who wanted someone to ‘talk at’. Though one guy didn’t utter a word for miles on end until I had to break the silence. He raised a hand without looking at me and said: “Look, don’t feel you have to make conversation because I’ve given you a lift”.
The worst one in England, on the stretch between Dartford and the Dover Road, was this guy who had a suitcase on the passenger seat and a big dog asleep in the back.
“Could you ask your dog to move over a bit?”
“Why should he move over?” he said, over his shoulder. “This is his car as much as mine”.
I squeezed in, the dog looked at me, and the guy put his foot down. In no time, we were doing almost a ton. It was then I noticed the smell of whiskey. I didn’t feel safe.
“You couldn’t slow down a little, could you?”
“I’m not ready to die just yet.”
“Why, are you afraid of death?”
“Not death as such, just don’t want to go too early, y’know?”
Near Winchester, I asked him to drop me on a roundabout. Before he pulled away, I kicked one of his rear lights out. He was too pissed to notice. It would have been safer if he had let the dog drive.
The trip on the ferry was always a welcome respite and told me I was almost ’abroad’. I could sit in the boat’s restaurant and sip a strong continental coffee and munch on a croissant and watch the white Dover cliffs recede. I could look the other way and see the distant line of the French coast come into view. If it was a ferry to Ostend, we were out of sight of any land for about ninety minutes which made it more exciting when we finally sighted land ahoy.
Walking around the decks, I could acclimatise myself to the variety of languages and accents – Irish, Cockney, Brummie, Scottish, French, Belgian, American, German. When we landed at Ostend, the foot passengers would file ashore and the motor transport would begin to empty out of the bow doors. If you were lucky enough to get through customs quick enough, you could catch a ride with one of the cars or lorries. If it was late at night, it was time to find a lonely orchard or a park and roll out the sleeping bag to sleep under the starry sky.
But here I was, abroad, in Europe, aching from the long hitch through England, belly tingling with the excitement of tomorrow. From Ostend, all I had to do was pass through the flat landscapes of Belgium before making the German border at Aachen, beyond that, the Rhine city of Cologne. My ‘O’ level German was better than my French so I usually made for Deutschland if I could.
I once got a lift from a lorry driver who never spoke a word, which was fine by me as it was late and I was tired. Some time during the journey, he reached over. I thought he was looking for his lunch box, but it turned out he was looking for mine. I pushed his hand away. He got the message. He pulled up on the hard shoulder and told me to get out. I was stranded. I kept my head and started walking.
I had to get off the motorway. I climbed over the crash barrier and made my way down the steep, grassy bank and into a small wood. I jumped across a stream and climbed a small fence. I found myself inside what looked like a builder’s yard, with large stacks of timber. I made my way through and saw a small bungalow with a veranda. On the veranda was a huge steel cage. Inside it was a big, round dog bowl. I noticed the cage was open and there was no dog in there. Oh, no. I backtracked as quietly and quickly as I could and made my way back through the woods and around the outside fence of the yard and onto the street. As I passed the main gates, a fierce Doberman – virtually a vicious set of jaws on four musclebound legs - was snarling and slobbering at the wire netting fence, promising me instant death. It would have torn me apart. I had to walk a good few miles to find the nearest slip road to the motorway. Sometimes, shit happened.
One lift, a German teacher called Gerhard, invited me back to his home. I met his wife, Lotte, and family. They lived in a house with a thatched roof and they let me share the family meal and gave me a room for the night. They wanted to practice their English. Gerhard gave me a tour of the house. At the top of the stairs he unlocked a door and it opened onto a large hall under renovation. His house was attached to an old synagogue he was restoring which had been burned down during ‘Kristallnacht’, the Jewish pogrom of 1938, staged by the Nazis.
A young farmer, Hansi, and his girlfriend, Monika, who I met at a wine festival near Sanckt Goarshausen, let me stay at their old farmhouse for a couple of days. There seemed no end to some people’s friendliness and generosity.
Most of all, in Germany, I loved walking south along the banks of the Rhine; the beautiful scenery; the hills, mountains and valleys; strategically placed fairy-tale castles with luscious vineyards draped around them like daisy chains. The mediaeval towns and villages along the way offered many cafes and resting places to choose from. Every third day or so, I could be found stretched out in the sun on some manicured lawn on the bank of the Rhine with a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and a chunk of cheese, looking for all the world like some happy homeless person.
But time rumbled on and I had to roll up the sleeping bag, pull on the rucksack, and start sticking out the thumb for the way back home.
Approaching those white cliffs of Dover always left me melancholy in some way. I was full of fresh experiences and the lives of strangers. All I had to do was sort out the stories I could tell when I got back, and maybe save the rest for later.
There was no rush.