Ok, so I know hitch hiking is the norm for many a traveller, but I had never done it before and despite knowing many people who had had problem free journeys, it did scare me a little bit. Leeds Student Charity appeals organise regular hitch hikes to destinations as far flung as Morocco in order to raise money for various charities, so upon hearing about it I decided to register for the hitch to Dublin. My partner Jimmy and I didn’t really know what we were doing and the organisers- I definitely feel as though I should put that in quotation marks- just told us to stand in a service station in a garish t-shirt with a sign and everything would be fine. Let me tell you a little bit about how it went.
We left the uni around 9pm, armed with our bright orange Leeds Charity Hitch t-shirts and a sign I had spilled red paint all over. We then wondered around Leeds city centre thinking about how we were going to get onto the motorway. After a few hiccups (my bag breaking and my knickers/socks spraying all over the Leeds one way system) we hit upon the idea of pressing the button on the pedestrian crossing so that all the cars had to stop and we could then walk along the line of traffic looking chipper and harmless asking for lifts. This was more successful that I actually thought it would be and a guy called Dr David in a convertible Saab decided to pick us up for fun. He put the top down and zoomed onto the M621 at 110mph telling me to ‘watch for the police’ (although he told me later that doctors had immunity from speeding offences). When we arrived at the service station we bumped into loads of other hitchers with considerably better signs and it was immediately clear we were over saturating the sparse station. I think it was this predicament that inspired us to get in the back of a refrigerator van with some mental Irish people. Sitting there in the pitch black air-tight container with Jimmy happily chatting to this guy (who we only realised was sitting in the darkness simply because he lit a cigarette) was surreal to say the least. They actually turned out to be a really nice bunch of people, except for the fact that they kept yelling in the back, “If you can’t trust a bunch of guys in a van these days, who can you trust?” which kind of made me more nervous.
They dropped us off at a pretty dead service station around 11pm, just outside Manchester. We spent a while accosting people in lorries, being abused by boy racers who kept stopping as though they were going to pick us up and then speeding off and being mistaken for homeless people. Eventually a guy who makes marble flooring decided to pick us up (when I say decided, I begged him and plied him with gelatine-free sweets). He was really friendly, but wasn’t really going in our direction, although at that stage we thought it would be better just to leave that terrible service station. I will return to this point later.
We arrived at Manchester Airport in time to see some hitchers getting a lift to the Welsh border with a policeman. The novelty of the airport wore off after about an hour of running around asking holidaymakers to give us a lift. It became clear we were well and truly stuck. In the two hours spent at the petrol station we drank around 8 cups of coffee, got thrown change by a businessman and nearly died after some wasted people in a car decided to play chicken (driving straight at where we were sitting and then laughing as we leapt up and they swerved). Hilarious. It was also about 2oC and my friend Phil had convinced me it wouldn’t be cold enough to warrant a jacket. Bloody Northerners. Eventually a cab driver pulled up and said he would give us a free lift to the cargo terminal an hours walk away because he guaranteed he knew about a lorry that would be driving to Ireland soon. The cargo terminal, which was situated in one of the dodgiest areas I have ever been was completely dead and every lorry that showed up was either going to Scotland or wasn’t allowed to take passengers. Another lorry driver said an Irish company called Shamrock arrived at 3am every morning and he would definitely give us a lift. We waited for it to arrive, alternating between numbness and desperate irritation at having to pin all of our hopes on one lorry. The cabby came back to wish us luck and say good night and we continued to wait. When the Shamrock guy arrived we all but mauled him in an attempt to climb inside the warm lorry cab… Except that wouldn’t have done us any good because he was driving in the opposite direction!!!
Faced with the long walk back to the Airport, we miserably walked past the scary freight warehouses and silent roads, muttering and cursing, not daring to speak out loud for risk of a massive fight. Suddenly an off duty bus driver pulled up and gave us a lift all the way back to the petrol station so that we could be questioned by the police about a girl being attacked near where we were waiting. Very bizarre considering we had been the only people around for miles. However, the police were our only company for the next couple of minutes and considering it was my third brush with the law in one week, it was seemed normal.
Around 5am a guy driving a Sandwich King van decided to give us a lift to just past Chester. Starving, we felt obliged to buy one of his sandwiches. They were disgusting. But he was very nice and we were soon able to get picked up by a Co-op lorry and taken into Wales as the sun came up. Mr Co-op was nice and liked rock music, which he told us about at length in his heavy Birmingham accent, so I didn’t really get all of what he was saying. Literally 5minutes after Mr Co-op dropped us off at a remote service station somewhere in Wales I saw a lorry full of sheep. The sheep were very nice and licked my hand and talked to me in sheep language, however, I discovered from Cloyd the Welsh sheep-driver that they were on their way to the abattoir. There was no opportunity for a sabotage rescue mission, although I think I convinced Cloyd that he should eat more vegetables. Aside from driving a lorry containing 63 sheep on their way to death, he was very nice and told us all about the village in Wales with the longest name of any other village in the UK. I think the important fact was that there was nothing else important about this village. And the name was just ridiculous. I’ve never actually been to ‘proper’ Wales before, so it was really exciting to look at it from the height of the lorry cab and get a good view of the coast line and the rolling sheep-filled hills.
Cloyd neglected to tell us that he was not going all the way to Holyhead, or even past a service station, so he regretfully dumped us on a roundabout and we had our first attempt at the 80s ‘thumb’ style hitching. Considering it was just before 7am and we looked like utter shit, I was relatively surprised when a Welsh nationalist grandmother from Anglesey decided to pick us up and give us a guided tour of the island (apparently Anglesey keeps the rest of Wales and England in place. If we were to remove the bridge that connects us, we would float away. I’m not sure about the geographical accuracy of this comment, but it’s a nice idea). She was really cute and kept saying, “I don’t normally do this, I just feel really sorry for you.” I think she was another one who thought we were homeless.
Finally, Holyhead was in sight and the nice lady dropped us at the junction just before Holyhead. Considering it was in view, we decided to do the illegal running alongside the motorway routine just because we were so sick of standing around with fake smiles on our faces when really we were tired and hungry and had cold toes.
I guess I learned several things from this experience:
- It is possible to travel for free; you just have to be patient, impervious to cold and not in any hurry.
- When they say it is safer to hitch in a pair, girl/boy, I am tempted to agree. In scenarios like the refrigerator van, to be by myself or with another girl would have been infinitely scarier. I am aware that a bloke may not necessarily be any help whatsoever, but I think it puts people off and you look like a safe friendly couple.
- The whole sticking your thumb out thing is pretty difficult. If you are planning to hitch anywhere, trying to get from service station to service station is much easier. This is mainly because you can talk to people and convince them that you are a bonafide hitcher and not some mentalist who is going to jump in their car and stab them. I realise that was a total stereotype, but you’d be surprised how many people I have spoken to who would neither hitch hike if their life depended on it nor contemplate picking up a hitcher.
- You may feel obliged to buy disgusting sandwiches.
- Hitching largely depends on the kindness of strangers. And really really bored people.
- The hitchers combined raised around £9750 for Light into Africa and Aid to Africa, both of which are organisations that send medical and educational equipment to Tanzania. They also run medical units and help in building schools in various parts of Africa.
Chris twelve-oh-five, firstname.lastname@example.org