When I first started driving in the pre-history of the early 1980s, you’d often see middle aged blokes with trade plates, or students with destinations scrawled on bits of cardboard standing on motorway service slip roads, hoping some kind soul would give them a lift.
My dad, a trusting type, sometimes indulged in this early form of car sharing. So did I when I began driving and neither of us came to any harm. That was decades ago, and I’m not sure I’d be so public spirited now, but this is academic because thumbs aloft hiking practitioners seem to have vanished without trace.
I’ve only tried hitchhiking once, and the politest thing I can say about the experience is that I hope it was unrepeatable. My girlfriend at the time decided it would be fun to hitchhike from London to the Scottish Highlands, starting at Marble Arch and thumbing our way up the A1, which in 1982 was a much slower road peppered with roundabouts. We’d got as far as Letchworth when a middle aged man with an Open University beard and a Vauxhall Chevette took pity on us, saying he could take us as far as Stamford in Lincolnshire. When he deposited us at the inevitable roundabout, it was getting dark and a hard frost was beginning to form. I shrugged on my hefty outdoor coat and rucksack as the Chevette melted back into the traffic, and gratefully pulled on my hood.
Something was wrong. The hood’s lining felt strange. Stuffing my hands into the pockets I pulled out an unfamiliar wallet, containing someone else’s cash and credit cards. Without thinking, I’d taken Chevette man’s jacket from the back seat and put it on over my own outdoor coat. My girlfriend was not impressed, and we spent the next hour expecting the jacket’s owner to come storming back and accuse me of theft.
Our next lift, a bloke in a Volvo estate, was travelling as far as Wetherby. When we told him about the accidental theft, he said he’d drop us at the police station, and was true to his word. It was dark and freezing as I hauled our rucksacks from the Volvo’s luggage deck, shut the tailgate and as the car pulled away looked down at the ground and saw a neat, monogrammed leather briefcase belonging to its owner. I’d somehow manged to sweep it from the car, whose driver fortunately saw me running after it, waving the briefcase and shouting ‘Stop!’ ‘Stop!’ The Volvo driver must have thought I was a relapsing kleptomaniac who was desperately trying to reform, because as we trudged into Weatherby nick, we saw him checking the back seat and boot to make sure nothing else had been half inched.
Soon we were standing in front of a sort of giant serving hatch and talking to a middle-aged desk sergeant with frog like, unblinking eyes that appeared to twinkle with amusement as we unburdened ourselves of Chevette man’s jacket and our tale of woe. Using a large, leather-bound desk diary, he took down our details then took the jacket. As I turned to leave, my rucksack connected with a vase of cut flowers that decorated the serving hatch, knocking it over. Water and foliage cascaded onto the diary, serving hatch and policeman, who was no longer amused, but luckily didn’t arrest us.
This comedic misery set the scene for the rest of the trip, but I will spare you from the second column’s worth of mishaps that ensued. You won’t be surprised to hear that after a blazing row by a roundabout on the outskirts of Dalkieth, my travelling companion became my ex-girlfriend and we parted acrimoniously.
When I finally returned home, I was suffering from stress and a streaming head cold. A few days later the trip’s other memento arrived in the form of a letter from Chevette Man, thanking me for my honestly, and saying that he’d used the trip to Wetherby to collect his jacket as an excuse for a short Yorkshire walking holiday, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Perhaps this reinforced his faith in human nature, but I suspect if those human beings were hitchhikers, he gave them a wide berth.