All the best explorers should be able to say that they have climbed to the tops of mountains, sailed the longest rivers and trekked through the darkest jungles, but to be classed as a true adventurneer, surely a long distance hitchhiking journey is essential! Putting your faith in others, careful consideration of the optimal location, remaining positive as cars stream past you and all the while wearing a smile, hitching, as we discovered can be a tough gig!
Aberdeen to Didcot, a distance of 620 kilometres as the crow flies. There are a few public transport options that are available for this route. The quickest is the train to Edinburgh, then the train to London, then London to Didcot. This takes approximately 11 hours and costs about the same as a fortnight’s family holiday on the Spanish coast, which is what you’ll need to recover from the shock of seeing the Visa bill. The much cheaper alternative is to ride most of the way with Megabus, Aberdeen to Birmingham is £10, Birmingham to Oxford is £5 (advanced fare prices) and then the train to Didcot is £6.30. So the two of us could have traveled back for £42.60, but the bus only leaves Aberdeen once a day, at 18:45 and gets into Birmingham at 4 am the next morning, which would mean that our journey back would take over a day (given that we arrived in Aberdeen on the ferry from Lerwick at 7 am). So, we thought, could we go cheaper and possibly even quicker by hitching? There was only one way to find out!
You don’t see many hitchhikers these days. Despite record ticket prices for rail travel and years of austerity people seem inclined to pay the extortionate fees and climb aboard the cramped carriages that offer hold luggage for no more than six passengers per 80 seats and dish out fines for people travelling on near empty trains just because they have taken an earlier departure from the one on their advanced ticket, madness! But why is this? Why, when we told our relatives that we were hitching back, did they give us a grimace and say watch out for axe murderers? To be honest, an axe is not really the best tool for murdering in the confines of a car – no swing room! A garrote murderer, now that is someone to fear!
Our hitchhiking journey began with a fabulous pre-hitch Aberdeen parkrun #304 along the long beach promenade followed by coffee and breakfast bap at the Stratosphere Science centre. Our plans were given a boost with an offer of a shower and lift towards the edge of town from fellow runner Clare, duly accepted! By 11:30 we were smelling fresh and on the side of the recommended A90 with our thumbs out and sign aloft. It was a busy road, about a 50 mph limit and the cars were whizzing by. We had placed ourselves a hundred metres down from a petrol station to give the passing motorists the chance to see us and pull in and beckon us to them. I took the first step to the traffic’s edge and smiled, chest out, shoulders back. Drivers acknowledged us. People made various hand gestures. But no one stopped for me. I gave it my best for a quarter of an hour, but it felt much more. The excited anticipation that someone would stop for us almost instantly had passed. We swapped out, and Helen took point. Within seven minutes, we had struck luck! A Spanish family had stopped for us in the side road and presented us with two seats. They were on a trip of Scotland themselves and had taken a suitcase each and rented a Vauxhall Corsa; just perfect for three adults with a week’s worth of luggage, not so for five! We tried, but couldn’t manage it and so had to pass on the offer. We sent them away and got back on the side of the road. But this family were determined. They pulled into the garage, rearranged their luggage and then the mother jogged down the road and beckoned us back. They were not leaving without us, and so we crammed ourselves in and settled down for a two hour trip to Stirling. We were on our way! Virginia and her family were great companions. We chatted about our travels and her new life in Scotland as Alexis followed Google maps south. They dropped us in the centre of town and told us to keep them up-dated with our journey just in case we needed their help later on!
Of course, town centres are not really idea for hitching; people are coming and going from all directions. So we needed to walk to the southern edge of the city to get the cars headed the same way we were. It was around four, we had no idea how long it would be until our next lift, so we got a bag of scampi and chips and wondered off with my “non-axe murderers seek a lift south” sign strapped to the back of my rucksack. Before we had managed to tuck into our deep fried feast, our next lift was on offer, the sign had worked! So we jumped into Lisa’s Audi A3 and headed to Grangemouth! Lisa gave us a full description of the sights, the impressive Helix figures and the Forth valley and I recalled nights in Falkirk’s premier establishment Behind the Wall. We disembarked at an Asda near a lorry depot and bid our farewells as Lisa set off on a night out to celebrate her recent promotion. The plan was to get some milk and snacks (easy) and get a lift at the depot. But at 17:30 on a Saturday night, none of the lorries appeared to be making any efforts to leave, so we headed off on foot towards to main roads. Our walk took us past the Syngenta laboratories where I spent three months as a PhD student working on a compound called Warhead Lactone! We placed ourselves at the end of the industrial estate and began hitching. After 20 minutes we encountered our first comedians, two lads in a vajazzelled Yaris. They displayed all the classic signs, pulled over 50 metres away, kept the engine running, didn’t get out or unwind a window, wore baseball caps. I was happily relieved when as we approached them they screeched off. That was the cue to make our way to a different spot as we were getting nowhere. As we did so, the Yaris had to go back past us, with the passenger burying his head in his arms in apparent shame. A kilometer further along and we had better luck, after a 15 minute wait Danny and his girlfriend took us a few miles along the road in their Ford Focus and pointed us in the direction of Bathgate – now I had a plan. Within minutes Helen had blagged a ride with a taxi of all things and Mazi took us the six miles into town in his VW Passat. We were now only a few miles from Livingston, where as chance would have it, lives an old friend of my mum’s. As it was now closing in on nine pm, I made a few calls and we had our accommodation for the evening arranged. At this point we opted for the bus to get us swiftly to Mary’s. It turns out that buses in this neck of the woods are anything but swift as they take in all sorts of nooks and tenements and charge a whopping £3.40 EACH! We ended day one with a warm shower and a soft bed, 177 km closer to home.
Sunday 08:15 on the A71 at the edge of an outlet centre that didn’t open for trade until 10:00, I wasn’t expecting an easy thumb. But then I hadn’t counted on Callum coming past in his battered Suzuki Alto. It’s funny the things people reveal to total strangers. Things that don’t need to be revealed as they do little to help the anxiety that can begin to establish traveling along narrow country lanes. The number of incidents involving speeding motorists. Pointing the locations of where the cars left the road into the forests. Having only passed their driving test six months ago. Having battled with a drink problem (as we were in Scotland this could really have just been assumed). Callum was keen to give us a run down of his past. Fortuitously it was a brief ride and as we never managed to find the service station he was aiming for, we got out near a slip road onto the M8. We were of course, still deep in the diamond of hitching doom. The no-mans land in between Glasgow and Edinburgh where all roads go east-west and no one travels south. For 90 minutes we waited. Plenty of cars passed us by, a few chortled at our sign and two even stopped, but they were off to Edinburgh and that felt like a step backwards. Eventually, with thoughts turning to a hike to the service station, white van John gave us the life line we needed. Bags chucked in with the carpet runners in the back of the Iveco and faith restored. A slight detour in John’s journey back planted us at junction 5 of the M74 at a place where “ye’ll get n’bother from the cops here”. And not only that, but we got an almost immediate pick up! Camp John was a joy to ride with. From Glasgow to the Lake District we talked theater and grandkids. His Seat Leon was very comfortable and the scenery was sweeping by. We said our goodbyes at the Killington Lake services with a bag of fruit to see us on our way. It was gone 1 pm and with the sun shining we took advantage of the lovely views to make up a brew and eat our sandwiches, topping up our water bottles at Costa Coffee for free.
Pete and Paul’s BMW 3 series was yet another piece of unexpected luxury. On their way down from a Tough Mudder in Scotland, they drove us to Lymm services with a rock soundtrack. Our last two hitches had eaten up the tarmac and we were optimistic of arriving home that evening. But we now hit a problem. We just could not get a lift. Maybe it was that most people were on the M56 rather than the M6? A lady trying to be helpful suggest we move to the truck stop at the back…all truckers take hitchers right? No. We did try with some truckers, but none would take us. I managed a chat with an AA driver who gave me the “our insurance prohibits us” scenario, which lies somewhere in the sandwich of truth but with a big filling of I just can’t be bothered. We were not alone in waiting for a lift. A young naval officer on his way back to Plymouth was also waiting for his mate to pick him up. Having taken pity on us, Scott and Tommo spared us room in our second BMW of the day and we sat back with Jimmy Carr on the stereo. It had taken a while, but we were now at Hilton Park services, and on any ordinary day, only 90 minutes from home. But we still had a tricky section to overcome. Leaving behind the straight line of the M6 we now joined Gavin in his sporty Celica. The miles whizzed by as we talked about traveling and adventure. The familiar route towards the M42 was as if we were on a homecoming, but Gavin, having done the fortnightly child transfer with his ex was on his way to Northampton, so we elected to be deposited at the Coventry Welcome Break.
What a bad choice. It was a mini diamond of doom again for anyone wishing to go south like us! It soon became 19:30, and hopes were fading that we would make it home – we still had 99 km to go and would people people give hitchers a ride at night? We shifted places around the petrol station to get some shade in the hot summer sun. Campervan Mike spotted us and enthusiastically told us to climb in. I was straight in the back along with the beds, sink, cooker and all the paraphernalia of a weekend racing his Morgan Barrel Back. We cracked open the maps and looked for a strategy that would get us on the right track and get Mike to Suffolk. There was not much of an overlap in our Venn diagram of destinations, but we opted to head for Northampton, perhaps we could pop round to our new friend Gavin! The A5199 just off the A14 looked a likely road that could get us into Northampton and offer us the chance to get to Oxford on the A43. Within minutes our planned look on track as Saint John pulled up in his Jaguar. This ride came with a caveat – we had to help entertain his daughter with severe learning difficulties who was in the back. We duly obliged and had a great time singing Michael Bublé songs and pretending to sneeze. We learnt about Trailblazers – a charity run by John that mentors young offenders and were amazed at the patience and charisma of our chauffeur. We spent over an hour on the country lanes and traveled to Aylesbury bus station. It was 21:30, there was a bus to Oxford in 15 minutes and we had got to within 40 kilometres of home, we were done.
At 23:55 we opened the front door of our house and were back. It had taken 36 hours and in the end cost £25.30 for the both of us. Was it worth it? Well, we did save £12.70 (wow!) but we didn’t have to spend an evening on an overnight bus, and we’ve certainly had our fair share of those recently. But we got to travel with 15 fun people. Not only did we receive great hospitality and generosity which helped us on our way, but our rides also gained a little sense of benevolence; they offered two total strangers a lift and asked for nothing in return, they did their good deed for the day and drove off with a small hint of pride that they had been a good citizen. I asked Camp John if he had ever given a hitch before. He hadn’t. I asked why had he stopped for us. He answered “I don’t know really, I just thought, hell to it, they look like a nice young couple, why not!” Campervan Mike was more of the old school. He had hitched to Italy in his youth. But by and large, those that gave us the looks of disapproval for our activities were of the older generation, those in their 60s who surely grew up when hitchhiking was a more common place activity and people knew who their neighbours were. These are the people that tell us our streets aren’t safe, the young people don’t call in to say hello anymore and there’s foreigners everywhere you look. Well, thanks to a few foreigners and some young people, we made it back! We may not do another journey quite like this again, but we are glad we gave it a go and found that there just aren’t as many axe wielding murderers out there as you may think!