Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

The lost art of hitchhiking

WideWorld sticks its thumb out for a valuable lesson in getting around the UK for free
© Roger McLassus

A typical hitchhiking journey from Stirling to London

It is 3pm when I step off the bus into the hard shoulder of the Scottish A-road. I walk a little to find a likely spot but before I have the chance to put my bag down and my thumb up, a mini-van screeches off the road just in front of me and a cheery lady jumps out. “She must need the toilet badly”, I think. Turns out she’s actually stopped to offer me a lift to Glasgow.

I have decided to hitchhike from Stirling in Scotland, to London. We’re drowning in limitless possibilities of inexpensive travel. In fact, it’s possible to travel without any money at all if you eliminate just two things (and I don’t mean booze and nightlife): transport and accommodation. You can camp and stay in cheap hostels, but transport is a much harder nut to crack. One option is to buy a bike and cycle through the country. But unless you want to end up with gigantic thigh muscles, do what I do – hitchhike.

Hitchhiking has a terrible reputation in the West. I’m from Eastern Europe and have hitchhiked since I was 12; it’s a way of life for me. It’s also wrong to assume no one will pick you up in the UK. Just because people here don’t do it doesn’t mean they can’t. I have hitchhiked around the UK plenty of times, but this time it’s a bit of an experiment. I want to find out how long it will take for me to get from Stirling to London.

Back in the mini-van, heading for Glasgow, I learn that Sheryl, Steve and little 6-year old Maggie are from Ireland and are also travelling. Tiny brown mini van has been turned into a studio flat on wheels, complete with comfy bunk beds, television and kitchen corner. They have been on the road for some time and think hitchhiking is a great adventure.

They drop me off outside the city to look for my next ride. It is never too comfortable hitchhiking on the highway. For a start, it’s illegal in most countries and when a car screams past you at 100 miles an hour, there is no way it’s going to stop. It’ll just leave you with a mouthful of fumes and ringing ears.

I stand next to a petrol station hoping someone will offer me a ride. Passing cars honk their horns and the people inside wave. I’ve been waiting 15 minutes when Paul stops. He is heading to Blackpool for a cycle training camp and offers me a lift. Paul is nice enough – a professional cyclist, he talks mostly about protein diets and bicycle tracks. But beggars can’t be choosers, right? He drops me off in a service station before turning off the road towards Blackpool.

It’s 6pm by this time, and I am getting hungry. I tie my sign: “LONDON – HERE I COME” to my backpack and head for the station. As I am munching away on a sandwich, a tall, white-haired taxi driver asks me where I’m planning to go. “Oh, I can take you to Manchester for free,” he says, and again, without doing much hitchhiking at all I’m on the road again.

Mike has been a taxi driver all his life. He talks at length about all his dodgy football fights. Football is his passion and he promises to beat up anyone who says anything bad about Manchester United. I don’t, and nod eagerly while he counts up all the countries in which he’s been imprisoned. It may sound like Mike is a bit crazy. Really, Mike’s all right.

In Manchester, he drops me off at another petrol station. Anyone who has done any hitchhiking at all will tell you that most of your time will be spent in service and petrol stations. They become your second home. You will learn to love and appreciate their small coffee shops, clean toilets and hot water – shining beacons in a dark night. I walk on the highway ramp and stick out my thumb. Thirty minutes later a car stops.

Frank is heading for London. There are different reasons people pick you up from the road. Most of the drivers are lonely and want a chat – you’ll remember them. Others pick you up because they feel sorry for you. They start out quiet but by the end of the road you know everything, from their last holiday in Mallorca to any serious health problems. You remember them as well.

Then there are those who just pick you up for no reason at all. They don’t want to talk, and you’ll quietly stare out of the window as the landscape flies by. That’s Frank. The journey would have been a short one if Frank had gone straight to the city centre. Unfortunately he lives in a suburb, and around midnight he drops me off in another service station just outside London.

There is no point hitchhiking any more. It’s pitch dark and passers-by might think I’m a prostitute. There are no buses passing and the tube stations are too far away. As I come to terms with the possibility of sleeping in a ditch, a police car stops at the services for coffee. I walk up to them and politely ask if they can help me out. They agree to drop me at the closest tube station.

I am in my hostel by 1am, after 10hrs and a total cost of £1.20 for the bus in Stirling. I’ve done more than just travel the length of the country. I’ve been forced to meet new people and rely upon the kindness of strangers, and confirm to myself that human nature is still good enough to help a lonely hitcher. There is no better way to get to know local people and cultures. There is no better way to plunge head first into a crazy adventure. As Paul Theroux said: “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travellers don’t know where they’re going”.

Top tips for hitchhikers

1. Think about the location.

Always make sure the cars have a place to stop, that a bend or road sign does not obscure you and that you are not standing in the middle of the fastest stretch.

2. Pack light

Hitchhiking often involves lot of walking. And you have better chance to get picked up with one bag than with ten suitcases and a folded bike.

3. Write a sign

Even when you hitchhike to the other side of the world, always write a sign. Signs help people to realise that you actually have a purpose and an aim.

4. Wear clean and bright clothing

You will stick out and won’t look like a hobo.

5. Ask people for a lift, especially when you are stranded in a service station

Very often people don’t plan to pick you up but when you approach them nicely it is harder for them to say no.

6. If you’re a girl, never go in the car when there is more than one guy

Safety first. When you feel uncomfortable with the driver, don’t sit there and suffer. Tell the person to stop and get out. After all, you are not obliged to be there.

7. Have a map

Maps help you to find a good place to start and even more importantly where to find a place to be dropped off. People generally know very little about hitchhiking and they will drop you off in Limbo-land where you will be stuck for days.

8. Avoid cities

Cities are Limbo-land. If you do have to hitchhike through a town, take a bus to the edge of the metropolis; don’t try to hitch on the high street.

9. If you travel with a friend don’t split up

One of you will get lost and the energy it takes to find your friend is not worth it.