Friday, 1 October 2010

The gentle art of hitchhiking

Ken dons a cunning disguise and tries out the lost art for old times sake.
Hitting the blacktop for a journey to a place you hope will give you the weekend of freedom seems to be a thing of the past. Where are the boys (and girls) of the road now? Driving BMW’s down the A55 no doubt!
It was whilst driving down the Pass with my wife Clare that bought it to light; she asked why we didn’t see any body hitching these days and it rekindled some memories and questions that seemed to need further answers?  Travelling through the mountain areas of north Wales and journeying to and from Liverpool on a regular basis confirmed the disappearance of the ‘road gang’. Are there any characters left?
In the late sixties/early seventies the only way we could get to Wales was by cadging a lift in a mates car -rare things- or  by hitching a lift, and it was all part of the weekends adventure to start the journey with a lift in some strange vehicle or worse still - a strange driver who would either want to tell you his life story or wouldn’t say a bloody word.

It all began for me when I started to climb on a regular basis and having to exist on a meagre wage meant no car. Also I had just read On the Road by Kerouac, so I can blame him a little for all the angst. The journey would invariably start with a train or ferry trip as hitching across the Mersey was a nightmare. Once the divide had been crossed then the serious stuff would begin in earnest and there were ethics to adhere to. I kid you not. It was all important to walk the short distance from the ferry terminal or the underground at Birkenhead to the Welsh road and the open highway, the direct link to the hills. Unfortunately,  this meant that you had to pass the horrendous stench of the leather tanning works which would turn even an extreme leader’s stomach to jelly in one small swift nostril full !  It will remain in the memory as one of those reminiscent aromas of ones life forever like sherbet dips or pear drops, but it was a small price to pay for the trip ahead.
There would invariably be one or two other guys in line for a lift and we would take it in turns when offered a seat and it was all very courteous and you would often meet the same crew from week to week.

The Kit.
Of course the traveller needed the right kit to get a lift and this contained the essential lift getter. The climbing rope.... the rope would not be tucked away out of sight in your sack but had to be carried around the neck and be in full view of the oncoming car. It was meant to symbolise the fact that we were not just plain hitchers but men on a mission.
The use of the rope became a good badge in later years when I was living in Wales and needed to hitch to go shopping. It never failed, but we did get some strange looks from Mrs Williams and her brood as we trundled around the Co-op in Caernarfon. The cardboard sign was also an invaluable tool for the hobo and it was possible to choose your destination by writing it in large enough letters. I used this to great effect on one trip, I had decided to spend the weekend travelling and thought that for a change I would head up North, maybe the Lakes. The M62 Rocket Roundabout was a mere mile from home so that seemed like a good place to start. Arriving at the Rocket I was confronted with a long queue of other hitchers with various signs ‘the Lakes’,  ‘Coventry’, ‘Leeds’ etc. I thought’ I’m in for a long haul here if I don’t come up with something’. Out came the new piece of card and on it I wrote in big black letters ‘Anywhere'. Within two minutes I was heading for the Peak in a brand new articulated lorry. Of course I could well have been heading for Hull or Norfolk but that was the buzz- you didn’t know where you would end up? During my stay at Bigil where I managed to live in the same house as Al Harris and lived to tell the tale- we had an essential hitching tool to enable us to travel from the wilderness of Dinorwig to Bangor or Caernarfon. The ‘petrol can’ was our version of trade plates and would be used with great effect on drivers who obviously felt sorry for us. There was a special hiding place in the hedge at the Llanberis/Bangor junction where the can would be stashed for emergency use if lifts were not forthcoming. We must have ran out of petrol on a regular basis.

The Enemy.
There were only a few things that would make it difficult to get a ride in the old days..
1 Rain........This was a pain in the arse; invariably you would only get lifts in grotty old vans delivering car parts. Rain would mean that a chance of a lift in a decent motor was out of the question if you looked like a drowned rat.

2 Rutger Hauer..........Rutger Hauer starred in a movie about a psycho killer who hitched lifts to get his hits; this film called ‘The Hitcher,’ did for hitching what ‘Das Boot’ did for applications to join the submarine corps. Good old Rutger.

3 The Law........Maybe it was just me that looked like a suspicious hippy but I was confronted by Her Majesties Officers on more than one occasion. They would ask the most absurd questions as to why you were thumbing a lift carrying a rucksack and rope ,” where are you going son?”  “Bondage classes officer”  “nawfin suspicious then eh?........ On yer way lad”

The most bemused policeman ever was a Gendarme in Chamonix (more of that later). A mate and I were called over for jaywalking and were asked to empty our rather full rucksacks, this we duly did on the side of ‘la rue’. All was fine until  he came to a small plastic bag containing a white powder ‘Zut a lore, vat ave we ere’ vous may wish to phone ome, no Monsieur?'
It took over twenty minutes to convince the poor man that it was climbing chalk,(early days, Magnesium Carbonate in those little blue and white boxes from Boots.... who remembers them?) He tasted it several times ( he may well have been an addict) and we were convinced that we were to be sent to the guillotine, eventually all was well and he wandered off muttering something about wanting ‘la toilette’. 

The Vehicles
I have had lifts in hundreds of run of the mill vehicles but one or two stood out from the rest.
Thanks for the lift pal!

1. The Bedford Camper:
My mate Bob and I had decided to meet up with a few of the lads who were camping in Betws y Coed and started hitching on Saturday afternoon. We were only going for a few beers so not much gear was carried but we had ‘the rope’ so all would be well. It was a fine summers day and most of the traffic were holiday makers on their way to Wales with their kids. We waited a long time and seemed to do a lot of walking but eventually an ancient Bedford Camper van stopped, the driver and his wife were off for ‘A jolly little trip’ and could they give us a lift. Eight hours later we were dropped off at the bridge in Betws, the van, a 1950s classic had a top speed of approximately 25mph (down hill) and the driver and his wife had a combined age of 186. We of course missed the beers and couldn’t find the campsite (but the old dears may well have reached their destination by now ?

2. The Black Cab:
This was a very strange trip, again it was with Bob -he must have attracted them- and we were hitching at the start of the Welsh road. Many vehicles passed but eventually a black cab drew up, I said to Bob he must be mistaken and thinks we were flagging him down for a fare but no the cabbie insisted that he give us a ride as he was off the meter and going to Talacre to pick his wife and five kids up. Fair enough we thought, loads of space to stretch out and we duly got in.  We’ve all been in an old black cab at one time or another- usually at about 2am as you fell out of the ‘Cabin Club’ after a heavy night and trying to remember where you left that phone number she gave you!  This one was a speciality version as we weaved a merry journey towards the coast. It was a particularly hot day and the cabbie, a large portly chap who was dressed in a string vest and shorts asked if we were thirsty? He duly passed over a lemonade bottle, we noticed the label was missing and assumed he had filled it from home with orange juice, that’s what it looked like to us anyway.It seared the throat like your first secret swig of your parents scotch when you were a kid. It turned out to be home made tea wine with a 80% proof warning, We handed it back and the cabbie happily drank it as we swayed our way to the seaside. Whether he made it to his destination was debatable?

3. The Bentley :
I was stuck in Betws y Coed and holiday traffic was making it rather difficult to get a lift. Eventually a rather sedate 1940s Bentley stopped, I assumed the driver was looking for directions but no, he pulled up, wound the window down and asked if I required a lift...." Yes I’m heading towards Beddgelert” I replied “jump in young feller we’re headed that way”.
As we travelled majestically towards our destination he regaled me with tales of all the hills he had bagged and how he loved a jolly ramble followed by a dip in a cold mountain stream, I was rather concerned as to his intentions at this point and was hoping he wasn’t about to invite me for a ramble to show me some puppies and was quietly working out if it would be possible to leap out at some opportune spot James Bond style and roll down some grassy bank as they do in the movies. I worked it out rather quickly that this is obviously a good way of shortening your life, so I had to stick with his lordship till the journey ended. He kept on about how much he enjoyed coming to Wales, and that he was off to fish a little known lake at Rhyd Ddu , “damn fine rainbow my boy, a sporty fish, needs a cunning skill”. A quality of which I would of course not possess. “That wouldn’t be Llyn y Gader would it” I asked “.Ah, yes young feller, know of it do you?” “Know it my arse, part of the family estate don’t you know” I replied, hope you’ve got a licence guv. Needless to say his attitude changed somewhat after that. He dropped me right outside the front door and his only words as I was getting out of the car were “well I’ll be buggered”, ....... often, I thought.

4. The Boy Racer.
The boy racer was a real loon, I was on the A5 at Cerrigydrudion when a rather battered Triumph GT6 stopped. Just about enough room for two and a small rucksack I thought and jumped in.He was a farmer’s boy but liked to play about with cars apparently,( I think that’s what he said over the din) ? He had been able to squeeze a ‘blown’ Rover engine that his mate had then race tuned for him into this tiny car, the engine might have been in good fettle but unfortunately his mate had neglected the other essential bits, such as decent brakes to slow the thing down and the body work was held together with non sticky glue and string. I actually closed my eyes at 130 mph and just thanked Telford for designing a really straight piece of A5 at this spot. He was obviously proud of his car and wanted to show it off to me and was determined to see how fast it was capable of going without actually taking off, I managed to shout loud enough that I was meeting someone at the pub in Pentrefoelas and we screeched to a halt by the bridge, I fell out and he muttered “shame your not coming through the Padog Bends boy, then you could see what she  really handles like”! After he had disappeared in a cloud of rubber smoke I spewed up over the wall, and believe me I am a real speed freak. (This chap must be either long dead or testing nitro packed cars on some drag strip somewhere. God help him if he is anywhere with bends in the road !
5. The Furniture Van.
Once again I was with Bob and we were returning after a disastrous hitching trip to, wait for it- Belgium. Don’t ask.... Bobs idea, he had never been to Belgium and just fancied a trip there. If your thinking of having a hitching trip then remove Belgium from the map. Walking to the north pole pulling a pallet of lard would be easier than hitching in this country. We decided to return to home soil after having to sleep in a skip, in a shop doorway, under the trailer of a lorry, a rather grand golf course- that we only discovered that we were on when the morning mist cleared to find us bivied on the green. Such comfort was never before experienced, perfectly groomed and flatter than a billiard table, the tent pegs were pushed in with such ease! And finally, the luxury of a church grave yard which was when we accepted defeat. The return journey to the coast was undertaken by train and was pure relaxation. Bob then decided that he hadn’t been to Cornwall either and now seemed as good a time as any to experience clotted cream and pasties. The drag along the coast was very difficult to get a lift on as every other bugger was towing a caravan or was full to the gunnel's. A white van pulled up and enquired as to where we were heading “Penzance mate” we replied “OK lads no problem I’m heading in that sort of direction” He got out of the van and proceeded to open the rear sliding door “sorry lads but I’m not supposed to give any lifts but you can get in the back” In the rear of the van was the most expensive looking leather three piece suite imaginable. “just use that boys, it’s destined for some famous actor’s summer ouse an ee wownt know will ee... make yerself at ome” He slid down the door and we sat in comfort for what seemed hours without a clue as to our where about or destination. Eventually the van drew to a halt and we were a couple of miles from our destination, I wondered for many years whom the owner of the leather furniture was, not old Rutger Haeur I hope!
Patron saint of hitchhikers

The Big Trip

Every once in a while life changing moments make you do the strangest things, for me it was the break up of a long time relationship that led to the big trip. After gathering my thoughts and life in general together I decided to pack in my job and see the world. Well a bit of it anyway and a mate (Dave) was willing to join the venture. We gathered our gear together and decided that we should head for the Alps and strange as it seems the trip was to start at the Rocket Roundabout once again. With what seemed to be the biggest and heaviest rucksacks imaginable we set off as early as possible and to our surprise within minutes we were in a lorry headed towards London and the port of Dover. We ‘foot passenger’ ticketed it across the channel and hey presto a totally knackering 36 hours after leaving Liverpool we were camped up in Chamonix. Things were about to change though. It took a while to recover from the mammoth hitch and we took it really easy for a few days. One morning at some ungodly hour a rustling sound coming from outside the tent woke us up .’Ay up youth ,oi eard you were ere, any chance of a brew loike, I wuz wonderin if yer fancoid doin a route loike?' This very famous mountaineer will have to remain nameless to protect the innocent and keep Interpol at bay. He was equipped with no more than a safari suit, plastic shopping bag, a pair of EB’s and a bank card (not his own) and was determined to attach himself to us so it looked like we were stuck with him for a few days. As luck would have it the weather turned foul on the hills so we were spared the major rescue that we would have found ourselves in had we been tempted to follow our ‘mates’ advice and ‘knock off a couple of rock routes for starters'.

As it happened another mate was heading out for the Alps for his honeymoon and said he would meet up with us in Argentiere for a drink so off to the pub we set off only to find the place deserted. We would try another day, meanwhile it was getting more and more difficult to avoid the hanger on and he was looking more and more like Fagin in his looks and antics. The next evening we attempted to sneak away to the pub under cover of darkness but he appeared out of the gloom and sort of invited himself along. After a few beers with the honeymooners it was time for us to head back to Cham and for the honeymooners to go and do what honeymooners do. The reason they had not appeared the previous day was because they had mistakenly gone for a short walk, without food or much water into the Verdon Gorge without realising it was a long way down and had only an in and an out exit. Approximately 17 miles apart.  It was impossible to hitch back as all good French folk are in bed asleep by eight and the newlyweds were doing the same thing, but not the sleeping bit obviously.
A short while later Fagin, who had disappeared to relieve himself announced that he had found our transport back to the campsite, we humoured him and went to have a look sure enough there in the car park was what looked like an abandoned 2CV, the doors were open and Fagin said he could get it going and that we shouldn’t worry as he was accustomed to borrowing other peoples cars without their knowledge.

Drunk as we were we weren’t really sure that this plan was a good idea but the prospect of a long stagger back to base didn’t appeal much either. We clambered in and Fagin had the motor running in no time and we prepared for the long trip to the local nick. Unfortunately, despite Fagin’s skill at hot wiring the vehicle he had failed to release the steering lock and we did a perfect 360o of the gravel car park. This was now becoming a farce and we weren’t too keen on this idea of Fagin’s that borrowing other people’s cars was the done thing, plus the cold air was having a sobering effect. We said that the walk might do us good and that we might see him back in the camp site in the next few days.
After weaving down the road for a few minutes we heard the sound of a vehicle, we put our thumbs out hoping for a lift. What we got was what we weren’t expecting, Up pulled a council tipper wagon and driving it was Fagin. He was adamant that we should get in and we were too knackered, drunk and afraid to argue with him.

Arriving in Chamonix in the middle of the night in a ‘borrowed’ council truck was bound to arouse suspicion but not a soul was about and Fagin happily parked the truck in a lay- by as if he did this sort of thing on a daily basis (he probably did), he then set off at great speed mentioning that he knew where we could raid an ice cream machine. It was time to do a quick disappearing act before the three of us spent the rest of the holidays breaking rocks on an unnamed island somewhere in the Pacific!
The weather in the Alps was very poor and Dave was beginning to suffer with flu symptoms so we decided to head back towards home to gather our thoughts and sanity together after the excitement of being Fagin’s boys for a few days. It had been a doddle to get there so we assumed it would be the same on the return journey, don’t you believe it. The return journey was to take five gruelling days of weaving our way around the French road system including a trip down the Mulsane Straight at Le Mans in a very fast articulated wagon. The driver let us sleep on his floor and during the small hours a noise woke us up. In the darkness we could just make out the shape of a rather well endowed female, before long much grunting and moaning was heard, Christ youth she’s having an asthma attack I said to Dave who was also rather bemused as to what was going on. In the morning the driver calmly asked us if we had slept OK and that we weren’t woken in the night by his girlfriend who he described thus’ I ope you vernt voken in ze nite , my voman is what you say,a ladee of ze night yes’ . A very mad Algerian with a suicide wish, three women and a baby (which was sat on Dave’s knee when they hit another car head on) and a yoghurt selling hippy in a Morris Minor without any seats in it.... apart from all that it was all pretty plain sailing really! Needless to say the hitching bug was rapidly wearing thin and it was time for a bit of role reversal.

The American

After a while I decided that a semi permanent move to Wales would be a good idea, this semi permanent move meant that I could still take my washing home and indulge in some home cooking which would be a change to Al Harris’s famous omelettes or chips with chips which was staple fare to us dwellers of the spare room at Pete’s Eats. It was whilst I was working at Pete’s that I met the American (we shall call him Bud for that was what he called himself) I had been up to Capel Curig and was using Pete’s van. This van was an ex Post Office affair and has seen better days to say the least. The doors  had an alarming life of their own, they would be impossible to open on some days and required an acrobatic entrance through the windows on other days. Occasionally they would swing open as you drove along. This was pretty scary if you were a passenger and required the skills of a sidecar racer to avoid falling out. On my return to Llanberis as I was descending the pass there was a guy in the lay-by opposite to the boulders who was hitching. As a fellow traveller it was the norm to give lifts and I duly stepped on the anchors, I eventually stopped after approximately 100 metres (the brakes were also only slightly better than your grannies pushbike) and reversed back, I felt the van rise slightly at the rear and an alarmed face appeared at the passenger window ‘oi mate ya just backed over my backpack’ ‘ sorry la’re lucky I stopped when I did other wise you would have had to walk to Llanberis to catch up with me, throw your pack in the back and get in’. Of course the door was jammed and Bud had to climb in through the window. So where are you heading to then Bud and where have you just hitched from? I’m trying to get to Llanberis and I’ve been told to head for Pete’s cafĂ© and I’ve just hitched from Czechoslovakia, I met up with a guy called Alan Rouse out there and he gave me a list of routes to do and told me I’d be OK if I headed to Wales .Oh you’ll be OK Bud me old mate, welcome to the crazy gang hideout. At every party at Al Harris’s or on every cassette that we all had, the favourite song that we  could relate to was Desperado by the Eagles . for that’s what we were for sure, we even looked like them
An American Hitchhiker......What Bud might have looked like.

I asked to see the routes list and recognised Alan’s handwritten scrawl. He had given Bud a fair mixture of stuff to do and he was as keen as mustard to get on the rock. First he had to have somewhere to stay so he sort of attached himself to the ‘second floor room gang’ at Pete’s and joined in with great gusto, over the next few days we managed to do The Corner and Grond and he was well pleased with the quality of our ‘small brutal little climbs’ (his words, not mine, which would later return to haunt him). One evening as we were all in the Padarn Lake having a pint and Bud was touting his list around and was asking for climbing partners for a trip to Gogarth, who should appear ghost like from the throng was our old mate ‘ Fagin’ , “oim up fer a  cwple o rewts mait loike, gis a lewk at yer list”. The list was slowly being ticked like all good lists should be but so far Gogarth had been missed. Little did Bud know he was in for a real treat. The story of the day was described to us over a pint and it was pure theatre. Fagin had arranged to meet Bud in the lake side car park and would pick him up at ten in his car, this was a good start as Fagin didn’t possess a vehicle of any sort but had ‘ borrowed’ someone else’s-nothing new there then- a rather classic Morris Traveller, It was to get much better as the story unfolded. Fagin decided that to get to Gogarth they would travel in style and had informed Bud that they were going to use his ocean going yacht to get there, Fagin didn’t posses a boat either. As they travelled towards Portdinorwig in their borrowed car they turned off into the marina and parked up. By this time Bud was thinking that he had struck gold with his new climbing partner. He was told to wait in the car and Fagin would call him when they were ready to set off. After a short while he heard a shout and was called over to the dock wall, there on the water was a small tender with its engine running and innocent old Bud got on board. The small boat then took them out to a 40ft ocean going vessel that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the harbour in Monaco and they secured the tender to the boat and climbed aboard. At this point things began to go a little pear shaped. They were on deck but Fagin was having a little difficulty gaining  access to the cabin as he had left the ‘key ‘ at home, suddenly to Buds surprise  there  was an all mighty crunch and lo and behold the door was open. According to Bud they spent the day on deck quaffing fine wines till the sun went down and abandoned all thought of Gogarth and its climbs. What would have happened if the real owner of this yacht had turned up and found this wayward duo helping themselves to his cellar doesn’t bear thinking about. Strangely Bud and his list quickly disappeared shortly afterwards and was never heard of again. Once was enough.

One weekend Robbie Mallinson and I were heading out to Wales and were offered a lift with Tom Hurley, those of you who remember that fine fellow will no doubt know what’s coming! We were picked up in what can only be described as a ‘wreck’ .This car an Austin 1100 had been around the world at least twice and most of that had been under water by the state of the body work’, Clean but rusty’ as it would be advertised in the local rag. We duly set off and were almost overcome with the petrol fumes emanating through the non existent floor pan, as we approached the Betws Bends- for yes dear reader we got that far without passing out ! Although alarmingly, Robbie did put his climbing helmet on which caused me some concern as I’d left mine at home. Tom must have been a sailor in some past life as steering this car was akin to being at the helm of a tea clipper in a storm. We veered from side to side as if this was a normal way to drive..... probably was for Tom! Time was rapidly moving as were the dry stone walls which were alarmingly close at times, when our hero decided that the pub in Llanberis was just out of reach before official closing time so a very fast right turn was taken by surprise and we were heading rapidly over the Ugly House road. After a while we raced past the Towers Outdoor Centre and suddenly there was an almighty grinding and crunching noise,
After coming to a halt and inspecting the outcome of the sounds we discovered that the very, very bald tyre was shredded and to make it for a pint would need Ferrari Formula 1 team wheel changing speed! On opening the boot a spare was extricated but was very, very, very bald, which is one more baldness than the one that was punctured- also a slight problem was the fact that Tom had omitted the wheel jack. Robbie pulled a gate post from the wall, I gathered some stones and Tom amazingly lifted the car up bodily as we constructed this home made effort. Good enough for constructing pyramids good enough for the boys, and girls, as Tom’s future wife was also on board but muttered not a word from journeys beginning to end. Amazingly we made it to the pub in Llanrwst and quaffed a few but the rest of the weekend is totally wiped from the memory. I went round to Tom’s house a few weeks later as we were going to Frodsham or Helsby. He offered me a brew and I said that I would fill the kettle as he got his gear ready. The sink was full of cogs and sprockets and kick-starters from various motorbikes. His harness was on the floor next to a greasy rag and bits of slings were every where. What a man- what a hero.... as rapid as a sten gun as mad as a box of snakes... very sadly missed.

All this revelry and rivalry was coming to a head and it was time to move on, I moved back to Liverpool and gained a job with the stunning title of ‘New Vehicle Sales Executive’ the job was absolutely crap but it meant that I was given a new car every month so it was ideal for repaying all those poor other buggers hitching out to the crag. It lasted a while ,until some nice bloke armed with a sterry milk bottle full of four star and an old hankie chucked it through the showroom window one night and started the Toxteth riots. So that was that, nothing for it but another long weekend at Ellis Brighams.

Now, where did I put that piece of cardboard?

Ken Latham©
first published in the CC journal.