Photo: Young women hitch-hike on country lanes, 1956. Photograph: Harry Kerr/Getty Images
Hitch-hiking. By now there is likely a generation or two who do not really know what the term means. It is a shame. In 1970, when I was still shy of being ‘of age,’ two friends and I hitched from Toronto to Florida and back through Kentucky and parts therein. We were gone for just over a month It was fun and dangerous in equal measure. Can you imagine doing that now? James
15 July 2021 | GL Gibson | The Guardian | Additional images as noted below
As youth recedees, one has the illusion “that there hath passed away a glory from the earth.” It is hard to believe that the careless glow of brightness which has become a memory is worn by young people of to-day. Frankly, I do not believe it, but am willing to be convinced. At any rate I am sure that no one enjoys tramping today as deliriously as we did.
My sister and I soon found that the ideal number for tramping was two; the ideal costume a gym tunic. In those days it was considered extremely daring and improper at our university to cross the quad to the fives court wearing a gym tunic. But on the road the tunic was perfect, and you wore your hair in a pigtail for comfort, and to conceal your great age. This made you look like a fourteen-year-old, and everyone you met was extraordinarily kind and friendly.
Walking on main roads was difficult, because we were offered so many lifts. One morning, I remember, we rode on a sweep’s cart – he besmirched with soot and whistling like all the birds of heaven, – on a butcher’s cart, in a smart car, and then on the front of a lorry full of workmen. The butcher dropped us at his village, left the cart with his boy, and cycled after us to offer us our fare home. He was too delicate to offer charity in front of the boy.
One night we found ourselves at Pickering in Yorkshire with two hours to wait for a train. We set off to catch the same train at the station, some eight or nine miles away, but were picked up on the road by a Rolls-Royce and set down in excellent time at the station. I with string in my shoes as my laces had long since given out, my sister with a great rent pinned up sketchily in the front of her tunic.
No Money Worries
In those days we scorned money mightily, and the lack of it seemed a mark of distinction. We would set out gaily on a week’s tramp with a pound apiece in our pockets. We made our way from Barnard Castle to Edinburgh, across to Glasgow, Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine, down to Carlisle and back to Yorkshire, taking a train here and there at a dull stretch, on less than two pounds apiece.
We traded shamelessly on our youthful appearance and seldom found difficulty in getting shelter for the night. Cottagers’ and farmers’ wives were kind, and often the bill amounted to no more than three shillings each, or even less, for supper, bed, and breakfast.
We took our meals with the family in the kitchen and made lasting friendships in the queerest places. I well remember talking till mid-night in a farmhouse kitchen in Westmorland with an ex-officer climber, the farmer and his two daughters, and an inspired labourer who could quote Byron, Milton, and Pope. It was a godlike feeling to tramp all day and talk the universe in a farmhouse kitchen at night.
I can never forget the kind fisherman’s wife at Staithes who gave us her own bed and turned in with her daughters for the night. Her son gave my sister a lobster, because she reminded him of a lost sweetheart. It was awkward to carry, but it made a nice gift to our hostess of the following night. Somewhere in Cumberland we were taken in by the district nurse. She was called out in the night and next morning we found a note asking us to make our own breakfast, lock up, and drop the key through the kitchen window.
We only once found difficulty in getting a bed. We had crossed the Scottish border by footpaths, had tea with a shepherd’s wife in the hills, she site accompanying us three miles on our way because she so seldom had visitors, and, late in the evening were met with hostile looks at a village the name of which have forgotten. It was raining. We tried several small inns with no luck and at last went boldly into a farmhouse and refused to go.
The angry young farmer cross-questioned us for a long time and asked, “If you have a home why don’t you stay there?” As we would not go we were perforce allowed to stay, but were locked into our room. In the morning, as we had not attempted to steal, the spoons, or the baby, the young people were apologetic. But we had arrived hatless on Sunday morning, so, of course, they had thought we were not respectable.
Sometimes we slept out. We were secretly terrified but enjoyed the adventure enormously, especially the following day. Once we found a hard and chilly bed on top of the Jubilee Tower, above Lancaster, lying on our waterproofs with our pyjamas round our necks for warmth. The winds whistled round the battlements, a cuckoo shouted nearly all night, and the cows made queer sounds by rubbing their horns against the base of the tower. But inland we had the great mass of dark fells against the night sky, and, far away, the moonlight silvered the forlorn and lovely sea.
We also slept on strawstacks, in a roadside barn of new hay – very ticklesome – with country lovers passing by till a late hour, in haycocks in a moonlit field, in woods, and once on a quiet road.
The fields were all drenched with dew, so we stretched our waterproofs on the road, using our rucksacks as pillows, and listened to the hedgehogs barking on their nightly prowls and the nightjars and the owls.
In those days the kindly earth seemed to provide all kinds of berries to stay our appetites. We lived on wild fruit and on bread and cheese, chiefly. Once a schoolboy dropped a parcel of sandwiches from his cycle at the critical moment. He would not stop when we called him, so we ate the sandwiches as a gift from a benevolent Providence. But indeed we never lost that feeling of being divinely provided for, the feeling that trees and birds and all wild creatures have, perhaps – the implicit faith in life.
That, I think, was the secret of everything. Walking was a joy, and the England we discovered was incredibly lovely, but the special heady pleasure was in dropping clean out of humdrum life into a world as simple and friendly as if it had that moment been created and had not yet learned to be sophisticated.
The monotonous, organised work of the world counted for less than nothing; economic factors hardly counted at all; social inequalities vanished, and the brotherhood of man was plain to see. We lived in a world of make-believe, perhaps, but a world impinging on sweet reality, so that it was hard to say where one ended and the other began.