The stretch between Nottingham and Bedford contains very little family history, at least on my dad’s side, whereas today’s comparatively unambitious itinerary did. So, while Day One was about covering distance and making bad jokes, Day Two was about seeing things, and, for me, beginning the journey ‘proper’.
We made a base in a nice little cafe in Bedford to eat breakfast and draw more signs: beans on toast, and ‘A1’ and ‘Langford’ respectively. Naturally fascinated by all our bags, our restless sharpie pens, and why we were taking so long to leave, the proprietress asked what we were doing. I told her we were hitchhiking to the A1, then south to Biggleswade, then along a tiny B-road to the small village of Langford, where my grandparents ran a pub around 40 years ago. She told me we should turn right. We thanked her, went outside, and – for peace of mind rather than because we didn’t trust her – checked google maps to investigate the day’s later stages, to find that we really ought to walk the exact opposite way to her suggestion. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts, except in the case of directions, when it’s definitely the directions that count.
It didn’t take us long to hitch our first ride, from a man called John outside Bedford Blues Rugby Club on the Goldington Road (for any road fans out there). In fact, we had been hitching for so short a time at this stage – my sign barely out of my bag, my thumb barely erect – that we didn’t notice John pull over. So our first interaction with John was to get a good telling off for not paying much attention! Like a tour guide neglected in early adolescence, John was very keen to tell us about which bypass bypassed which town, and what he had for breakfast in 1964. When he found out that my dad now lives in Nottingham, he was also very keen to tell us that a lot of men moved from Bedfordshire to Nottingham in the 60s and 70s because they’d heard that it had seven women to every one man. The saucy minx. What most of these men didn’t realise, however, was that Nottingham’s feminine skew is the result of its history in the lace trade, and that the overwhelming majority of these women are at least 80 years old now. Well, it depends what you’re into I suppose.
John threw us out (almost literally, he drove away before I’d properly left the car! (Oscar was still in the car!!)) outside a Little Chef on the wrong side of the A1. This wouldn’t have been an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the A1 has a lot of very fast cars on it, and was built before walking was invented. So we ran across the road, like headless chickens who have somehow managed to steal and learn to operate a Canon EOS 5D mark II DLSR camera, and stood by the side of the southbound carriageway. Then we stood some more. Then we moved a bit, gradually melting in the midday sun, and stood some more. We saw lots of nice cars. We got waved at a few times, and when someone was feeling particularly charitable, they even smiled. But no fucker stopped. We were stuck. That is, until Oscar spotted a sign from God, a golden emblem much like the one the shepherds saw over the Garden of Eden in 1066. Two full curves, like the breasts of a voluptuous woman made entirely of hope. That’s right, it was a MacDonalds. Which meant a garage, which meant somewhere that people could pull in – would pull in – and physically have to talk to us. Rarely has reconstituted indiscriminate meat been greeted with such glee.
It was with these foul tactics that we met and seduced Karen and Holly, a mother and daughter duo on their way to Milton Keynes. Holly’s two young children were sleeping in the back, but she didn’t mind. I did a bit, but who cares. She said ‘Finlay, let the strange man sit next to you’ and Finlay mentally went WHAT THE FUCK but actually went ‘ga goo’ and smiled like he’d just trumped (probably claiming his territory). Oscar sat in the back, the second most valuable piece of cargo alongside an amazing American pushchair, and – using only his ‘smiling’ face – proceeded to make baby Sophie cry instantly. Holly had said she could only take us as far as Biggleswade, until she drove past Biggleswade and decided she might as well take a short detour to Langford. Whatever was in Milton Keynes clearly wasn’t that important. Then again, Milton Keynes is not famed for its importance, but rather a 12-exit system of complex mini-roundabouts.
Feeling very lucky, gushing with gratitude, having separated Dean the Bear from his new friend Finlay and Oscar from his impossibly small cubbyhole in the boot, we got out the car. Holly and Karen drove away and we were left standing in the carpark of The Plough, Langford. A place I’ve heard so much about but never visited. This was the second of two pubs that Bill & Rose (my granddad and nan) ran in the area between about 1966 and 1982 (the first being The Red Lion in Breachwood Green, which we’ll visit tomorrow). Langford is a tiny, gorgeous village, and today it was helped enormously by the weather being on its best behaviour. A child playing in the pub garden, the sounds of a trickling fountain drifting over the lawn, a train passing in the distance you half-imagine to be steam…I felt as if I’d stepped back into the past. Which in a way I had: my past, as a child playing in similar gardens in similar pubs in Notts and Derbyshire on similarly idyllic days, but also a deeper past, one that I’ve never had access to but felt an instant familiarity with; a kind of inherited nostalgia. We lunched, basking in the sun and the sense of calm. We met Tracy, the new landlady of only 4 months, who unsurprisingly had never met Bill & Rose, had a stroll around the pub and up and down the high street (Langford is little more than a single main road, a school, two remaining pubs, and a hatred for wind turbines), and were just about to leave when Tracy came rushing outside, dragging with her a dazed and confused and probably drunk man whom she introduced only as ‘Pops’, ‘a local legend’. Phil had been drinking in The Plough since before Bill & Rose took over, but is only 7 or 8 years older than my dad, which meant (and he immediately told us this without prompting) that he had been going in there since he was 15. Shocked and appalled, Oscar and I continued to winkle stories from him. These included, but were not limited to: Why The Red Cow – Hitherto A ‘Man’s Pub’ – Went Downhill As Soon As They Put Carpets In; How My Mate Sparrow Had A Massive Dick But Is Now Dead; and I Could Drink 15 Pints In 2 Hours During Sunday Lunch. Phil talked fondly of Bill & Rose, said he was sorry to hear that Bill passed away 10 years ago, and that I should congratulate Rose on having reached 91. I will do. Phil had his stag do in The Plough, so he must have been a favourite son of the pub. I can’t wait to talk to my nan about him and the merry gang of mates he mentioned, all of whose names I wrote down to ask her about.
Full of chips and tales of old, we sat down to make our final sign of the day: ‘Hitchin’, which we couldn’t help adorning with the overture ‘We’re hitching to…’ because who are we to disgracefully ignore an obvious pun? Having seen so many tractors today, we were rather hoping to ride two bales of hay into town (think Of Mice & Men with extra lanyards), but as it was Matt’s Vauxhall would have to do. A lover of bricks and of interrupting, Matt was generous enough to take us past his house (and seemingly every other local landmark) and right to the door of our hotel. There was time for a quick photo of his apparently expensive dog of which he was clearly very proud, and he was off, to try and explain to his wife and children why he was so late picking them up from their friend’s house. We hoped we were a good enough excuse.
On the motorway, one is surrounded by people going somewhere, escaping, and doing so at speed. It was really nice to be in a place that no one is desperate to leave, where the pace of life is slower, and the coffees much cheaper; where you can leave your bags unattended in a garden and no one will shout ‘bomb!’ but rather only say ‘bags’. The physical distance we travelled today was small, but the temporal distance great.