Both valiantly trying to endure our post-curry hangovers, we set off from The Firs Hotel, Hitchin, towards Breachwood Green, our first port of call for the day. After a short but hairy stroll along some more un-footpathed A-roads, the route became much more rural, and thus much less densely populated with cars. And those few cars that did pass us tended to look at us as one would look at a piece of shit on their shoe. A really expensive shoe. A really stinky shit. According to Google maps, the walk from the hotel to The Red Lion in Breachwood Green would take 2 hours 19 minutes, which Oscar and I gallantly prepared ourselves for. After an hour of walking and only a pleasant conversation with a cheery hedgecutting chap in Gosmore to show for it, we were starting to think we were right, the hitchike now like a crap Duke of Edinburgh expedition, with less Kendal Mint Cake and livestock, and more threat of instant death by big, expensive car impatient to bed down for the night in lavish double garage.
We stopped for a rural-wee-and-oreo-break (as I believe it’s called in the military), thinking that it’d be at least another hour til lunch at the pub, but how funny it would be were we to be picked up immediately now we’d stuffed ourselves. We were picked up immediately. Susan’s BMW can step the fuck aside, for Richard’s gold Dodge had arrived. We expected him to be pulling over in order only to shout something about poverty, hitchhiking and the broken benefits system, but actually he coolly beckoned us in. Richard said lots of interesting things but nothing as interesting as his car, so for the sake of brevity, he delivered us, as all good English men ought, straight to the door of the public house.
I was really pleased to find it was still open; a viscious rumour was recently circulated by the national press but mostly by my immediate family that one of the two pubs Bill & Rose ran had closed. Given that we yesterday saw The Plough if not thriving, at least definitely still serving beer, I feared for The Red Lion’s life. But it was literally in bloom, its hanging baskets overflowing with flowers and its bar overflowing with one or two people buying things. Just as with The Plough, I was sure that I’d been here before, probably through photos I now don’t remember seeing as a child. But either way, it was a nice first return. We headed out into the beer garden, the weather once again glorious, to admire the view of cornfield after cornfield after major international airport. But despite the proximity of London-Luton’s runways, it was truly idyllic. We ordered a roast and set to meeting people. David, the landlord, much like Tracy at The Plough, hadn’t been there long enough to know an enormous amount about the history of the pub’s tenants, but he kindly pointed me in the direction of Peggy & Joe Farr, 91 and 95 respectively, sitting in the corner and waiting for their food. They were with their son Ivan and his wife Chris, who between them seemed to know the entire history of the pub, stretching back as far as 1900! Joe’s brother Jack ran The Red Lion before Bill & Rose took over, and his sister ran it before him. It has since been back in the hands of the Farr family; Ivan & Chris’s daughter Debbie ran it before current incumbent David took over. Joe can remember Bill & Rose, and can even remember Terry, my dad’s older brother who would’ve been around 15 when they moved to Breachwood Green. Terry, according to Joe, would help behind the bar, but he can’t remember anything about my dad, other than the fact that Bill & Rose had a second son. Where was Ray in all this then? If Marcus’s tales of drunkenness and debauchery are anything to go by, he was pissed out of his mind, (unsuccessfully) seducing women in Lagos.
We went for a stroll around Breachwood Green, which is even smaller than Langford, and happened upon the playing fields. There was the home straight of an athletics track painted on the grass, and I did a couple of hundred metre sprints for old times’ sake, wondering if my dad had ever done the same, on this very field almost 50 years ago. He has told me before that he used to sprint at school (he did specify competitively, not just away from the police), so perhaps…perhaps. Oscar and I did a quick circuit of the playground, established that everything was far too small for us both and our very presence was probably really creepy, and headed back to write a ‘Luton’ sign and get on our way.
The walk from Breachwood Green to Luton is much shorter than the walk from Hitchin to Breachwood Green, but not if you actually have to walk all the way. Save for 90 sweet seconds in the car of a man whose name with think is Phil but can’t say for sure, so short was our rendeszvous with him, we did walk the all the way. Disclaimer: Possible-Phil took us as far as he could without massively compromising his journey, and we hadn’t time to tell him about all the people who have massively compromised their journeys for us, so he knew no better and therefore should not be blamed.
Given that we’d already passed the ‘Welcome to Luton’ sign, a sign so apologetic it might as well read, ‘sorry, you’re here, but it’ll be over soon’, we figured we must be close-ish to our accommodation. Not so. We were 4.8 miles away. However, Luton is a gloriously multi-cultural city (say what you like about terrorists and the EDL (and please do), most people here – as with everywhere – are nice), and our walk from one side of town to the other took us through numerous nations; different languages, smells and rhythms wafting over us in the still-muggy evening air, the street teeming with life, like a shared front room, its vibrancy and energy the only things keeping us going.
Exhausted, deliriously slipping in and out of consciousness, and with shoulders more tender than even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most marinated night, the never-ending climb and sense of impending doom reminded me of my Kilimanjaro trek in 2010. The only difference being that when I arrived at my destination this time I wouldn’t be atop Africa’s tallest mountain, but at Luton’s tallest (and only) Travelodge. When I reached the summit of Kili, I remember writing in my diary: ‘I don’t believe in God, but this is the closest to heaven I have ever felt’. All I can safely say about this experience, is that it is the closest to Travelodge Luton I have ever felt. The man at reception was a breath of fresh air, as if he was yet to realise he was employed by Travelodge, but a breath of even the freshest air in an otherwise rancid cave can only do so much. Like a drop of water in an ocean of urine. Our room is a sweaty cesspit, strewn with the sordid remains of two Tesco meal deals and three days on the road, but we have wifi, we have you, and we have each other. (Which is no consolation because we both stink!) Disclaimer: We have showered, separately, but with water made of cut corners and broken dreams, we were fighting a losing battle with clean.
Since we began this silly, serious escapade, we’ve had people queueing up to tell us how spectacularly we would fail. (They’re probably still queueing up, but the queue is in Nottingham, where they thought we would remain, but where – significantly – we are not!). The latest naysayer was Marcus, who last night told us that we would have to catch a bus from Hitchin to Breachwood Green, or we’d be buggered. Given that the bus doesn’t run on Sundays, and our shared desire not to be buggered, Oscar and I simply had to make it work. Despite the dying culture for hitchhiking in this country, there remain enough people who remember the time it thrived; remember their own hitchhiking adventures (Possible-Phil’s trip from Morocco to France, and Bob-from-Nottingham’s weekly commute from Halifax to home are cases in point). And they’re more than willing to pick us up, a spark in their tired eyes reigniting at the memory of life on the (side of the) road. We’re a rare breed now, but as we have discovered over the last few days – and dearly hope to continue to experience! – hitchhiking may be dying, but it’s certainly not dead.