For me, the trip sort of resembled watching a 50 hour-long film on a tiny LCD screen called Ben Norris Walks In And Out Of Focus A Lot And Occasionally Gets Into Cars.
You may think I needed some persuading to hitchhike through the crap towns greatest hits package with a super-sized camera and a regular-sized poet but you’d be utterly mistaken. Truth is, I jumped at the chance. Forget Dubai, the Seyshells and Monte Carlo, I holiday amongst the bright lights and heady thrills of Welwyn Garden City (still there, it turns out). Thank God for the DSLR; it could sex-up the frumpiest service station foyer at a lick and did wonders for Ben’s ragged roadside complexion.
Health & safety enthusiasts, cabbies, expensive car-owners, other car-owners, the public transport sector, all those who’ve ever tried it and failed and Ray’s mate Marcus might disagree, but hitchhiking is one hell of a way to get about. Life on the road is the idle fantasy I can’t get over. I’m forever nourishing my inner traveller with a succession of romantic clichés and brazenly ignoring all the reasons why it would be a shit and lonely and loveless and futile existence if taken up full time. Five days hitching, plus friend, plus theatrical imperative, however, was exactly right. Somewhere in amongst all the Travelodge ridicule and bear-based photoshoots was a sort of point… *
I’d expected to dismiss the half-remembered anecdotes about the formative years of my friend’s father as told by distant relatives and one-time companions with ease. To me, after all, they were meaningless. Names like Rose and Terry were bandied about with abandon whilst I wrestled with such challenges as keeping the camera vaguely upright. I had no faces, nor memories to put to these oft-quoted characters, but as the trip wore on and we delved deeper into Ray’s past, the detail of their lives began to take on significance. A humdrum legend. An epic myth of everyday ordinariness. By the time we rocked up at Wickham Street in Lambethto gaze up at what was likely Rose’s birthplace, she was as much Zeus as she was Ben’s Nan. Where were the hordes of praying pilgrims and near-empty donation boxes, I probably wondered.
Also, it’s just really nice to get out of the house and see a bit of the world isn’t it. Not a good bit in this case, but unmistakeably, a bit. England’s concrete, camera-shy backwaters are characterised by rural snobbery, urban multiculturalism, the scary prevalence of Tesco and Costa, football fever, pints, pies, meal deals and a dead badger by the road. If you’re willing to overlook the alarming chlorine stench that may well indicate a nearby Travelodge, you’ll find a land of full of friendly human people, happy to talk about their lives and their past and their communities and their dogs and the size of their long-dead mate’s dick. I’m not patriotic, but I noticed my country to an extent I’m not sure I ever have before. It’s alright really.
It wouldn’t be a blog about a show about a hitchhike about a family without some unashamed self-promotion now would it? If the hitchhike taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need a degree in Norris family history to get something out of this show, you don’t even need a family, you just need to get your ass over to mac birmingham on Saturday the 6th September. I can promise laughter, tears, an over-50 percent chance of not falling asleep, and far more integrity and structural elegance than I’ve managed in this post!
And if you’ve decided not to come, I don’t think it’s going too far to say you’re significantly less of a person. Go sit in a corner and have a bloody good think about what you’ve done.
* A critically acclaimed, sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 followed by a national tour and knighthoods for all.
Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Wembley. Que Sera Sera.
And we’re going there really easily, without any problems whatsoever. We’d been standing next to a beautiful lake on the outskirts of Welwyn Normal City for about twenty minutes, enjoying the sun and the bemused looks on the faces of passing leisure cyclists, when Bea pulled over. She wasn’t going to Wembley, she said, but she could take us as far as the A1 (about a mile away). She then drove us all the way to Wembley. Because #yolo.
Bea is a professional tennis player, and an amateur lovely woman. She’d just finished morning training, and had five free hours until afternoon training began…what better way to fill that time than to chauffeur two possibly knife-weilding (very sweaty) maniacs to the spiritual home of global football? (She was admittedly very sweaty too, so that bit didn’t matter so much. We left the knives in our bags.) She’s on the long road back from a serious injury which culminated in her recently having a rib removed (so she’s now even more inferior to men, like Eve -1), and she and I talked a lot about the psychological repercussions of top class sport (I quit athletics after a series of immensely demoralising mystery knee injuries). Anyway…
We were there! We had done it! Nottingham to Wembley via Bedford, Langford, Hitchin, Breachwood Green, Luton, and Welwyn Garden City, all without setting foot (or bum) on any public transport! Well done us. Aren’t we great.
Feeling more like tourists than anywhere else on the trip, we took a lot of photos and had a look round the shop (an actual shop this time, not Luton’s portacabin, but equally depressing and equally overpriced – at least Luton’s had more windows and less Nike!). I stood next to Bobby Moore. As did a chinese man, each spoiling the other’s photo in a succinct demonstration of why there ought to be one Bobby Moore statue per Wembley visit0r. The ravaging effects of the 2006 Bobby Moore statue shortage are still being felt, eight years on.
Before heading to check our bags in to yet another Travelodge (we’re both too exhausted by the very idea of Travelodge to make any more jokes at this stage), we went to Brent River Park. River is a generous way of describing Brent River, which is more like a toxic trickle of rancid piss, which London generously allows to flow away rather than obliterating from the face of the planet. That said, the park around Brent “river” is quite nice. We’d come to try and find one of the flagpole towers from the old Wembley (the Wembley at which Luton beat Arsenal 3-2 in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup final), which was demolished in 2003. But when an initial circuit of the park proved fruitless, we gave up. We ate some lunch and – mid-olive-and-houmous-feast – realised that the tower was essentially right next to us. Like almost everything on this trip, it was so unimpressive as to be easily and instantly overlooked. Like almost everything on this trip, its sentimental value more than made up for this – the old Wembley playing host to many of my dad’s most cherished football memories, and some of hi biggest disappointments too. I stood near it, I stood on it, and photos were taken. It was weather-beaten, mouldy and crumbling, but the very fact it was still there was all that mattered.
After walking away from Wembley for several years, both estranging ourselves from our families and growing knee length facial hair, we arrived at Travelodge Wembley. And then we wrote this. And now we have to go. The hitchhike may be over (and thank you so much to everyone who has helped us!), but we still have lots to do in London. That’s for another time (specifically tomorrow).
This morning we escaped the hellish furnace of Luton Travelodge (that’s the only Travelodge dig of the post, promise) and headed to Kenilworth Road, home of Luton Town FC. Home also, it seems, of half the neighbourhood. The ground is literally hidden behind a square of tight terraced houses, the floodlights barely visible above the rooftops and the turnstiles situated between front doors. It is genuinely quicker for these people to pop out for professional football than it is for them to pop out for milk. Indeed, everything about Luton Town is similarly, endearingly, ramshackle: the club shop is a portacabin and its reception a cave off a carpark…the seats in the main stand long ago abandoned their ambition to spell out the club’s initials, and now concentrate solely on being seats, of all different colours, shapes and styles, some without backs at all. To get a television camera onto the designated gantry you have to post it up a ladder! But what The Town lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in passion and authenticity. For, after the camera is posted up the ladder, the commentator(s) must follow suit, whether they work for Diverse FM or Sky Sports. Standing on a wooden scaffolding platform for two hours in the harshest Bedfordshire January is enough to keep anyone honest. We were shown round by lovely Jess, and pretty much given free reign of the ground (except the pitch, which we were told – in no uncertain terms – was North-Korea-levels of off limits…they have a pre-season friendly there tomorrow night, having despatched Royal Antwerp 4-0 on Saturday). I went in all 3 stands, walked down the tunnel, and sat in the dugouts, imagining a fourth official holding up my number in LED lights, checking my studless hightop boots, imagining anarchically running onto the pitch, being chased from the ground never to be allowed back. I was tempted. But I kept the lid on my idiot 7-year-old self and instead tapped into other aspects of my childhood; memories of coming here with my dad (I think I’ve seen about 10 games at Kenilworth Road) and going elsewhere to see The Hatters (my first professional football game was Luton v Notts County at Meadowlane, when I still thought I supported Man Utd, on a soaking wet Tuesday night. It was 0-0, and I distinctly remember the stadium smelling of wee. I left wondering what all the fuss was about.). But, like your mother’s love, the thick-and-thin romance of the game works its magic on you over time. David Mitchell is right, the football will never stop, because if it did, so would a nation’s Saturday afternoon plans. If there wasn’t football to talk about, then for a million men (it is mostly men) there would be nothing to talk about. But we’ll get there later. Jess told me that what I know as the away stand hasn’t always been the away stand, and that if my dad was coming to watch Luton in the 70s and 80s (which he was), then he’d probably have sat there. I sat there too, mentally made the shorts shorter, mentally gave everyone questionable moustaches and cigarettes that were good for you, and I was right with him. (I used to be a long distance runner, so the short shorts bit was easy.)
We left Kenilworth Road and fended off some hostile questions about our camera with the truth – ‘this isn’t an undercover documentary about the surrounding area, but a theatre show about my dad’. Mostly through confusion rather than interest, and having heard the word ‘theatre’, the man wisely backed down, fear written all over his face. The camera has two very different effects on people – some put their guard up, and put it up hard, but some are all too keen to have their turn in the limelight. The pubs were particularly funny (‘Don’t tell the wife I’m in here. If you’re filming Langford’s Most Wanted and I’m on the tele tonight then I’m fucked!’). And today, on our way to the ground, with The Who’s Baba O’Riley ringing in my ears as I retraced our exact route from where my dad always parks his car cos it’s free and he’d rather lose a limb than pay for parking…on this walk, we were chased by three very excited kids, who interrupted their game of footy to take turns at jumping in front of Oscar, one insisting that we ‘tell everyone I’m Ronaldo yeah?’. His mate told him he wasn’t and he replied ‘yes I am though, I skill you both all the time’. Oscar and I have conferred at length, and would like to announce that he is, indeed, Ronaldo. Well done him. This despite him tripping over as he ran towards us and staying on his feet, which was a troubling curveball.
We’ve been very lucky with the weather up til now, the last two days looking more like a low budget episode of Escape To The Country than two recent graduates on a hitchhike, but we knew it couldn’t last. And not just because we were no longer in the country. The heavens opened shortly after we’d replenished our depleted Sharpie supplies, so we hid in a petrol station forecourt to make our one and only sign of the day, and our longest of the entire trip. The forecourt attendant conveniently didn’t notice us – or decided not to say anything – until I’d written all but the final ‘Y’ of ‘WELWYN GARDEN CITY’, so we packed up our hastily-assembled squat next to the pumps, and struck out toward our destination. Unfortunately, getting there involved walking through Luton city centre, a proudly culture-free zone since the dawn of time. We passed Galaxy, a multiplex cinema and bowling emporium; the unhappiest arranged marriage in entertainment history. We passed a ‘car trap’, a bin with a cock drawn on it, an abandoned shop window advertising coma sessions (which seem frankly surplus to requirements in Luton), and a pub admirably admitting its faults in a kind of anti-advert on a chalkboard outside. Despite our transparent commitment to (good-naturedly) taking the piss out of almost everything, we only took photos of less than half of these things, so desperate were we to leave.
The road to Welwyn was a busy, winding, glorified country lane, with fields or dry stone walls on both sides and absolutely nowhere to safely walk or pull over; cars, vans and lorries speeding by at 50+mph. With each passing vehicle came another tsunami of oily water and the very real danger of being run over. But at least we were no longer in Luton. Just as the water had fundamentally breached my shoes (by this point Oscar was long gone; more rain and dirt than man), Nick pulled over in his people carrier, really annoying all the less generous motorists behind him, the value of whose cars decreased with each second they were within 10 metres of hitchhikers. Nick’s car was the colour of a baby bird’s sick, but it didn’t matter because its driver was nice, it was heading loosely in the right direction, and we were inside it, where we wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. He dumped us halfway between Luton and Welwyn, in a village whose name we don’t know – not because we’ve forgotten it but because it’s so insignificant that its inhabitants appear not to have named it – and we trudged onwards, buoyed by a tentatively re-emerging sun, and being yet further away from Luton. We stopped for a now institutional wee-and-Oreo break, and I had barely buttoned up my jeans when Dylan & Mitch pulled over in their white van. Oscar made himself right at home in the windowless back, getting cosy with the home-counties’ widest range of miscellaneous electrical equipment. I told Dylan about the purpose of the trip, in a spiel I’ve now streamlined to about 30 seconds, and he told me that he’s been to Nottingham once but he can’t remember anything other than that he woke up in a park over the road from his hotel. Close. If getting to bed was a game of golf then he was definitely on the green, and would’ve elicited at least tepid applause from the crowd.
Dylan & Mitch were kind enough to drop us right at our Premier Inn, kind enough even to let Oscar out the back, like a dangerous dog finally sufficiently far away from children and the elderly to be allowed a quick run around. We permitted ourselves the small indulgence of a cup of tea and the rest of our Oreos, but NOT a change of socks…there were still a couple of significant visits to make before we could shower and get into dry clothes. My dad and his family lived in Welwyn from when he was 4 to when he was 13 or 14, and quite a few of his cousins remain here. We popped in to talk to Beryl, my dad’s aunt by marriage (i.e. my nan’s sister-in-law). I decided not to ask her why Welwyn Garden City was founded on a web of lies – a city not of gardens at all but, disappointingly, of houses – and instead asked her about my dad’s time in Welwyn House-and-Garden City. She was funny, warm and generous, and very self-aware. It’s hard to describe other people’s feelings, she said. In the case of my dad’s side of the family, it’s hard to describe your own. Beryl’s lively chatter was peppered with quiet poignancy. She fell out with Rose over some trivial miscommunication, and both are too stubborn to patch it up. They used to write to each other all the time, but now haven’t spoken for 5 years, which seems such a shame given how many times I’ve listened to my nan tell me she’s lonely (my granddad Bill passed away in 2004) and given how readily Beryl told me about her own loneliness in our conversation today (her husband Reub, Rose’s brother, passed away the year before Bill). I promised her I would try and persuade Rose to pick up the phone when I next saw her. Only if you want to, Beryl said. I do. She packed us off with the warning that if we left it any later then we wouldn’t catch my dad’s cousin David (her son) before he went to bed, because he’s leaving early tomorrow morning to watch Chelsea play in Holland. It was 7pm and still broad daylight, so I privately thought we’d be alright, but who was I to disagree! When we posed for a photo, she took my arm as if we last saw each other only yesterday rather than 10 or so years ago, as if she’d recognise me in the street and not need reminding who I was.
David took a while to respond to my knocking, and only then stuck a hostile head out the bathroom window to ask what I wanted. I’m Ray’s son, I said, and started to explain the idea behind the trip and the show beyond it. Whose son?, he asked. Ray’s, I responded, and in an unnaturally short amount of time the front door was flung open to reveal a considerably less hostile David, bald, tanned, shirtless and smiling, looking like the spit of my dad on one of the rare occasions that he drops his guard and really lets himself smile. We talked a lot. David and dad’s families grew up together, moving from London to Welwyn together after Bill got Reub a job fixing typewriters with him in the area, David and dad going to Monkswalk comprehensive together and watching football together. They’d watch a lot of it on tele, David told me, but never go to the same games because he was a Chelsea fan and my dad a Spurs man. SORRY WHAT?! Bombshell. Apparently, my dad supported Tottenham before he moved to Breachwood Green and started following Luton. This was something I had absolutely no idea about, because dad had never mentioned it. Oscar and I won’t go to White Hart Lane on this trip because 1) these sorts of things have to be comprehensively risk assessed, and 2), moreover, the very fact I knew nothing about dad’s sordid Spurs secret tells you everything you need to know; it formed nothing of our relationship at any point, and consequently holds no sentimental value for us as a father-son duo. I then asked Dave what dad was like as a boy. Whether, as Beryl testified, he was a quiet and sad child. Not really, said David, I always quite liked him, as if it’s impossible to like someone who’s quiet and sad. Halfway through telling me about games of monopoly and chess, and first cigarettes in the park, Dave’s wife Gill came home. She was surprised to have visitors, particularly ones on such a strange mission, but really invested in the idea after we told her what the hell we were doing in her lounge. We got to talking about talking. About why my dad just doesn’t do it, and why Dave – said Gill – doesn’t either. Unless it’s about Chelsea, in which case he won’t stop. The few times in my life that my dad has wanted to talk to me, he’s managed to do so only in spite of himself, palpably battling his way through some self-imposed emotional barricade, like storming a private Bastille. Each time he’s wanted a hug, Paris has had to burn inside him. We talked, mostly to Gill at this point, about why men of my dad’s and David’s generation don’t tend to talk, while many younger men do. Is it that talking is no longer considered effeminate? The women stay at home and natter away, while the men work and drink? Is it hard to fit feelings, let alone the space to air them, between a full time job, the callused skin of male pride, and the pub? I don’t know, David didn’t say too much on that.
I’ve been in a state of meditative calm since those two encounters; not just because we had our first brew with real milk in ages – instead of the uht sachets of plastic compromise you get in cheap hotels – but because we got some full fat confidences too. To Jess at Luton Town, Nick, Dylan & Mitch on the road, and Beryl, David & Gill in their own front rooms, thank you. Next stop Wembley, because – as David already told you – the football will never stop.
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.
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.
Rest easy, dear readers, for we are not dead. We are, however, in something like death’s waiting room, known to the internet and the locals as Bedford Travelodge. We expected to blog tonight, if we were able to blog at all (and not stranded somewhere, freezing and ravenous), in a mood of triumph, having defied the odds and battled the indifference of the British motoring public to arrive at our first night stopover. But actually it was hella easy. Or at least hella lovely, and only occasionally worrying.
The sound of silence
The day began in the worst possible way (exaggeration for the sake of dramatic tension), with a pretty annoying technological glitch: our microphone (a really expensive one) didn’t work. Like, at all. We rang some people. They were as confused as we were. Or more confused, even, because they’d rented us the gear, and the gear was good! So we just had an apple, each, a pot of tea, between us, and went on our way. To the pub. Over a therapeutic sausage cob (and a less than therapeutic episode of me explaining to Oscar what a cob is (it’s a bread roll, you racists)), we drew up a hitchhiking sign in big black marker – it simply read ‘M1’ – and hit the road.
3 white vans and the christening of a bear
After being shouted at for correctly and responsibly using a pelican crossing by an angry young male motorcyclist who was clearly denied his mother’s breast, we walked along the Valley Road and eventually got our first lift! Oscar was bundled into the back, like the hostage in every Channel 5 drama you’ve mercifully never seen, and we surfed the ring road out towards Junction 26. The driver’s name was (and probably still is) Paul, and his passenger’s Dean. The bear, as promised this morning, was thus named Paul Dean the Bear, and is male. He is now just Dean to his friends. Try saying ‘Paul Dean’. It’s like ‘Pauline’ gone wrong. It’s like a poet being sick backwards. No no no.
We added a ‘SOUTH’ sign to our ‘M1’ and took up soon-to-be familiar residence by the side of the road.
Next was Andy, a renewable energy guru with dreads and patience aplenty, who took us right to the M1 slip before sadly heading north, no longer of use to us.
No sooner had Andy cast us aside because he inexplicably wanted to go to ‘Bradford’, were we picked up by Eddie, an arthritic Scotsman who really did not give a shit about why we were doing this, but was kind enough to take us to Trowell Services as long as we didn’t tell his boss he had picked us up because he would definitely lose his job. He works for Debenhams and his registration number is- nah nah nah, just jokin init.
We stopped at Trowell thinking we had made excellent progress after our frustrating start to the day, but thinking also that we were only going to get lifts from white men in white vans, to whom Oscar and I posed no greater a sexual threat than an injured daffodil would Ian McKellan.
However, this all changed when NO ONE PICKED US UP. We assumed that a service station on the south side of the motorway would be the easiest place to hitch a lift south on the motorway, but apparently not. Blank face after bald smug Range Rover owning blank face sailed past for what seemed like hours because it literally was hours. But as soon as Oscar took a picture of Dean looking forlorn, his beary head in his beary hands, seemingly never to get picked up, Lucy came to our rescue. Lucy is originally from New Zealand, where hitchhiking is a much more prevalent means of travel, and so had no qualms picking us up, throwing our bags in the boot of her car (not white van), and taking us all the way to Watford Gap, riding high on a sea of euphoria at having been rescued from Trowell, and a sea of mild interest at what she had to say regarding consumer science and her imminent holiday in Iceland.
Watford Gap, or Dante’s Greenhouse
It was hot. Really hot. Oscar’s Kit-Kat gracefully retired from solidity. So we got ourselves some innocent smoothies (other smoothies are available, although crucially they weren’t), and we set to work on making another sign: ‘BEDFORD’, undoubtedly our most aesthetically pleasing to date. I did special lines on it and everything. As Oscar rounded the Costa Corner (as the BBC Formula 1 commentators call it) I proudly showed him the sign, only to have the wind taken out of my sweaty sails when Susan of the Land of the Adjacent Table went ‘oh, Bedford, I’m going near there’. Sorted.
Susan’s wheels were our poshest of the day – her saloon BMW feeling inappropriately clean, the leather inappropriately sticky – but they did the job, in that they were wheels and they were driving towards somewhere near Bedford. She unceremoniously dumped us in a layby just off Junction 13, I went for a wee in a bush, and we set about sourcing what we hoped would be our final ride of the day.
Then Simon stopped, as if he knew his bit would come at the end of a long blog post of which we’re all growing tired, and dutifully drove us to our destination. He said some lovely things about Luton Town and Arsenal, and we had a lovely conversation about our respective fathers, which you’ll have to pay £5 to hear in September! Indeed, all our lift-givers today, with the possible exception of Eddie who genuinely did not give a shit, had gorgeous stories to share about their own families, their own hitchhiking stories, and all seemed to really invest in our story too. An earnest thank you to them (we gave them the blog address, so they could be reading this. Eddie won’t be).
See you tomorrow, for what we hope will be a tale of one less technical glitch, and many more a successful hitch. And that’s all the poetry you’re getting right now.
Good morning! Before we set off, we wanted to introduce you to the third member of out motley crew. This little guy will be coming with us every step of the way, and will quite probably make more friends than we will. BUT, like our newborn child that we have neglected to look at or acknowledge in any way, s/he is as yet nameless and genderless. The bear will assume the identity (at least in terms of name and gender) of the first person to pick us up and give us a lift on this, the first day of the hitchhike. Who will it be? (please, anyone!)…
Stay tuned for news on –?–?–the-bear’s christening!
Hello! I’m Ben, and this is Oscar (hello, says Oscar). Welcome to a blog about a hitchhike about a family, which will become a show about a hitchhike about a family, specifically The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family! What a convoluted way to start…but convoluted is the name of the game. Why do things the easy way – getting a train to London – when you could hitchhike to Watford Gap, and Bedford, and Hitchin, and many more of your favourite home counties market towns, on a meandering journey taking you far away from home, but hopefully delivering you to some home truths.
Tomorrow morning, we will set off from Mapperley, Nottingham (famous for being Ben’s childhood suburb) on a 6-day adventure into the unknown. Anything could happen. We could (and hope to) meet some wonderful, generous and interesting people, who will offer us lifts and stories and help us on our way. We could, however, meet some utter bastards, who will rob us of our camera equipment, lunch money and carefully laundered clothes, leaving us naked and lost in the unforgiving wetlands of middle England. Only our semi-official looking lanyards can save us. One thing is certain: come rain, shine, or near-death (heavy rain), we will be blogging about it here each evening, and tweeting pictures and terrible jokes throughout the day. Please come with us (digitally; there isn’t any actual room for you), and share in this ridiculous, wonderful escapade.
WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? says everyone, quite understandably. Erm, read this.