Day Three: Blue Blood, Gold Cars, Red Lions, and Breachwood Greens

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.

Trying to hitchhike in the home counties? Heed this dire warning
Trying to hitchhike in the home counties? Heed this dire warning
Our first lift of the day...massive thanks to this amazing car (and Richard, its minder)
Our first lift of the day…massive thanks to this amazing car (and Richard, its minder)
Two mighty institutions joined in orangey-goldy glory
Two mighty institutions joined in orangey-goldy glory
The pub flourishing. My face flourishing.
The pub flourishing. My face flourishing.
Me and David, the landlord at The Red Lion
Me and David, the landlord at The Red Lion
Beautiful corn fields...shame we couldn't get the massive 747 in the shot
Do you know what would improve this unimprovable view? A MASSIVE PLANE
Travelodge: a good night's weep gauranteed
Travelodge: a good night’s weep gauranteed

Marcus, and how to save a life

Good morning all. It’s 1:03am, and I’ve just got in from a late-night curry with my dad’s friend of 42 years, Marcus. Not enough of you will be awake right now to make this worth posting tonight, but I wanted to write about it while it was all still fresh in my mind, despite the fact that I’m drunk and saturated with stories from my dad’s teens and twenties.

I rang up Marcus on Thursday, from Birmingham, and told him we were coming to Hitchin on Saturday. I started to explain why we were coming (the nature of the show, etc.) but – much like my dad – he didn’t want to know. Instead, he just said ‘do you know the Victoria?’ (another pub). I said I’d find it. He said I’ll see you there on Saturday at 8pm. When someone doesn’t own a mobile phone or a computer, that counts as a concrete and immovable commitment. So Oscar and I met Marcus in the Victoria, had a pint there, went to the Red Hart (where Marcus had his 21st birthday (he is now 59)), had a pint there, and went for a curry at Dhaka; Marcus’s Indian of choice. Each time my dad is down Hitchin for a Luton game, Marcus and he dine there without fail.

My 3 and a half hours with Marcus bore more fruit than everything that has gone before it, by some distance. The Plough was fantastic, and I loved soaking up the atmosphere of the place, but Marcus spent his teens onwards as my dad’s closest friend, and no building, no matter how symbolic, can tell me more than Marcus’s memory.

I learnt about the Micanians (sic), the football team for which my dad, Marcus, Jim Jim, Phil Smith, and Mark Dewhurst used to play. I learnt about the Greek Island holidays, cooking oil instead of suncream (and Marcus still looks that way). I learnt about Nebworth (sic), now known as Sonisphere (sic), a music festival at which my dad nearly died… Led Zep were top of the bill, and my dad had been ‘boozin’ all day. He was fine with pints, but, according to Marcus, could not handle his shorts. So the two bottles of Canadian Club (bourbon) they shared between three of them (Marcus, Jim Jim, and my dad) was the bourbon that got the camel pissed. Apocalyptically pissed. Marcus and Jim Jim were talking. Where’s Ray, they thought, turning to find him face down in the middle of a road. They ran to pick him up, and peel him off the tarmac, and thirty seconds later a handful of cars went whizzing through. Marcus didn’t just save my dad’s life; he clearly made mine too.

We talked a lot about a much more recent hairy moment also. In autumn 2012, my mum and dad broke up. It’s a much longer story than one sentence in one blog post can do justice to (as it always is), but – in short – my dad was in a dark dark place. I was there for him that Christmas, and it was extremely tough for us both; our roles reversed somewhat, but it was peversely nice because I felt like he let his guard down to me for the first time in his life. Marcus was there for him too, having been through a similarly hellish break up nineteen years before. ‘I lost three years of my life then, Ray’ he told my dad, ‘I won’t let you lose three years of yours’. His was a hardlined empathy, but sometimes that’s what one needs to jerk one out of an introspective downward spiral.

This is far too brief (and too drunk) a post for a subject of this magnitude, but I simply had to write something. If nothing else, tonight has shown me the scale of their friendship. Through four decades and various moves (though never Marcus; he’s a Hitchin boy through and through), their friendship has survived. As a 22-year-old man, these are numbers that I can scarcely appreciate. They’ve been friends almost twice the time I’ve been alive. And no matter how little you talk about your feelings during that time, you’re bound to let some things slip.

Meeting Marcus tonight has shown me so much more about my dad than any pub trip ever could have. Not because the streets that he walked are unimportant, but because the way that he walked them is far more so.

I think Marcus is complaining about the England cricket team at this point
Hitchin market square could almost be the south of France…
That's the Victoria pub in the background, where this boozy, curry-y pilgrimage began
That’s the Victoria pub in the background, where this boozy, curry-y pilgrimage began

Day Two: Ploughing Onwards, or Hitching to Hitchin

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.

Textbook use of the hyphen there, literally
Textbook use of the hyphen there, literally
Sometimes, you just have to write a poem about Little Chef
Sometimes, you just have to write a poem about Little Chef
The Plough, Langford, with added man on bike
The Plough, Langford, with added man on bike
Tracy, the new landlady at The Plough
‘Get out mah pub!’…Tracy, the new landlady at The Plough
Matt just loves bricks!
Matt just loves bricks!

Day Zero

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.

WHO ARE YOU? How rude. Read this.


See you tomorrow!

Lanyard Pic 2