Last night we left you in a bit of a hurry, denying you pictures of Day Five in the process (now uploaded for your viewing pleasure). But for good reason, dearest readers… We decided last minute to rush back to see Luton Town’s pre-season friendly against Colchester United. It seemed strange being at Kenilworth Road on Monday and not watching a match (after all, I’d never been to the ground with my dad when nothing was happening!), so when Jess mentioned that the Town were playing we vowed to return if time allowed. Thanks to Bea and her functioning car and empathy gland, time did allow.
It was fantastic to – if not be back in Luton so soon – be back at the ground, and this time with other Hatters. Walking among a sea of orange shirts was exactly the ritual that Monday had lacked. The attendance was modest, but this didn’t matter much. The fact it was a pre-season friendly, however, didn’t stop one man wishing death upon the linesman and all his children, which was a great shame. (He clearly hadn’t done his research either, as the linesman is famously childless.)
The experience was made all the more special because it was Oscar’s first professional football game in the flesh. He had a nice time. In a minute you’ll see various pictures of his face, having a nice time. He has said that he already feels a greater affinity to Luton Town than to any other club (if his dad – a life-long Hammer – is reading this, he says sorry), which tells you way more about his previous indifference to football than it does about Luton. Or perhaps not. Also, we had a pukka pie, because if it ain’t broke…
Thankfully, we managed to escape Luton before we had to spend another night in its clutches, only to remember half way home that we were returning to a fresh hell, to spend the night in a different identical building, the Nowhere-Near Wembley Travelodge. Shudder. This morning marks Travelodge Saturation Point, having spent the maximum number of nights it is possible to spend in one before going absolutely and irretrievably insane.
It was 2-2, by the way, so that was nice for everyone.
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.
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.