I saw an endangered species by the roadside not so long ago: the lesser-bearded hitchhiker.
When I was growing up hitchhikers used to be pretty common. If you were heading North out of London on the A1 you’d find groups of them congregated at various points from the centre of town outwards, or perched on motorway service station slip roads. They tended to look like 1980s Open University students, with bobble hats, backpacks, beards and cardboard signs on which were written their hoped for destinations. A few of the ones without beards were female.
There were also older chaps waving special red number plates indicating that they were car or truck delivery drivers who needed a lift home, and although there were stories of dodgy behaviour, from unwanted advances to robbery, people like my dad, who’d hiked all over Europe in his youth, were happy to give them space.
‘Some of them are interesting company,’ he’d say.
Now we live in more nervous times and it had been years since I’d last seen a hitchhiker, which on one level is entirely understandable, but in an era when we’re trying to persuade people to share their cars, a bit of a pity too.
My one attempt at hitchhiking rather put me off it as something to do.
A girlfriend had suggested hiking to Scotland, and being a mug, I’d agreed. It was winter and properly cold, and having spent a long time freezing by a slip road on the A1M outside Letchworth, we were delighted when a man with a nasal voice and a Vauxhall Nova (that’s how long ago it was) took pity on us and said he was heading for Lincolnshire, so we climbed aboard.
In those days the A1 was a lot slower, and peppered with roundabouts, and he eventually deposited us next to one just outside Stamford. I pulled on my outdoor jacket, and he vanished into the night.
The ground was now covered by a hard frost, so I yanked up the hood, and found that the lining felt different, then reached into a pocket and pulled out a strange wallet, containing cash and credit cards. I had quite inadvertently taken our host’s jacket and nobody had noticed.
This was years before mobile phones, and we wondered if he would come storming back and accuse me of theft. Instead another man in a blissfully warm Volvo estate pulled up and said he could take us to Weatherby in Yorkshire. He was highly amused when we told him of our accidental crime, and drove us all the way to the police station.
We’d put our rucksacks in the luggage bay, and his amusement was tempered somewhat when I accidentally knocked a small leather travel bag from the car and he nearly drove off without it. I had to run after the car waving it. I suspect he thought I was a kleptomaniac who was desperately trying to reform, because he searched that car to make sure I hadn’t pinched anything else.
The phlegmatic desk sergeant who took the jacket, wallet and our details almost succeeded in not smirking, but I managed to wipe the smile from his face by knocking over a glass flower vase with my rucksack as we were leaving. This meant a tidal wave of water and cut flowers cascading over his work surface.
By the time we reached Scotland the girlfriend and I were not getting on, and parted acrimoniously somewhere near Dalkeith. Despite the very nice ‘thank you’ letter I received from the Vauxhall Nova owner after he’d been to Yorkshire and retrieved his wallet and coat, I haven’t hitchhiked since.