“That” was a couple of hitch-hikers standing by the roadside with their thumbs out hopefully. I’d have stopped for them if they hadn’t been in such a stupid place – too near a bend to see them in time or to pull over safely.
I hope they got a decent lift eventually, but I wouldn’t give much for their prospects just there. Even if many drivers were still in the habit of giving lifts to strangers, which they obviously aren’t.
Those particular hitchers can’t have been much in the habit either, or they’d have found themselves a more likely stopping place, just past a junction and in good view. But then, who is in the habit these days?
There are no doubt lots of reasons for the decline of hitching as a means of getting around the country. The apparently growing fear of strangers is surely one. (There’s another column, if not a book, to be written on that subject.) The “improvement” of the road system is certainly another.
Back in the not-so-bad old days of the 1970s I made many journeys up and down the A1 by thumb. It was how I made most of my trips between uni and home. Not so easy now.
Nearly all the old roundabouts, which provided the perfect pick-up and set-down places, have gone, replaced by fast straights and slip-roads with nowhere to stand or stop.
Just occasionally, that gave problems back in my hitching heyday. I was once dropped on the A1/M18 intersection in a place where my presence on foot was illegal. I’d barely alighted from the truck that wasn’t going my way before a car stopped and the driver leaned over and opened the door for me.
“I don’t normally pick up hitchers,” he said, “but I thought you’d rather me than the police.” A little over 100 miles and a good conversation later, he dropped me at the end of my street.
That was a key thing about hitching. Most of the people you’d meet were nice, most conversations good. And you’d come across a variety of people, often truckers, sometimes commercial travellers (usually the scariest drivers). Sometimes more surprising encounters.
I once made a good part of the southward journey in a huge removal van on its way to France. The client was a diplomat and the whole van was designated a “diplomatic bag”. The driver offered me a free, unchecked ride to Paris – which might have been fun, except I’d then have been stuck in France with no passport. And not much money, either, in those pre-ATM days of travellers’ cheques.
On one of the rare bad hitching days I ended up at midnight in an almost deserted service station still 50-odd miles from home. I was sitting over a mug of tea wondering what to do when a police patrol rolled in for a cuppa. After checking me out, the cops instructed the next lorry-driver who called in to take me home. Which he did.
On another occasion I was set down near Newark by an officer in an Army staff car. “Sorry, I know this isn’t a good place,” he told me. “If you’re still here in about an hour, I’ll get a truck to pick you up.”
Which is how a long-haired student came to roll into Catterick at the head of a military convoy. Not sure that would happen now. It seemed unlikely enough back then.
It was at Catterick another time that I had one of those strange “what if” moments. I was offered a ride in a white Mercedes convertible by a very glamorous blonde woman in short skirt and sunglasses. Did I imagine that, or make it up? I don’t think so. My fantasies aren’t usually such ridiculous clichés. But she wasn’t going my way anyway.