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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hitchhiking though England

Here's a story written for me by a fellow traveler who goes by the name Copernicious. 

I had the interesting challenge over the summer of having to alter my comfortable routine of living in the wilderness to suit the environment of southern England, which is bustling and very densely-populated. If you've been through the seventh grade, you've probably read Gary Paulsen's book Hatchet -- it felt kind of the reverse of that. After finishing my first year at university in Scotland (I was brought up by hippies in rural Maine), the only thing for me to do was to explore the fabled Highlands. This I did for four glorious weeks, living deliberately and all that. I had promised, however, to be at a wedding which took place in Oxford in mid July. My desire not to spend any money was out of habit more than necessity, but I formed the plan of hitchhiking all the way, tenting it where I could, and hoping my outdoor skills would still be of use in the modernized towns and farmland.

First, a bit about the basic mechanics of hitching in the UK. I found that the further south I got, the longer I'd have to wait. Also with towns closer together the rides are usually shorter. Anyone who says the Greater London Area doesn't spider out right into the Midlands is lying. What I resorted to was the ol' whiteboard routine (except I used newspaper and a ball-point pen -- making signs took ages), standing outside rest stops along A-roads (the equivalent of Interstates). The problem with this method is that it'll likel get you right into the middle of the big cities. I narrowly avoided getting plunked off in the middle of Glasgow, but I hit Birmingham dead-on, and it's not the kind of place you'd want to leave your thumb exposed. I won't put a blanket label of unpleasantness on all English cities, but I'd suggest having a compelling reason to travel to one, and and bus fare when you can't stand the heat and holy rollers any more.

I'd gotten a bit spoiled in Scotland, which has passed revolutionary laws regarding camping. You can pitch a tent almost anywhere as long as it's not blatantly in someone's back yard, and you don't frighten livestock. I was shouted at once by some early-morning golfers whose putting green I had infested, but if that's the only thing that annoys a Scot, well God bless them. In England, however, this is not the case. "In England we're too lazy to come up the hill and tell you to feck off" I was told by one aged man, and of course you're not going to get fined or arested if you kip in a cornfield. The only thing is, it's hard to be subtle when unused land simply doesn't exist. Coming from America it's hard to imagine, but finding enough trees to conceal your tent can be the work of an afternoon. I pitched up on traffic islands and behind grocery stores, and during a rainstorm broke into a construction site caravan. Ultimately my advice regarding this: don't be as paranoid as I was; get comfortable and leave if somebody asks you. Happily, there are very few midges down south. I cannot exaggerate enough how bad it can get in Scotland. If you're moving or there's a decent breeze, you're fine. Sit down near a stream or some long grass, and you may imagine the sensation of your face being enveloped in a woolen blanket. I welcomed the possibility of sleeping out under the stars.

I won't say much about finding places to sleep in towns, because I don't think I did a very good job of it. If there wasn't a 24 hour bus station, I'd head for a well-lit bench with lots of CCTV coverage. While I was never bothered, that's not a system could have sustained. Many 'persons of distributed living' began to approach me in the towns, which at first I didn't understand, not having realized how scruffy I'd got. After being asked for the first time, "are you on the streets?" I replied, after some thought, that to be alone and penniless in the mountains is to be an adventurer; but in suburbia it meant I was a bum. I had some wonderful conversations with people who were obviously quite comfortable being homeless. I declined two invitations to free meals at city churches, and visited a community that lived in wicker huts by the river outside of Stratford-upon-Avon. It was constantly being on the road, it seemed, that made me so uncomfortable during this time, while stagnation would have been torture up in Scotland.

You can eat well anywhere in the UK for very cheap, due to rather extreme competition between generic brand foods. 14 pence will get you a can of awful spaghetti; 38p, a can of meatballs; 50p, a loaf of bread. I am very serious about proper nutrition while travelling, but even so I found I was living comfortably on £2 a day. I'd splurge at a restaurant every week or two, just to keep the tanks full. If you're not awfully strapped for cash, you will eat well. Another thing I suddenly had to deal with in England was not being able to drink out of streams. I wouldn't do this so much in the States, but if there's a small stream with no sheep fields above it I am happy to stick my face in and suck, maybe filter through a bandanna to get the spiders out. Hose pipes are scarce, and I ended up just buying water, which again is cheap.

Hygene is obviously extremely important when hitchhiking. If there's a small, flowing stream, I'm happy to bathe in it or do laundry; the colder it is, the more of a mountain man one feels. I use Dr Bronner's castille soap, which is biodegradable and is perfect for camping -- being highly concentrated you don't have to carry much. Half a teaspoon was enough to wash my mop of hair. When it came to the city I figured that I wouldn't care if I walked into a public bathroom to find some guy washing his hair, so nobody else would either.

There are many reasons I'm glad I hitched. foremost of these is that If I'd taken a bus or train I wouldn't have ended up in the Lakes District. I'd been lucky enough to be picked up by a man who was attempting to climb the three highest mountains in Britain in one day, and was trying to make record time between Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike. He balanced out the man who took me from Manchester to Birmingham, going 50 mph and playing some kind of truly horrific tribal music while I was ill and hadn't slept. Good or bad, every driver contributed something to my journey. I engaged with many others as well in ways I never had before. After a rainstorm I went to a church service just to warm up, and ended up spending the day at the house of the minister, reading Calvinist pamphlets and dining heartily. A fat woman whom I had been mentally abusing for taking up a whole bench walked up and handed me £15 and a pasty, saying "Jesus loves you." I felt rather bad about this, and distributed most of the money to the next few tramps I came across.

After the wedding I camped a mile outside of Oxford for two weeks, then for a week near a town back up in Scotland. While squatting in one spot, I was always rather restless, the desire for a sofa on which to stretch my legs and a place to be completely alone. I think, however, if I hadn't managed to get a live-in job in Aberdeen for the last weeks of August, I would have become perfectly acclimated to the exposure and extra effort required to maintain a routine. After my rather rough immersion into vagabond life among the civilized, I still feel a bit of a greenhorn, but with the pervasiveness of urban society I witnessed over those months, only knowing how to live in the wilderness is clearly not enough. Life on the streets can be extremely taxing, and knowing how to handle it is therefore an immensely valuable skill for a young person to acquire.


  1. Brilliant post. I am in love with your blog, it makes great reading for me as I am planning a similar adventure in the summer months. Keep up the good work :)

  2. I would love to do this kind of thing

  3. Great read, thanks mate.