A Family Affair: A very independent traveller

Last year, when most 16-year-olds were quarrelling with their parents about staying out at night, Hannah Chapman was travelling Europe, alone, armed only with a round-Europe rail ticket, a BT card and nearly pounds 200. She's now back in London, working for her A-levels. Her mother Sarah and step-father Bill paid for the ticket, but the bigger gift was their trust.
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She felt so limited by school, by us, by her little north London world. She was so angry that there were times when, frankly, the thought of Hannah going away seemed wonderful. When she said, almost as a threat, that she wanted to travel, we said: "Yes, just do it." Before I bought the ticket I had to come to terms with the fact that she would be alone, that dreadful things could happen to her, but that you have to take a leap of faith. After all, something dreadful could happen to her in north London - why is it more likely in Europe?

I wasn't afraid for her - not ever. Hannah has always been able to look after herself. When her father and I broke up I think she decided: "No one is ever going to hurt me." She has the strongest sense of self-preservation of anyone that age I know. It would be a brave person who would mess with her. On her fourth birthday she was given a dress. She wore it once and said she would never wear a dress again. She was determined that there was nothing a boy could do that she couldn't do. When she learned to play football she did it well enough to be the first girl, ever, to play for the FA. People ask if I didn't think twice about letting a 16-year-old travel alone across Europe. I say: "Not any 16-year-old, just this one."

Both Bill (her stepfather) and I had travelled alone, which is why we encouraged her to do it. Part of the pleasure is the opportunity to be selfish, to go where you want, when you want. I knew she would meet people with ease and she is used to travelling without plans. On family holidays we never book hotels in advance. We just go.

We had no idea where she was going but she telephoned frequently and you could tell by her voice that she was excited and engaged and very much alive.

There was one long gap of about eight days. That was the only time I worried. I gave myself a time limit. If she hadn't rung, I suppose I would have had to go to Prague, which is the last place she phoned from, and try to trace her. But then she phoned and on impulse we thought it would be nice to meet her in Calais. When we got there we discovered that she had been arrested in Berlin and missed the train. She was on her way to Amsterdam. So we drove there. Hannah just wandered up and said "hello" as though it was as normal as could be that we should be there to meet her.

I don't know how much she has told me about her journey and I don't know if I want to know. She has survived. That is enough.


We didn't discuss it and I didn't plan it. I left thinking: "Everything is unknown, I'll just see what happens next." After three days in Amsterdam with friends I headed for Switzerland, arriving at the border about 9.30pm. It looked like a big town but everything was closed so I went back to the station.

I was walking past this zoo and I could see the light reflecting off the animals' eyes. There was no sound and I could feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck. I thought: "God: I'm by myself." So I phoned home and then took a train which stopped in Basle at 3am where I sat on a bench for the rest of the night chatting with this guy. That was my first night alone. It was a bit overwhelming.

I wanted to pack in as much as I could, so sometimes I went without sleep for three days, then I would sleep on the train or in a park. It was strange. You are there by yourself. Nowhere to stay, no one you know, you don't know the place, everything is down to you: good or bad. You are in complete control. There was an overpowering sense of freedom. I loved it. I had no responsibility to be anyone but myself.

There were times when I felt intimidated. Like when I was with some Albanians in a park and a man came over and said to me, in English: "I think you should get out of here. Don't follow me, but leave as soon as you can." Or when I got flashed on the train, or at 3am in Milan when I had to walk to the station past prostitutes sitting on the tops of cars, or when I got arrested in Berlin.

But I went into things with an open, positive attitude. I expected to get the same back and I did. I think being young was a protection in a way. People wanted to show me everything, they cooked me meals, they took me out. And the relationships you make are so intimate. You become best friends for a night - the best nights of your life - and then you move on.

You have to keep your eyes open but you can tell in the first 10 minutes if someone is seriously dodgy. The choices you make affect you so you have to be strong with yourself and if things get dodgy, run! As long as you are confident, and able to communicate, you're made.

When I arrived back in Amsterdam I dumped my bag, went to a cafe and rang home. When I heard they were waiting for me, I gave my joint to someone and hopped and skipped to the station. Man, I had the roughest time I've ever had - it was fantastic. I am so grateful to my parents. I'm so glad that they said "just go".