Thumbing a lift used to be a groovy way of getting around. So why does no-one hitch anymore?

William Shaw sets off on a wild, verge-hopping road trip from Land's End to John O'Groats
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The Independent Online

It's 9.30 in the evening and I stand by the side of the A30 trying to smile, thumb in the air. I have waited here for an hour and 50 minutes, imploring every vehicle to halt. The rain has, at least, eased a little. Cars pull into St Erth service station opposite, eye me, then accelerate away. So far all I have managed is a total of 18 miles in two cars and a 4x4. OK, so I only set off from Land's End two and a half hours ago – but already I am hungry and cold. And disappointed.

A white Rover Metro speed-revs, full of lads, horn blaring. Grinning, one passenger in a hoodie lifts a single finger at me, another holds his palm up, thumb extended, to make the letter "L". Loser.

I feel stupid.

I am trying to hitch from Land's End to John O'Groats. It's with some shock that I realise that the last time I thumbed was 25 years ago.

Nobody hitches any more. That's the conclusion I first came to last autumn driving between Brighton and London to visit my dying mother. On those break-neck journeys along the south coast, I had yearned for company to keep me awake, keep my mind off my own mission. Over three months of journeying I didn't see a single extended thumb.

When I was a young man, everyone hitched. Like thousands of others, I knew the precise roundabout to stand on at the North Circular to avoid the queue at Staples Corner waiting for a ride up the M1. It was how we got around.

But now I am the last hitch-hiker in England, apparently, going nowhere. I had set out on this journey partly to see if hitching was still possible, and also, I see now, to try and relive a superannuated moment.

Then a man in a rusty banger calls from the petrol pump. "I'll give you a ride."

Excitedly, I grab my bag.

"Only I'm only going as far as the next roundabout."

I try to hide my disappointment. He turns the ignition to start the car. Nothing. The battery is dead.

"Will you give me a push?" he asks.

Five minutes later, ride No 4 drops me off. "This car only cost me 80 quid," he says proudly. "You'd do better buying one of these, eh?"

The first rule of hitching is to find a safe place where drivers can see you, slow to a stop, and re-enter the traffic without causing a hazard. The Hayle roundabout where I'm dropped meets none of these criteria. Cars are going far too fast to stop. I would have been better off staying where I was. The rain starts coming down hard again. The last light is going. I wonder if this town has a railway station?

Hitch-hiking was a 20th-century phenomenon. As early as the First World War soldiers used to "lorry hop", flagging down any transport they could find. The actual word "hitch-hiking" didn't arrive here officially until the 1930s, imported from the slang of America's migrant workers.

It was the Second World War that made it popular. Sharing a vehicle became a patriotic duty. Meanwhile, something else was happening in America. There, hitching was not just a means of transport, but a kind of freedom. The poet WH Auden arrived there and noticed:

"Kids/When their imagination bids/Hitch-hike a thousand miles to find/The Hesperides that's on their mind."

When post-war austerity turned to prosperity, a whole new generation of hitch-hikers set out on the road, travelling into Europe, even through Afghanistan to India in an era when the world seemed less complicated.

When Jack Kerouac famously criss-crossed America with Neal Cassady, fictionalising the trips in On The Road, hitching became a symbol of the restlessness of a generation.

I first hitched in the 1970s, during the apotheosis of the cult of hitching – the era of Tom Robbins' Only Cowgirls Get The Blues, whose bisexual, big-thumbed heroine symbolised hitching as not just a personal freedom, but sexual freedom too.

In Britain today, standing dripping by the A30, that suddenly seems like a very, very long time ago.

Rain-soaked, I abandon my journey. At 11pm, the round-faced mine host of a B&B a half-mile walk away keeps me on the doorstep in the wet, eyeing me suspiciously.

"Hitching?" he says. "What do you want to do that for?"

In the morning, though, it's marginally brighter. I rise before breakfast and return to the roundabout that had defeated me last night.

Hitching has fallen out of use, yet surely, I rationalise, we need it now even more than we did in the 1970s. Road transport today accounts for something like one-fifth of Britain's total CO2 emissions. Our love of the road is one of the main reasons why the UK is unlikely to meet its target of an overall cut of 30 per cent in national emissions by 2020.

The simplest single way to slash that figure would be for people to start sharing cars again. True, there are plenty of worthy internet sites arranging "safe" rideshares, but hardly anybody uses them. They lack the simple lo-fi spontaneity of standing by a road and sticking your thumb out.

Ride No 5 is a big-chinned taxi driver called Keith returning from the school run. "Hitchhikers. You don't see so many of 'em about, nowadays," he says.

He takes me as far as Redruth. After two hours I am still in Cornwall. It has taken me 14 hours to travel less than 30 miles. I could have walked it in half that time.

Through the morning, I continue to limp along. Ride No 7 is a bread van whose driver tells me: "I'm not supposed to pick up hitchers, but I'm bored out of my head."

He's wary of them though. He picked up a drunk girl early one morning in Truro. She didn't even know where she was. She'd been driven there by some lads who'd wanted to take things further than she had, so they'd dumped her by the side of the road. "She was only 18, 19," he says. "I shouldn't have done it, should I? She could have started screaming rape or something."

"That's the trouble," I say. "Everybody's lost trust."

The morning before I'd set out, catching the train to Penzance to start my journey, I'd dropped my kids at school. On the way to the gates, I'd proudly told one of the buggy-pushing mothers what I was intending to do. She laughed.

"No offence, William, but I wouldn't pick you up."

"What if you were with your husband?"

"Maybe," she answered, doubtfully. "I don't know." Then she said, "Have you seen The Hitcher with Rutger Hauer? Scared the fuck out of me."

This is what I am up against. The zeitgeist has changed since the bright-eyed, blue-jeaned days of Only Cowgirls. In The Hitcher, Hauer plays a psychopathic hitch-hiker. It was remade this year with Sean Bean and the billboard tagline "Never pick up strangers."

In the 20th century we learned, for a while, to trust strangers. That was a blip, an anomaly. We now seem to have reverted to our more natural state. The driver fears the hitch-hiker. The hitch-hiker, too, probably fears the driver. In Michael Faber's recent novel Under The Skin, a young woman who picks up hitchers in her Toyota Corolla turns out to be an alien kidnapper. Hitching is no longer about freedom and self-discovery. It's about accepting sweets from strangers.

But I persist. Ride No 8 is Stan, a lorry driver on his way to Glastonbury to pick up the cabins rock stars had used as dressing rooms for the festival. The site has been so muddy since then they haven't been able to get on site to remove them.

In the old days, long-haul lorries were the ones who got you places. A ride in a lorry today is a novelty. Now lorry drivers mouth, "Sorry" through their windscreens, or more frequently pretend not to notice you.

Most are forbidden by their employers to pick up passengers. We live in a society that minimises risk. Stan works for a small company. These days, though, it's mostly big companies with fancy slogans. They don't deliver "goods" any more. Wincanton trucks boast they deliver "Supply Chain Solutions". Tibbet & Britten offer "Fashion Logistics".

Stan points to a notice on the side window. "No unauthorised passengers. " He doesn't pay attention to it, though. He rolls perfect cigarettes on the steering wheel from Van Nelle tobacco without his eyes leaving the Tarmac for a second.

The sun starts to emerge from the clouds. '

"Where you goin'?" asks a young red-headed man in a Vauxhall at Taunton Deane services.

"Anywhere," I answer desperately.

"I'm goin' to Glasgow," he eyes me suspiciously, leaning past his passenger.

Glasgow? That's over half way to my destination. It's coming back to me now. The real thrill of hitching is the element of pure luck. Before he has time to change his mind I stuff my backpack into the back and jump in.

I quickly realise this could be a mistake. He takes off up the M5 at 130mph, chain-drinking four cans of Red Bull passed to him by his companion in the passenger seat, pressing the horn at cars that pull out in front of him. "What do you do that for?" he shouts.

Colin is a submariner. In two weeks he's going on draft, testing a new submarine. It's nothing to look forward to, working with unfamiliar, untried equipment, fathoms underwater. But it means he gets two weeks leave in Glasgow and he's clearly frightfully keen to get there.

I am terrified. But traffic is busy. He soon drops his speed. Most of the time he can only manage 80 or 90.

He drops the other navy man in the front seat near Liverpool. Now it's just him and me in the car. "Damn," he says, quietly. "I meant to get him to take a photo of you on his phone."

"Why?" I ask.

"Just in case," he says, uncomfortably.

"In case I'm an axe murderer?"

He laughs. "Aye." Then: "Well, you could've been a psycho."

Here is this man who is brave enough to go underwater in an untried submarine, but worried about picking me up.

"I tell you one thing. I'd have never have picked you up if it was me was on my own."

But six hours after he picked me up he's dropping me – in one piece – at Hamilton Services, just south of Glasgow, warmly wishing me all the best. Twenty-four hours in, I've completed two thirds of my journey.

It's night now. Cars come. Cars go. The Premier Lodge at this services is full. Even if I wanted a bed, there isn't one.

At 11pm, four lads all dressed in black satin bomber jackets pull up in a customised Peugeot.

"Do you smoke a bit of puff?" they call.


"Do you like a drink?

"Yes, but..."

"Do you want a ride in the boot?"

"I don't think so..."

They drive off cackling.

Motorways exist in their own geography; any one service station is like another. You are in no particular place. But standing here all night there are hints of a world beyond. I catch a waft of fox scent. Then, somewhere nearby, I hear unseen moorhens squawking to each other in alarm.

Nobody's going to pick you up at this time of night, but I smile at them all, hold out my thumb; they roar on up the M74. At 2.30am a beautiful crescent moon rises. Then the birdsong starts. I pace on the grass to keep warm.

At around 8am, another rare lorry driver called Dave stops. He has a gold earring, a tattoo of a swallow on his arm, his mobile phone plays the Benny Hill theme, and he talks sadly, man-to-man, as we motor up the A9, about the girlfriend who has recently left him. Sitting up in the cab in the summer morning, I feel like a king of the road.

I am tired and dirty – but curiously exhilarated. The unpredictability of hitch-hiking is starting to feel less a chore and more like a thrill. There's now a real chance I'll make it all the way to John O'Groats today.

I trudge half a mile up the dual carriageway from a roundabout looking for a lay-by, past cans, condoms, a pair of trousers, a shoe, a copy of OK, several cigarette packets, a car radio and a pillow, covered in a pink pillow case.

It looks so comfortable, I imagine laying my head on it.

Cars move far faster than they used to 25 years ago. It's scary being this close to them on the verge. Speed makes it harder to find a safe place – where drivers have a couple of hundred yards to spot you, and another hundred to stop in.

Waiting breeds superstition. You count cars, and tell yourself you'll get a ride within the next 50, the next 100. You categorize vehicles by their likelihood. Audis never stop. Men in ties are no good. Single women won't, of course. Boy racers don't even consider it, but at least they are entertaining. They raise their thumbs, wave, laugh to say, "We have a car. You don't!"

But the further north I travel, the better it seems to become. Ride No 11, Rudi, appears like a reminder of the bygone age I've been obsessing to myself about. He's a genial, long-haired hippie who drives an elderly Golf. Rudi's on his way from Biggar, where he lives, to visit his girlfriend on the Isle of Lewis. Rudi says he stops for everyone. As if to prove his point, he stops a few miles later to pick up a 22-year-old student called Adrian who has run away from work to go hiking in the Cairngorms. I am thrilled. Students don't hitch any more; they've all got cars of their own. In the 700 miles I've travelled so far, he is the first fellow hitcher I've seen. I am not alone.

We drive, grinning with camaraderie, until we drop Adrian off south of Aviemore. He will disappear and end up having a magnificent couple of days in the mountains.

Shortly after, Rudi shares his wholemeal rolls and olives with me as we wait for the AA to arrive to fix a flat tyre on his elderly vehicle. Breakdowns notwithstanding, I'm hurtling towards my destination now.

At Inverness in the early afternoon, Shirley – ride No 12 – picks me up on her way home from the dentist. Her dog, Stella, fidgets on her lap. In her right hand she has a savoury pastry. It's a miracle she can drive her Fiesta at all with all this going on. I cross "single women" off the list of people who never stop for me.

A quiet, middle-aged Christian, she knows this road well from driving to the Inverness Fellowship every Sunday. She quizzes me about my journey, then says, with a hint of regret in her voice, "I'd like to travel but I'd want someone to do it with. I don't like to travel on my own."

She says when she has to she hitches sometimes herself along this beautiful, isolated road through Tain and Dornoch Firth; when the snow comes in and it's dark and scary, but it can be the only way to get around in these parts. "But the thing about hitch-hiking is, I like that I never know who it is who will pick me up," she says. "It's good to meet new people."

"Yes," I say. "I think so too."

The lifts are short, but frequent now. I am getting so very close. Like Shirley, people around here are more used to hitchers. Ride No 14 is Adam Gunn, an elderly man whose jobs include looking after sheep and driving broken-down cars back to their homes. "I was in Tewkesbury yesterday," he says proudly, as if it was as remote a destination as Timbuktu.

He drops me in the car park of the Gunn Clan Museum. The Gunn family, of which he's a proud member, have lived here in Braemore for 800 years, since they arrived in longships from Norway. It is early evening. Adam has left me only 40 miles from the end of my journey. The road is narrow. Not many cars pass at this time in the evening.

But soon enough ride No 15 screeches to a halt. Three young men in a car sweep the empty beer bottles from the back seat to give me space.

"John O'Groats?" they say. "Us too."

Stuart, the leader, is on a kind of pilgrimage, like me. A German bar worker living in Edinburgh, he has come here every year for the last five years to look at the Stacks, the rocks near John O'Groats. And to get very, very drunk with whatever mates he can drag here.

Their rented Kia eats the miles. They open bottles of Stella. Nick, an antipodean, rolls joints while Sebastien, a Frenchman, stays sober to drive. They play "The Last Train To Clarksville" on CD.

The moment of arrival is always less than one hopes for. Like Land's End, John O'Groats is a place with little raison d'être but its extremity. The souvenir shop, near the small harbour, looks much like the one I left two days ago in Cornwall, 875 miles away. As we get out to take photographs, I check the time on my mobile phone. Remarkably, after my slow start, the entire journey has only taken 48 hours and 10 minutes.

Later, I say my goodbyes to Stuart, Seb and Nick in the Newmarket Bar in Thurso. I have bought them a drink to thank them for taking me to the end of my journey. They will spend the evening getting inebriated. While I sleep, they will plead with the Thurso police for a cell to spend the night in, and end up sleeping uncomfortably in the Kia instead, a rest interrupted by Seb vomiting over the upholstery, for which the hire company will later charge them a £15 cleaning fee.

By then I will have checked into a local hotel. I lie on my bed, unable to sleep, pleased to discover that hitch-hiking is at least possible in 2007. Our lack of faith may mean that fewer people pick you up these days, it's true. You will stand by the roadside for longer, perhaps. But cars take you further, faster. And there are far more of them. Aside from the price of a £32 B&B, the journey has cost me only sleep. Maybe hitch-hiking can come back into fashion soon.

The last thing Stuart and his mates asked me is how I'm getting home. " You going to hitch?" they demanded.