IN THE Sixties everybody hitchhiked; in the Nineties practically nobody seems to. What has happened?

For one thing, the world has changed: it became less safe to hitchhike. For another, travelling by normal methods of transport became easier and cheaper. The student railcard scheme started and cheap coach services were introduced. Relatively speaking, students became more affluent, too - and who really wanted to hitch when there were more agreeable options?

Personally, I'm rather glad: I hated hitchhiking. I grew to loathe taking lifts, and when I was old enough to drive I came to dislike giving them. But even so, it's hard not to mourn the end of the hitching era.

It seems incredible now, but I started hitchhiking when I was 11. In the first form at a Wye Valley school in the Sixties, I began by sneaking off early and thumbing lifts home - by the sixth form I was routinely hitchhiking everywhere. It was an age of innocence: a time before we learnt to fear strangers. In fact, the risk involved came not from sexual deviants but seriously bad drivers: people who would talk and look at you when they should have been looking at the road, reps in the firm's Cortina who thought nothing of overtaking lorries on blind bends. I remember rides so terrifying that I would thank God as I got out of the car and promise never to thumb a lift again.

'Hitching is more than anything else an attitude to travel . . . If you look upon it purely as a means of getting to where you want to go, you'll probably get very bored very quickly. Hitchhiking is a cumulative experience, a never-ending happening of unknown factors which contribute, with a little luck, to a memory of what real travelling is all about . . .'

So says Ken Welsh in his Hitch-Hiker's Guide to Europe 1992 (Fontana, pounds 6.99). The book shows that hitching is not completely dead. The handful of practitioners still thumbing clearly cling to the spirit of Woodstock. ('When crossing borders, anyone carrying dope should, as a matter of principle, leave the car he's hitched a ride in and cross on foot.' 'In Italian trains, be careful of police in civilian clothing looking for dope.')

The world of the hitchhiker revealed in the book seems on the whole a cheerless place of lonely waits for the next lift, dangerous nights spent sleeping out in parks and spartan meals - a thoroughly depressing experience. In fact, just like your average package holiday.

I can remember when I decided to give up hitchhiking. I thumbed a lift from Hendon to Coventry in 1972 to see Chuck Berry play. I stood for an hour and a half in the rain among the throng of fellow hitchers at the end of the M1 until an ancient lorry stopped. For three hours the lorry chugged along at about 25mph with the engine roaring like an Apollo rocket at take-off. We attempted to hold a conversation: it was a dialogue of the deaf.

'What you doing in Coventry?'

'A concert.'

'A shirt?'

'Chuck Berry.'

'On telly?'

I caught the coach back: I never hitched a lift again.

(Photographs omitted)

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