Thumbs up! The lost art of hitch-hiking

Surveys show that only one in a hundred will hitch – or give – a lift. But why? Sign at the ready, Emily Dugan set off from Land's End to find out

It was as if I'd told my friends I was planning to take a leap off Beachy Head. "You're doing what?" they screeched, in mounting alarm. I had decided to hitch-hike from Land's End to John O'Groats. The consensus was that it was a Very Bad Idea.

I wanted to work out why Britons had stopped sticking out their thumbs, and my friends' reaction confirmed that one reason was fear.

My parents – for whom hitching was the norm when they were students – were much more sanguine. My dad got nostalgic, regaling me with stories of his epic journey across America with just his thumb and a knapsack. When he was a teenager in the Seventies, motorway junctions were like human taxi ranks, with lines of young people waiting their turn for free rides up and down the country.

Now the picture is very different: the two occasions I have seen hitchhikers in the past decade were in rural Cornwall and at a service station after the Glastonbury Festival. It just doesn't happen any more.

Fewer than 1 per cent of Britons have hitched in the past year, according to an AA Populus poll, and most women have never done it. Three-quarters of females in the survey of more than 16,000 people said they had never ventured on to the road for a lift. The suspicion between hitcher and driver works both ways. In the past two years, the number of drivers unwilling to stop has soared, going from 75 to 91 per cent; fewer than one in 100 are now very likely to stop.

With rising petrol prices, a recession and increased environmental awareness, you'd think impromptu car sharing would be all the rage. Instead, it is seen not just as socially unacceptable, but tantamount to suicidal, especially for a lone woman.

I don't mean to belittle the risks. Just as there's always a chance you can get attacked on the street, in a bar, or in your own home, of course it is possible if you get into strangers' cars that one will contain a psychopath. But how likely is it?

The night before setting off, I steeled myself to look up hitch-hiker attacks on Google. The cases were rare but horrendous. I wondered if putting myself in the hands of strangers was akin to signing my own attack warrant, but I decided it was too late – I'd already bought my ticket to Penzance.

On the sleeper train from London to Cornwall, the ticket inspector catches a glimpse of my cardboard John O'Groats sign. "What would your mother say?" she tuts, when I tell her my plan. Shutting the door, she wishes me a good night's sleep, adding ominously: "You might need it."

Hitch-hiking diary:

Why my 30-hour road trip from Land's End to John O'Groats restored my faith in human nature

DAY ONE

Land's End,Cornwall

Phil Mead, 46, a security consultant from Essex

It is blowing a gale at Land's End, with the kind of persistent drizzle that soaks you by stealth. There is also nobody here. What self-respecting tourist checks out the country's most south-westerly point before 9am in a howling gale? Finally, one couple arrive, grinning despite the grimness. He takes out his camera and she stands next to the sign. "Do you want me to take a picture of both of you?" I ask. As I click the shutter button, I venture: "I don't suppose you're going past Penzance, are you?"

Soon I am installed in the back of Phil and Susanne Mead's pristine Ford. The couple, both 46, are on their way to Port Isaac. Phil, in security, is down from Essex on business; Susanne is taking a holiday from her job as an NHS administrator to join him. Neither has ever hitch-hiked or picked someone up before.

Beginning to explain why, Phil says: "Now, with the way the world is, especially being a girl ..." But he cuts himself off after a glance from Susanne. "People always think of the worst thing," he adds, trying to end our journey on an optimistic note as I leave them outside Tesco on the ring road on the far side of Penzance.

A30 outside

Penzance, Cornwall

Jeff Sleeman, 30, delivery driver from Penzance

After about five minutes a silver van pulls up at the traffic lights and I wave my John O'Groats sign. He shakes his head. I wave it again. He starts laughing and winds down the window: "I can take you to Camborne," he says.

Jeff Sleeman is 30 going on 13, with a winning enthusiasm for delivering dishwasher parts. "I've just got this job; I started last week. I should be finished by 1pm and I get paid for a whole day. Gleaming."

In 10 minutes he doesn't stop talking – about his new job, getting dumped, being in two bands and wanting to pursue his guitar-playing dreams in London.

"I'm Penzance born and bred. It's pretty hard to get out. My dad's a postman – has been since he was 17. He's a bit of a janner."

What's a janner? "It's sort of a Cornishman who's proper happy with everything."

Then we get to the depot in Hayle, and the parts he needs aren't there. Seeing a major hold-up coming, I walk back to the A30.

A30 outside Hayle, Cornwall

Huw Davies, 58, airport security consultant from near Land's End

Within a matter of seconds, an expensive-looking, dark blue Volvo screeches to a halt. The man inside, who has an old-fashioned, droopy moustache and pinstripe suit, looks straight out of an Eighties cop show. Mr Davies, a retired policeman, is on his way to Bristol airport. He grew up in the Welsh valleys, and his rugby prop past is still visible in his broad torso, which struggles to fit beneath the steering wheel.

"I'm an ex-copper, so I can understand where people are coming from when they worry about safety," he says, after explaining he partly picked me up because he was worried. He also used to hitch-hike himself and still remembers what it was like to stand and wait.

But mainly he wants the company. "It's a long, boring journey, so if I get someone to have a decent conversation with, it's better."

And it is a decent conversation. The hours whizz by as he speaks proudly about his grown-up sons and his wife, Di, the first female officer in the mounted police in Somerset, who was forced to retire after falling off her horse. He even tells me about their honeymoon in a leaky tent in the pissing rain, with a giant wet dog between them: "As you can imagine, there was no sex that night."

He pulls off at the services before the airport and we swap numbers – he wants me to come back and visit them, and I'm actually quite tempted. He texts later to make sure I arrive safely.

Sedgemoor services, M5, Somerset

Mark, 43, mobile vegan pizza man from Warwickshire

A ramshackle van trailing a pizza oven stops. Mark, a 43-year-old hippie who runs a mobile vegan pizza company, is on his way home to Warwickshire from the Buddhafield Festival. He doesn't want to tell me his surname. "I prefer not to have anything about me on the internet." He seems on another planet, but claims that despite having had "the most psychedelic time of [his] life", the festival was drug and alcohol free.

With just a few miles under the bonnet, we stop again at Michaelwoods services for coffee. I buy the round (he doesn't like giving Starbucks money) and we carry on. Blindly following his sat-nav, he turns off the motorway before I notice.

"You need to let me out," I squeal, as we go round and round a complicated, dizzying junction. He drops me on the hard shoulder and it's the first time I feel scared. I'm completely lost, and the only quick way back involves running across six lanes of motorway traffic. As the stream of cars continues unabated, I come to my senses and decide to double back on myself.

Maze-like junction near the A417, Gloucestershire

Simon Baldwin, hotelier in his fifties from Cheltenham

A red convertible BMW pulls up. "I don't think you'll get to John O'Groats in this direction," the driver laughs, looking at my sign. He is on his way back from root canal surgery. He drops me back at Michaelwoods services so I can start off again in the right direction.

Michaelwoods services, Gloucestershire

Tony Boardman, 49, van driver from Manchester

I have barely stepped out when a large white van pulls up. Tony Boardman, 49, is on his way home to Manchester, having spent the day delivering shower screens. "I set off at 3am this morning. Today will be a 700-mile round trip, but that's pretty normal. I'm a workaholic." His phone rings and he answers it on Bluetooth. "Alright, wench!" he says to his wife, before launching into a long natter. He drops me at services before Manchester to make sure I get an onward lift.

Sandbach services, Cheshire

Joe Hodkinson, 60, lorry driver from Chorley, Lancashire

After nearly 20 minutes of waiting on the slip road, I walk through the lorry park asking for lifts. Most are not keen. "I've got a tracker so they'll see me drop you off", "Tesco don't let me take passengers", "I'm not going north" from someone in a northbound services with Scottish flags on their cargo. Then I meet Joe Hodkinson, on his way to deliver cider to a ship heading for Dublin.

"I'm a Facebook fanatic," he says, gesturing towards an iPhone. "I've gone from 24 to 575 friends in three months. There are some really dirty girls on there," he adds, before asking: "Are you on Facebook?"

I change the subject. Does he like driving? "I love it. It's better being high up, then when there's girls in miniskirts or hotpants in the cars below you get a good look." I take my leave at Lancaster services.

Lancaster services, Lancashire

Doug Diack, 45, lorry driver from Aberdeen

As I climb out of Joe's cab, my John O'Groats sign catches the eye of the driver next door and I am back on the road. Doug Diack is on his way home to Aberdeen, delivering oil equipment, and he offers to drop me in Perth for the night. He has been driving lorries since he was 21 and has a thoughtful manner that belies his jail-bird tattoo. On the way, he calls his 11-year-old daughter and her mother, his ex-girlfriend: "You'll never guess who's in the cab with me? A journalist!" he says, handing the phone to me. Fortunately, they're finding this as awkward as I am, and I hand the phone back quickly.

With Paul Weller blasting through the speakers and the Lake District streaming past the high windows, this suddenly feels like the way to travel. We pull off the road to stop for dinner at Lockerbie Truck Stop. Doug's friends are already eating in the canteen, and they titter among themselves as I go to buy his ham, egg and chips. The ladies' is so pristine I wonder if anyone has visited it since 1972. The last few hours to Perth I struggle to stay awake, but Doug turns up the music and drives on. When he drops me at Perth services, he waits until I'm safely inside the Travelodge before waving goodbye.

Arrive Perth 23.35pm

DAY TWO

A9 north of Perth services

Jarek Stafrniak, 30, Polish food distributor living in Perth

Perth services are deserted, so I head on to the A9 itself to catch a lift out of town. Within a couple of minutes, a white box van pulls up. Jarek Stafrniak and his eight-year-old son Maciej are delivering Polish food to delis in Inverness. Maciej shifts over in the double seat (still clutching a 3ft-long toy gun) and we're on our way. Jarek doesn't speak much English, but smiles and they share their muesli bars with me. Maciej understands more but prefers one-word answers. Is the gun his favourite toy? "Y-e-s," he deadpans. The family moved from Gdansk to Perth three years ago. Jarek says he has never seen a hitch-hiker in Britain. "In Poland it's everywhere, but not here."

Just before we reach Inverness, with Polish soft rock blaring in the background, Jarek tells me he thinks I am a "very beautiful wo-man". Not sure what to say, I opt for looking pointedly at his wedding ring and then back at his son, who is cringing. Jarek looks bashful and drops me off minutes later.

Junction on A9 outside Inverness

Ian Baxter, 59, TNT delivery man from Inverness

Ian Baxter stops, moves fragile-looking packages off the front seat and tells me to make myself at home. "Whenever I see anyone, I pick them up. I know what it's like to hitch-hike myself," he says. A gadget bleeps on his dashboard. "That's telling me to have a break; I'd rather work through, though." He drops me in a lay-by before turning off the road to make his delivery.

Springdale turnoff A9, Highlands

Anonymous, 23, pest controller fromInverness

A van whizzes by and then does a U-turn. "I was going too fast to stop," says the driver, a 23-year-old pest controller too scared of losing his job to give his name. He works getting rats out of Scotland's finest distilleries. "It's good to have a job. I was a builder, but with the state of the building trade, I wanted to change. This is good because it's permanent – we'll never get rid of pests. It's quite easy as long as you're not scared of beasties. I've been doing this two months now and in the 10,000 miles I've driven you're the first hitch-hiker I've seen."

Brora turnoff, A9 Highlands

Steve Young, 48, consultant from Edinburgh

I almost miss the next lift. A plush VW Bora pulls up ahead of me and I assume the driver is getting something from the garage. It is only after he beeps the horn that I dash over. Steve Young is driving from Edinburgh to the Royal Bank of Scotland branch in Castletown, where he will be overseeing a revamp. The branch opens only two afternoons a week.

When we get to Castletown, he offers to take me the rest of the way – almost another 20 miles of winding roads – saying he'd like to see me complete my journey.

I arrive at John O'Groats at quarter past two, thank Steve and jump out of the car. After a day and a half on the road, it is an anti-climax: several tacky gift shops and a guy charging £10 for your picture next to the headland's fenced-off sign. If hitch-hiking had shown me the generosity that people are capable of, John O'Groats seemed to prove the reverse.

Twelve lifts, 12 very kind people

Catching lifts from strangers was uplifting, surprisingly easy and far more interesting than sitting on a train plugged into an iPod. So why did we stop doing it?

The simplest explanation is wealth. With more of the population owning cars, perhaps people don't need to hitch-hike. But when cross-country train fares cost more than an average week's rent, and even coaches have to be booked in advance to be really affordable, surely there is still a place for it?

Maybe technology has been part of the decline. Increased mobile phone ownership should have made it significantly safer; yet hitching seems to have died off at precisely the moment that mobiles became mainstream. Now that drivers can make phone calls on the move, have their entire music collection at their fingertips and, for those with sat-navs, even find where they're going without the need for someone to read a map, perhaps the 21st-century driver simply doesn't require company any more. Rather than offering welcome companionship on a long journey, the unknown passenger has become surplus to requirements: an unwanted intruder in a private space.

But the biggest reason of all seems to be fear. Fear of abduction, rape or murder, but most of all, a fear of strangers. It is a fear that now permeates modern life, from the parents who feel too afraid to let their kids play outside in case of paedophiles, to the families who install CCTV to snoop on their neighbours.

The worst I encountered was a slightly lecherous truck driver. But I never felt in any danger, and for every sexist comment, he would say something genuinely affectionate about his fiancée. There aren't any statistics on the likelihood of being attacked hitch-hiking. All I can go on are my own figures: 12 lifts, 12 very kind people and 12 reasons to think strangers aren't necessarily the bogeyman.

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