The hitcher: A road less travelled

You'd have to be mad to hitchhike - wouldn't you? After all, anything could happen. Is it even possible, in these fearful times, to catch a free ride across Britain? Simon Usborne braves the loneliness of the long-distance thumber

In the kind of rain that seems to want to fall for ever, Staples Corner is one of the most dispiriting places on the planet.

The miserable maze of tarmac and steel marks the junction of London's North Circular and the Edgware Road. It's also Junction 1 of the M1, England's blacktop backbone that stretches all the way to Leeds. Standing on the wrong side of the crash barrier, where the westbound North Circular catapults vehicles on to the motorway, I cut a pathetic figure.

My left hand clutches a sign that says "M1 NORTH" and my eyes, which squint with every oily spray that comes my way, plead with every driver to stop.

My mission, one I'm beginning to regret accepting, is this: in today's Britain, in an age when a coach ticket can cost less than a piece of cardboard and a marker pen - and when the fear of violent stranger crime is high - is it still possible to traverse the length of the country with only a backpack, a sign and an extended thumb? I've travelled by Tube and on foot to Staples Corner, but, here, the journey proper begins.

In my experiment, travel from now northwards must be free, but I can pay for hotels.

Not so long ago, I wouldn't have been the only one standing here.

Thumbing a lift first became popular during the First World War, when soldiers would "lorry hop"; by the 1930s, we had imported the word "hitchhiking" from the US. The Second World War saw another thumbing boom when car sharing became a patriotic duty and, in America, hitching would go on to symbolise the restlessness of a generation.

Today, though, the age of the hitchhiker would appear to be over. It's illegal in many US states, and in this country hitchers have become an endangered species.

When was the last time you spotted anyone with their thumb out? Would you pick them up if you did? Is it even safe? Surely these days the only people who stop are, as many friends have already suggested, perverts and axe murderers? If I survive, will I get any further than Watford Gap? Am I the lasthitchhiker in Britain?

FRAZER, TUESDAY, 10:40AM: STAPLES CORNER TO HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, M1

After 90 fruitless minutes in my first position, and 40 minutes on the eastbound North Circular, I have lost all hope that anyone is going to let a saturated man with a beard into their cosy car. I feel like a beggar and, to add to the humiliation, two youths on scooters shout "way-hay!"; one gives me an unfriendly thumbs up; the other offers two fingers.

Other drivers are less forthcoming. Young women throw me a look of mild fear, as if I have already reached into their cars to molest them. Older women look vaguely sympathetic. Men are impassive, finding a reason to check their sat-navs or just look away. When a silver Land Rover Freelander pulls up behind me, the driver has to beep his horn three times before I notice him.

Frazer is a recruitment consultant on his way home after a meeting in London. He tells me about his mate, who thumbed from London to Glasgow 25 years ago. "One man tried to touch him up and this other guy turned out to be a drug dealer - it was pretty scary." Cheers, Frazer. "My wife used to hitchhikeuntil she had a bad experience," he adds.

"I never got the full story but it ended up with her jumping out at some traffic lights." At least Frazer seems friendly.

Why did he stop? "You looked wet," he says. "If I see a hitcher who doesn't look dirty, I'll pull over, but this is only the second time in 10 years." Things were different in South Africa, where Frazer's parents moved when he was 10. "I used to hitch to the beach all the time, no problem," he says. Years later, he was robbed at knifepoint, and moved to the relative safety of Hertfordshire with his young family. Now he's moving to Australia. "The way youth culture is these days - all these stabbings - we don't want to raise our children here." Frazer drops me off at a BP garage on the A414 near junction 8. I nurse the first of many petrolstation coffees and a sandwich, before I squelch to the roundabout that leads back to the M1.

I retrieve my soggy sign from the shelter of my raincoat and wait.

JAMAIL, TUESDAY, 12:20PM: HEMEL HEMPSTEAD TO LUTON, M1

After 40 minutes, a taxi driver takes pity. "I can't pay," I tell him. He nods and I get in. "I do you a favour - I like to help," he says.

He's only going two junctions to Luton Airport for fares, but the shelter alone makes it a worthwhile trip. Jamail has driven a taxi here for 10 years after he moved from Mumbai to join his family, who made the trip two generations before him. He was a nursery school teacher before he came. Unlike me, he likes bad weather. "When it's raining, taxi is busy," he says. "When sunny, people don't want taxi - they walk, or swim." Rather than drop me off at junction 10a, at the end of the M1's Luton Airport spur, Jamail kicks me out at the roundabout above the main carriageway. Motorways are the only place in Britain where it's illegal to hitchhike.

Feeling the sights of a dozen CCTV cameras trained on me, I pick a route through a tornado of trucks and cars and walk down the M1 spur until the blue signs turn green, and I can stick out my thumb again..

NIGEL, TUESDAY, 2:55PM: LUTON TO JUNCTION 12, M1

By lunchtime, the Met Office's severe weather warning has shown to be no false alarm. Rain soaks through my jeans. I stand for two hours on the waterlogged verge and start resenting every motorist who zooms by. In a bid to stave off boredom, I go through the alphabet, thinking of a rude name for each bastard who ignores me. It starts to get tricky at about K and I give up, feeling utterly dejected.

Thank goodness for Nigel and his battered Land Rover. A landscape gardener, he's almost as pissed off as I am by the downpour.

He tells me about his own hitchhiking experience. "I got picked up by a woman, which never happens. I asked her if it wasn't a bit risky to be stopping for strange men. She pulled out her ID, which said she was a highranking police officer, and told me she was proficient in tae kwon do. Right then, I thought." Nigel's only going two junctions - in six and a half hours I've travelled 12 junctions and 32 miles, which should take 30 minutes to drive. This isn't going so well.

JEREMY, TUESDAY, 3:20PM: JUNCTION 12 TO WATFORD GAP SERVICES, M1

Junction 12 isn't the busiest on the M1 and, standing by the trickle of cars on the A5120, I fear it could be another long wait. But only five minutes pass before Jeremy pulls up.

He's an IT consultant who works for a US firm charged with, among other things, centralising records for the NHS.

"Yeah, the project that's costing the taxpayer £12bn," Jeremy tells me, before referring me to his press office.

Jeremy used to hitchhike in Derbyshire, where he grew up. "I wasn't very good at it," he says. "The first time I had to walk five miles and then get a train. Another time, it was late and there'd been a burglary. Two police cars screeched up from both directions and searched me, thinking I was their man." Jeremy's heading home to Birmingham and offers to take me up the M6. Then he suggests I get out at Watford Gap Services.

"It's a crucial point on the hitchhiker's map of Britain," he assures me. I agree, and soon regret it. The congealed curry at the "Rest Bite" costs £8, while the automatic doors open at random and sound like a school desk being dragged across a parquet floor. Looking outside at the rain, and inside at the caff and its soggy sandwiches, I can't decide where I'd least like to be. I drag myself out to the services exit.

ALAN, TUESDAY, 5:40PM: WATFORD GAP, M1, TO LYMM SERVICES, M6

"Most firms don't let us give lifts," says Alan, a ruddy Liverpudlian wearing trainers and combat shorts under his belly, "but my boss doesn't give a shite." Like Jeremy, Alan is bound for the M6.

It's still North, so I climb into his lorry, which boasts a bunk, a microwave and a fridge. On the dash in front of me there's a laptop covered in a grubby towel. "That's for porn," he tells me. "Right," I say, hoping he means the laptop.

Alan, who might have the thickest scouse accent in Britain, spends three weeks at a time driving round Europe. He hasn't had a conversation for "about 10 days". "It's like a cell, my wagon," he spits, "but the money's good - I take £650 a week doing this. My kids get everything - trainers, Playstation - the lot." So what's it like, life on the road? "You see some strange things. A fella in a car overtook me one night, wanking under blue tights with his interior light on. All the truckers up ahead flashed their lights and leant on their horns as he went past."

Alan's on a roll: "Belgium's worst for dogging - they're not right those Belgians - and Spanish lorry parks are best for girls; they'll wash your bollocks and shag your brains out for 50 euros. And we're talking girls like on Page 3 - over here they're all crack'eads with no teeth." Shrinking into my seat, trying to avoidcontact with Alan's towel, I ask him about his past. Alan, who is 33 but could pass for a decade older, turned to trucking to escape a life of crime, which, after insisting on withholding his real name and taking my card (a photo is out of the question), he tells me all about. It's no less shocking than his sex life. "I used to rob skip wagons and use them to ram-raid lorry yards - you have to do 30 and take your foot off just before you hit the railings," he says.

"Then I'd rob a truck and flog whatever's in it. I'd make £5,000 a truck and go out on a bender - charlie, ale - and get kitted out with gear. It was a buzz, but I kept getting locked up so I got out - told 'em my bottle had gone." Alan realised his only skill, apart from ram-raiding, was driving trucks. After three hours, Alan pulls into Lymm Services, before he forks off on the M56 to Birkenhead. It's only when he jumps out of his wagon that I see how small he is - about 5ft 4in. He bounds to the back of his wagon-cum- 3 knocking shop, and pulls back the side curtain to reveal, behind his lorryload of aluminium, a stash of booze. "Me and my mate Disco Dave are going on a bender when I get home - pick up a couple of scrubbers like," he tells me. "But we've got plenty." He breaks into a case of Becks and thrusts three bottles into my hands before striding back to his cab and chugging into the night.

RAY, WEDNESDAY, 10:40AM: LYMM SERVICES TO HAMILTON SERVICES, M74 (NEAR GLASGOW)

After a night in a hotel, I trek back to the motorway, a "6" pasted over the "1" on my sign. I stop when I see a man standing at the prime thumbing spot - the roundabout at the exit to the services. Surely he's not... another hitchhiker? I approach warily, sizing up the competition. Andy, who's in no mood to chat, is a "trade plater". I'd heard about these guys - they deliver cars and, to save money, hitch home. Their red plates are a green light for fellow trade platers and truckers. I retreat to the other side of the roundabout, at the less busy A50 approach, as we lock horns in a thumbing face-off. From time to time I look over my shoulder to see if he's still there; twice I catch him doing the same. And then he's gone. I move in. Ray is delivering frozen food to Glasgow .

He's been driving lorries for 30 years, first for the RAF. His current vehicle has all the mod cons, including a mattress with Man U duvet, and a TV. Ray used to hitchhike in his RAF days, when officers were allowed to do so in uniform. "You never waited long," he says. The sun shining, we pass Preston and Lancaster before skirting the Lakes towards Carlisle. It must be one of the most beautiful stretches of motorway in the country. Beyond the shimmering fields of barley, and the lakes beyond, lies Workington, where Ray, 57, grew up. He travelled this stretch of the M6 with his dad, himself a trucker, in the 1960s. "We'd stop up there for his mug of tea," Ray recalls, pointing at Forton Services, the now empty concrete mushroom that looms over the motorway. "Now it's all M&Sand KFC." Our final stretch takes us past Gretna, where Ray's brother got married ("It didn't last long") and into Scotland, where the M6 becomes the A74(M) and then the M74. He drops me off just south of Glasgow .

ADRIAN, WEDNESDAY, 4:55PM: HAMILTON SERVICES TO BROXDEN JUNCTION (ON THE A9 NEAR PERTH)

Ray had taken me more than 200 miles north - easily my longest lift - and now, scything through Scotland, I start enjoying myself. What had begun as a hardship is becoming a challenge, and I'm overcome by the desire to keep moving north. My appetite gone, I barely pause at the service station before knocking up an "A9" sign, and thrusting my thumb into the air at the services exit. An hour and a half later, I'm still there, my forearm turning pink in the sun, my thumb wilting. Then Adrian pulls up. Another former hitchhiker, he's not surprised I've waited so long. "It's the danger factor, isn't it," he says. "Society's more violent these days - you don't know who you're going to pick up." So why me? "You looked presentable enough and, anyway, I'm bored." Adrian has driven from Portsmouth, where he'd flown to pick up the gas-powered Volvo we're sitting in. He'd bought it for £450 on eBay. He grew up in North Wales and would thumb to Manchester to go out.

"You were virtually guaranteed to get there in three hours," he says. Adrian joined the Navy as a helicopter engineer. During the Falklands, he was working on the deck of the Atlantic Conveyor when it was sunk by two Exocets "I jumped 60 feet into the sea, which was about 3 degrees," he says. Adrian was picked up by a rescue team that included Prince Andrew. Twelve men perished. "I jumped with the captain, but he was never seen again." The brush with death made Adrian "more determined to go out and do things". After a few years, he left the Navy to work for the Sultan of Brunei, helping to maintain his helicopters. The Sultan put him and his family up in a mansion and his daughter, Yoshe, went to school with the Sultan's children. "Her seventh birthday party ended with a concert with Janet Jackson". Adrian "returned to reality" 10 years ago, settling near Aberdeen. He now works for HM Coastguard. He drops me near Perth, where the A9 turns left to Inverness. I resist the nearby Travelodge and decide to spend one last hour with my thumb out.

WILLIAM, WEDNESDAY, 7.20PM: BROXDEN JUNCTION TO INVERNESS

The roundabout at Broxden Junction isn't great for hitchhiking. It slingshots cars like comets around a planet, and there's nowhere to pull over. Even so, only 20 minutes pass before a Scania pulling a Warburtons trailer stops. Inside, I find William, who's taking his baked-and-sliced load to Inverness. There's no duvet or microwave - William does the less lucrative local drops so he can go home to his family every night.

"There's more to life than money," he says. William, 42, used to hitchhike to the Lake District to go hillwalking. "I had a car but liked the freedom of hitching - just me and my bag," he says. As soon as I climbed in the cab I'd noticed his deformed left hand, his fingers stubby and misshapen. I'm thinking of a way to bring it up, when William tells me about his time in the Army. He trained as an Assault Pioneer ("blowing things up"). "Is that how you did your hand?" I ask. "No," he says. For the first 15 years of his life, William underwent dozens of operations to build fingers - he was born without any - using plastic joints and grafted tendons and skin. His surgeon, David Jackson, would find fame after rebuilding the disfigured face of his adopted son, David, who had been abandoned in the Amazon. The boy was the subject of the BBC documentaries, The Boy David.

"You could say I was his guinea pig," William says. Mr Jackson's work was so good that William became not only a demolitions expert, but twice Scottish boxing champion in his late teens. He was trained by his dad, Ally Gilmour, a former miner. "He was a hero - we were like brothers," William says, lowering the giant windscreen visor to as the sun drops over the Grampians. "Two nights a week, he'd drive around picking up lads and take them for training. Then he'd drive them all back again." Three years ago, William's dad died of a heart attack. He was 70.

"He'd done a charity walk the week before and never smoked a fag in his life," William says. "They came from all over Scotland for his funeral. I kept one of his old boxing gloves on my chest of drawers, and couldn't talk about him without choking. Then, about six weeks ago, I could suddenly open up. I keep his glove in a jewellery box now." Approaching Inverness, we pass yellow gorse like fire, and rugged moorland softened by the evening light. At 9:30, the bridge across the Beauly Firth comes into view. We turn left off the A9 to Inverness, where William shakes my hand, and drops me off. I walk into town and check in to a backpackers' hostel.

IAN, THURSDAY, 8:50AM: INVERNESS TO TAIN, A9

I leave the hostel at 6:30 after a mostly sleepless night caused by a creaking bunkbed and the Germans smoking weed in the courtyard below my room. Striding back to the A9 with John O'- Groats almost in my sights, I stop at a BP for breakfast - a packet of chocolate HobNobs. After two hours, a VW Golf pulls up. Ian, who lives in Dornoch, further up the A9, hitchhiked to football as a boy and is now a property valuer. Boomtime in the Highlands ended last year, after prices had more than doubled in four years, but Ian's still happy. Looking out of the window ("it's not always this nice you know," Ian says) I can see why. He drops me at what must be one of the most beautiful thumbing spots in the land - a layby close to the village of Tain, where the A9 descends towards Dornoch Firth.

JODY, THURSDAY, 9:35AM: TAIN TO GOLSPIE, A9

The interior of Jody's battered van, which pulls up after 10 minutes, smells of glue and sawdust. A wooden ruler sits on the dashboard under a pile of Rawlplugs. I sit on several sheets of newspaper. "Spilt my flask over the seat this morning, but you're all right," Jody, a self-employed joiner, tells me, his Highlands accent so thick he has to repeat everything for my southern ears. At 29, Jody's the youngest person who stops for me, but he's old enough to have a hitchhiking past.

"I did it all the time to go out in Inverness," he says. "You still see people doing it - backpackers, too." Jody goes fishing to relax and has two children with his childhood sweetheart. I like him, but our 20-minute relationship ends when he drops me off at the town of Golspie. ROY THURSDAY, 10:10AM: GOLSPIE TO WICK, A99 More than two days into my thumbing adventure, I've proved the doomsayers wrong: not once I have I felt threatened by any of the strangers who have invited me into their cabs and cars. Never mind being stabbed - I haven't had so much as a hand brushed against my knee, a dodgy look or an awkward word. The only time I feel things could go awry comes when Roy picks me up in an unmarked delivery van. He's heading to Wick, 15 miles short of John O'Groats, but not directly - we've got drops to make. One of them involves hurtling along deserted lanes barely wider than the van.

Passing a pile of rusting cars and a 1960s bus in a field of weeds, we pull up at an isolated farmhouse that looks uninhabitable. Is this it, I think - where the story ends? Staying in the van as Roy jumps out, I hear men talking but can't see what's happening. But Roy's as friendly as everyone else who stops for me. He used to hitch to Inverness, where he learnt bricklaying. He reckons it's easier to get a lift up here. "We're just a bit more friendly, don't you think?" he says. I'm prepared to agree. At Roy's final stop, I help him wrestle a trampoline from the back of his van into a garage. He drops me off in Wick.

KATRINA, THURSDAY, 12:35PM: WICK TO JOHN O'GROATS

A woman! People told me I'd never get picked up by a woman but here's Katrina in her Rover 75. "You're in Caithness now," she says as we pick up speed, "there's only one road out so there's nowhere to run if anything happens." A 34-year-old bassoonist married to a translator, Katrina is probably the friendliest ride I've had. She wasn't even heading to John O'Groats, but home to Thurso, where her eldest daughter is off school sick.

"It's fine, I'll take you," she says, embarking on a 15-mile diversion. It takes us less than half an hour to get there. We get out of the car and stand by the most photographed sign in the country.

---

I've done it - I can go no further. I left a rain-soaked London on Tuesday morning. Twoanda half days and 12 lifts later, I've travelled almost 700 miles to the sunny tip of Scotland. I've spent 11 hours and 10 minutes standing on verges, laybys and slip roads, waiting, on average, 55 minutes for a lift. I've shown that you can still hitchhike in Britain in 2008 - and not get murdered. What's more, I've enjoyed it. I could have driven here in a day. But I would have blown a fortune on petrol, and I wouldn't have been moved by William, transfixed by Adrian nor horrified by Alan. My view would have filled with the backs of cars and road signs, not the lakes of Cumbria and the moors of Scotland. I take a train from Thurso to Inverness and the sleeper to London.

The toilets are blocked and one of the carriage doors is broken. I feel a twitch in my thumb. For those for whom the journey is more important than the destination, hitchhiking is the ultimate way to travel. But for how long? With the exception of Jamail and Katrina, all my rides were with former hitchhikers. Thumbing a lift today is about waiting for nostalgic drivers; 20 years from now, will there be any left? Well, there'll be me.

I go through the alphabet, thinking of a rude name for each bastard who ignores me. It gets tricky at K.

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