Student Travel Special: Hitch-hiker's guide to reality

A race from London to Manchester. Two players: one goes by train, the other takes the open road. Who gets there first? By Simon Calder

Simon Calder@SimonCalder
Friday 23 June 1995 23:02

Hitching was bound to be slower than the train - it was just a matter of how tardy. InterCity West Coast has produced a jokey advertisement for its Super Apex fares between London and Manchester, suggesting the only cheaper way to travel between Britain's two largest student centres is to hitch. So we set up a race, with the odds stacked heavily in favour of the train despite a two-hour start for the hitcher.

It was station-to-station, from Euston to Manchester Piccadilly. This line is one of the star prizes in the impending rail privatisation, with trains that can legally travel at 110mph.

7.50am: My journey begins, not with a single step but with a pounds 1.80 Tube ticket to Brent Cross, the station closest to the start of the M1.

8.30am: At Staple's Corner, the M1/A5/North Circular Road tangle, only one other hitcher is there. In the 20 years since this roundabout was built at the foot of the M1, the population of hitch-hikers has dwindled to almost nothing. In summers past you had to walk halfway to Watford to find a spare stretch of hard shoulder. These days, a rise in affluence means many young people drive or pay for public transport; and an increase in lawlessness means fewer people are prepared to risk the random encounters that hitching entails.

9am: My average speed has slumped to below 4mph, having gone nowhere in the past half-hour. Perhaps the sign is to blame. I am clutching a piece of cardboard reading "Manchester Please" - a long shot given that 90 per cent of the passing motorists would not be going anywhere near the city.

But I am keen to avoid the pitfalls that await the unwary hitcher heading north: the M25 junction, the M1/M6 split and the hitch-hiker's graveyard better known as Birmingham. My sign effectively read "If you're only going to Hemel Hempstead don't even think of giving me a lift".

9.01am: Hitcher's dream comes true. An M-registration BMW 5 series floats to a halt beside me. The driver is furious: "In the past seven weeks I've been to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Taipei, Harare and Johannesburg, and everything has gone perfectly. The moment you get back to Britain, the transport system falls apart." Peter Johnston, an oil company executive, had intended to travel by train to Liverpool. But an hour after his train was due to leave, he was still at Euston, where a broken public-address system meant no one could be kept informed about the problems.

Eventually he returned to his car and reluctantly started the 200-mile drive north. His loss (and the environment's) is my gain. There are worse ways to travel than in a brand-new luxury car.

10am: At the moment the competing train traveller leaves Euston (10 minutes late), we swing from the M1 on to the M6. This junction is the hitcher's nightmare, an all-motorway intersection where hitching is not only illegal but extremely dangerous. As highways become ever faster, the amble-along-by-the-side-of-the-road hitcher is an endangered species.

10.30am: I do a bit to earn the lift by navigating an impromptu diversion around a hold-up on the M6 near Cannock. Hitchers are usually expected to deliver something in return for a ride. Mostly, simple company is sufficient to ease the tedium of a long motorway drive. A worse scenario is when a trucker picks you up for an overnight ride in which your sole purpose is to keep the driver awake with sparkling conversation. Mr Johnston, my beneficiary, once offered a hitch-hiker a job; the man is still with the company.

11.40am: The A556/M6 junction, the Manchester turn-off. Mr Johnston adheres to the tradition in the West that motorists do not deviate from their intended route for hitch-hikers, and drops me off before continuing to Liverpool.

A fortnight earlier, in Japan, I almost had to abandon hitch-hiking through sheer embarrassment. Such is the tradition of hospitality in the East that saying "I'm heading for Osaka" is taken as a request for immediate transportation thereto, rather than a vague opening conversational gambit.

11.45am: In my hitching manual, this is a four-star junction so the maximum waiting time should be 30 minutes. I wait five.

The final 15 miles into Manchester takes exactly 15 minutes, and my encounter with a labourer sums up perfectly the addictive unpredictability of hitch-hiking. I never find out the name of the driver, but in a quarter of an hour I find out about his working life, his background, and the problems of bringing up a family in the Nineties.

12 noon: Blend in with the shoppers in Rusholme, just south of Manchester city centre, and join a bus queue. A 60p ride deposits me at Piccadilly station at 12.20pm - four and a half hours after leaving Euston. My rival train traveller has been caught in the same catastrophe as Mr Johnston's and no one seems to know when it might arrive.

Total cost: pounds 2.40. In-car catering: share of a packet of M&Ms, free

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