Hitching north on the M1 motorway in England

"CARE FOR A BLIZZARD?"

This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins in January 1996, in a share house in London, where I was sleeping on the floor of my friend Simon's room.

"London is cold. Snow lies on the ground, the rooftops, the roads. Everywhere. Hyde Park is now white beyond belief. The initial excitement of snow has given way to irritation at the cold, the slush, and the mess of traipsing through the streets of this frozen metropolis."

(Reeves;1996)

The above was the opening paragraph of a book I bought today. The words brought back such memories for me that it inspired me to resume my writing, which I have been neglecting over the past months.

hyde Park looked very different to how I had remembered it, two summers ago

I had been living with Simon and his countless flatmates in Ealing for a few weeks now. My days were largely spent walking the snowy streets, taking photos, seeing friends, visiting old 'haunts'; the bars around Kensington, cheap pizza buffets around West End, and unenthusiastically looking for work. I had left Australia with ten grand in the bank, and mindful of how hard it had been to save that money, I was determined not to blow it all and have to return home broke...again. But one way or another work was not coming easily.

Margarita, one of Simon's flatmates, had become more and more frequent with her hints that I should be paying rent, continually asking how much longer I would be staying. I had Simon's assurance that I was free to stay as long as I liked, so I ignored her, but it did make me realize that I had come an awfully long way to spend my days walking the streets and my nights watching the tele. I set about planning my next adventure. I had upwards of a dozen friends scattered around the United Kingdom, most of whom I hadn't seen since Banana Bungalow in 1992. This being England's most ferocious winter in many years, a hitchhiking tour of Great Britain seemed in order. Simon and his flatmates shook their heads at me and pointed to the TV screen. Thousands of motorists were stranded on a frozen motorway in southern Scotland. Blizzard warnings were in force in much of the country. They said I was mad, but it was just the adventure I was looking for. I made some phone calls and tracked down as many of my old friends as I could; told them to expect me some time over the next few weeks.

The most daunting task was actually getting out of a sprawling city like London. Wrapped in seven layers of clothing and armed with a great little 'glovebox sized' road atlas, I caught the underground as far north as it went; to Walthamstow. Then after a long walk, I was in view of the M11, the motorway that leads directly to Cambridge, my first stop. It took a while to find a suitable spot to hitch, but within minutes I was in the cab of a semi, pretending to be enthralled by the driver's recollections of his years in the SAS.

Cambridge arrived soon enough; a reminder that distances are always shorter in England than in Australia. I had to walk from the outskirts into the city and as the mid-afternoon progressed, it was getting noticeably colder. I phoned John, but there was no answer. After a short walk around the pretty town, I decided a pub would be the most sensible place to wait. I found a warm corner and filled it with my backpack and a few of the outer layers of my clothing. I phoned John's number regularly, after each pint. Finally, he answered and a pint later he walked through the door. He had warned that I wouldn't recognize him, and even though I was watching the door every time it opened, it was he who recognised me. Who would have guessed that the pot smoking hippy with waste length hair and a permanently glazed smile that I knew in Hollywood, would now be a respectable office worker with a crew cut?

John and I spent the evening remeniscing about the old times, catching up on all that's happened over the intervening years, and sharing whatever stories and rumours we'd heard about other Banana Bungalow'ers. John apologized for not being able to handle his beer like he used to, then passed out on the lounge.

The next morning, the sky was clear and blue but the air was icy. John dropped me off on the motorway on his way to work. My next stop was Alfreton in Derbyshire, Sara's parents' place. Although only about miles away, it was a complicated system of highways and motorways and by lunchtime I didn't seem to have made much progress. The weather had changed dramatically since the calm early morning in Cambridge. Clouds had been building for the last few hours, and the first few flakes of snow began to fall just after I was dropped at this middle-of-nowhere entrance to the motorway somewhere outside Leicester.

I set up my camera on a nearby post, wanting to capture this moment. The snow is drifting in at a forty-five degree angle. My backpack is quite light as I'm actually wearing almost all the clothes I have with me. There is a white dusting of snow on my shoulders and head. Leaning towards the road, smiling, left arm outstretched, I'm receiving some very curious looks from passing motorists. One of them feels sorry for me and stops, but he's not going very far. Where he drops me west of Nottingham, the snow is falling so heavily, traffic is travelling at about half speed. Snow is collecting in my beard and heaping up on my backpack and shoulders. My fingers are freezing, but the many layers of clothing are keeping my body warm.

Several more short lifts, and I arrived to find Alfreton under a foot of snow. Sara's parents were surprised to see me, and made me most welcome. They were just disappointed that they couldn't show me their garden, which they're so proud of. It was just a blanket of white. I phoned Catherine in Manchester and told her I'd be arriving the next day; not sure what time as I was at the mercy of the traffic.

The coming day was one of the least successful days of hitching I've known. The short distance to Manchester took me nearly all day, and yet in my memory it wasn't an unpleasant trip. I walked a long way out of Alfreton to find a good place to hitch; or more precisely, a spot where I could sit my backpack down without twelve inches of snow melting and soaking its contents.

I didn't mind being stuck here for a while

The snow had stopped for the moment, but the entire countryside was white. It was beautiful; as a Queenslander I had never seen anything like it. My third short lift saw me just outside Bakewell. I spent two and a half hours there in the freezing cold, deep snow all around, with my backpack tied up in a tree to keep it dry. Traffic was so infrequent that at times I thought the road may have been closed. Finally, a kombie van appeared through the whiteness, it slowed, and a couple of hundred metres past me, stopped. I tore my backpack down from the tree and ran.

It was nearly as cold inside the van as out. The dreadlocked driver wasn't aware that the heater didn't work until after he had bought it. He was obviously an Aussie, his girlfriend English. When we got talking, it turned out that he and I had left Sydney to fly to London on the same day. That's what I remember most about him. Fancy leaving Australia from the same airport on the same day, only to meet up weeks later on a near deserted snow covered road in the middle of the English countryside. They took the long way to Manchester, through the peak district, Snake Pass and Glossop. The scenery in that region was spectacular; everything eerily white as far as one could see. Many of the roads were icy and unsafe and the van would slide and skid. We were forced to turn back on several occasions, and find an alternative route. When I finally found my way to Catherine's, I found her and two friends waiting for me with a dozen cold beers. By the empty beer cans, they had been waiting for a while. I had forgotten how attractive Catherine was.

Carl, myself, Catherine and Amanda, celebrating Carl's final exam with a special breakfast

She, Amanda and Carl were all at university; Carl doing engineering, and the two girls studying French and Italian. Along with thousands of others, they lived in the student accommodation in the inexpensive and not so salubrious suburb of Salford. In their street, there were three identical towers of student flats, each one twelve storeys high. On each floor were a dozen flats, each flat consisting of a small entry foyer (most commonly used for the drying of washing), a shared kitchen and bathroom and four small lockable bedrooms with desk and heater. Boys and girls were on separate, alternate floors, and there was a strict policy on visitors. There was to be no visitors!

Before I knew it, I had been dossing at Catherine's for two weeks. 'Sunny Salford', they called it sarcastically. The view out the window every morning was a rarely changing picture of gloomy grey and by three o'clock in the afternoon it was twilight. The days were cold, and the nights were freezing. The three laughed as they warned me about the local kids, who'd "just as likely stab you if you say anything back to them." On my first night there, we were walking to their local pub, a quiet little Irish pub called Mulvany's. There had been a fresh snowfall, and in a schoolyard were some young kids sliding down a small slope on sheets of cardboard. How cute, I thought.

"Wha' the fook you lookin' a'?" one of them yelled, and threw a snowball in our direction.

A few days a week, the girls had an early start, so I would get up early and cook them a hearty breakfast while they were getting ready. Every time I'd cook they made more of a fuss about what a legend I was, hoping I would be so flattered that I'd do it again the next time. It worked. Breakfasts became more and more extravagant, and I ended up cooking three-course dinners for the four of on several occasions. We spent most nights playing pool and drinking Kilkenny's at Mulvany's, and on weekends we'd explore some of Manchester's other pubs. One weekend, the girls and I caught the bus over to Liverpool to visit Mike, another Banana Bungalow'er. Although it was a great time for me, and Catherine and I were getting along famously, I was aware that I should keep moving. I planned to head to Newcastle to visit Drew, then across to Ireland and down to Waterford to try to catch up with Carmel. But before I left, I wanted to do something special with Catherine to thank her for her hospitality; and I guess so she'd have something to remember me by. I hired a rental car for the weekend and the two of us set off for the Lake District.

The Lake District is really beautiful. Unfortunately, everyone knows about it, and even though it was the off season for tourism, there was a lot of traffic on its picturesque little roads and the towns were a crush of tourists. I'd hate to see it in the summer. We drove through Windermere, Keswick and down the western side of the Lake District stopping a number of times to take photos. When night fell, we set about looking for a bed&breakfast or a pub. I spotted a quaint little pub, but when we stopped, Catherine pointed out something in the distance that looked like a nuclear power station. She said she probably wouldn't feel comfortable sleeping in such close proximity to all that nuclear energy. I felt uneasy about it then too, so we continued our search. And I'm glad we did. We took a wrong turn somewhere along the line, and stumbled upon a great little inn which just happened to be holding a special Valentine's Day five course dinner. It was a meal like I've never had. All the food was delicious, and the servings were gigantic. Main course was an individual lamb roast big enough for three or four people, with fresh vegetables served on a separate plate. After dinner, it was all we could do to negotiate the steep stairs and stretch out flat on the big soft bed.

The next morning was drizzling with rain, which seemed appropriate. We left the Lake District and drove through Carlisle to Greenhead, the best place to view what's left of Hadrian's Wall.

It was really cold at Hadrian's Wall, so it didn't take much for Catherine to talk me out of hiking

To be honest, there's not a lot left; over the centuries local farmers have stolen stones from the wall to build their own walls. But it's still worth a visit just to gain an appreciation for the power that the emperor had. Imagine waking up one morning and ordering that a wall be built from one side of the country to the other.

Monday the weather took a turn for the worse. Tuesday, I took my leave of 'sunny Salford'. It was too complicated hitchhiking from Manchester to Leeds- if you look at a map you'll see what I mean- so for a couple of pounds I bused to that city, then hitched to York. The old city of York is very quaint and picturesque and the old city wall made for some great photos, with snow lying in its shadow. Yorkminster cathedral is worthwhile visiting, even if you're a bit jaded with cathedrals as I am. I made it to Newcastle by nightfall, sought directions to the nearest pub, and phoned Drew from there. No answer. No answer also on his parents' number. I ordered a pint of Murphy's, then thought again and changed it to a bottle of Newcastle Brown. When in Rome... "Hey, where're ye from?" The voice came from amongst a rough looking group of men who I'd already noticed in the corner.
"Australia."
"No way. Come over here. We'll buy you a drink!"

The barlady leant forward and trying to be unobtrusive, warned me that I should stay away from them; they were 'bad types'. But I figured it would be rude to snub their invitation, so I spent the next four hours drinking with them as they passed joints around the table and asked me inane questions about Australia. All the while the barlady was keeping a watchful eye over me.

I tried Drew's phone number every half hour or so, and was beginning to get nervous as closing time approached. My newfound friends had insisted that I come with them, but I was hoping not to have to. About ten minutes to eleven, Drew's father answered the phone, and ten minutes later, arrived in a huge Mercedes to whisk me away from the Runnymead, one of the roughest pubs in the whole of Newcastle as I later found out. He reached Drew on his mobile, and whipped me up an omelette and a pile of toast before Drew came over to take me to his place.

Life had been good to Drew; he was a director in the family car auction company, and he had a lovely little two bedroom place that he'd recently had renovated. I stayed with him for two nights, having many a laugh as we remembered Adelle from our travels in Canada. He showed me some of Newcastle's most popular nightspots, and introduced me to several of his friends, all of whom were aghast to hear how, with all the pubs to choose from in Newcastle, Drew's mate had ended up in the Runnymead.

From Newcastle, I hitched due west through Carlise and across Dumfries and Galloway in southern Scotland, to Stranraer, the ferry terminal to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, home of the IRA, streets littered with burnt out cars, razor-wire everywhere, probably illegal to walk the streets at night...or so I imagined. Was this really a good idea? The media really has a lot to answer for.

I hadn't anticipated that the ferry would be so expensive; twenty-five pounds for a walk-on passenger was simply more than I was prepared to pay. Even though I hadn't paid for a single night's accommodation since I arrived in London, and I had rarely paid for transport, I still seemed to be going through quite a bit of money. I guess two pounds a pint adds up in the en, and it'd be rude not to have a couple of beers with an old friend that you haven't seen for four years. Anyway, this seemed to be a setback, but after a bit of thought, I took up position on the footpath at the vehicle entrance to the ferry terminal, thumb outstretched. Often these ferries charge a set rate for a vehicle, including up to three occupants. Therefore, if there were only one or two people in a car, it would cost them no extra if they picked up a hitchhiker. I was counting on at least one driver recognizing this.

It was cold and blowy, and I was feeling miserable. One after the other, the cars streamed in, drivers staring at me some waving, some calling "Thanks!" Do they think I'm standing here to direct the bloody traffic? I dragged my backpack closer so that it leant against my leg. After the best part of an hour, the flow of traffic began to ease. The one or two cars that were still entering were being driven fast and furtively. They were running late! It was nearly departure time for the last ferry of the day. I had just about given up-isn't it always the way?- when a small hatchback screeched up over the curb and skidded to a halt in front of me. The driver poked his head out the window; "Which way to the ferry?" They do think I'm here to direct the traffic!

"This way but can I get a lift with you for ten pounds?"

He didn't understand what I meant. I tried to explain my situation as quickly and as simply as I could. He was pissed as a fart, and suspicious of this stranger who needed help to get out of the country. But I was aware that he was my last chance, so I wasn't taking no for an answer. I gave him the ten pounds and climbed in, dragging my backpack after me.

"Allright, but if there's any trouble, you're out!" he mumbled. "Thanks."
"Belfast!" I thought, and shuddered.

I caught a taxi directly to the Belfast Youth Hostel. It was late and I was nervous. It had been a long day, and now I was in Northern Ireland. All I wanted was a safe place to sleep. I would deal with tomorrow when it came. I was relieved to find the hostel was still open and a young guy behind reception.


"Please tell me you've got a spare bed for the night!" I said, suddenly realizing I should probably have booked.
"Sorry, mate. We're full up." His Australian accent took me by surprise nearly as much as what he said. He could see how deflated I was. I asked if there was somewhere else nearby that he could suggest.

"Well I know that a lot of other places are full too. There is one place, but it's not an actual hostel so I'm officially not allowed to recommend it. It's just a South African guy who lets backpackers stay in his house, but I go over there for a few beers most nights when I finish here." I said that was enough of a recommendation for me; how could I get there? He started to give me directions; "Walk out here, turn right..down to the corner..."

"Wait a minute," I interrupted, "I'm not walking!"

"Oh, you're new in Belfast," he could see that I was nervous, "You'll soon see that everything you've seen on the news back home is exaggerated. I've been here six months and I've never seen a hint of trouble. It's probably safer here than in London."

So I set about walking to "Dolf's place". During that ten minute walk, my whole perception of Belfast changed completely. It was Friday night, and the town was alive with the beat of every type of music. There were queues of well dressed young people waiting to get into danceclubs, the sounds of cheering and singing coming from crowded pubs.Smells of fine food wafted from the doorways of restaurants. There were bright lights and colorful clothing and beautiful women and happy people everywhere.

Dolf's Place was quiet. I was met at the door by a Swedish girl, who showed me to a downstairs bedroom, and took seven pounds off me. Everyone was up in Dolf's room, she told me, and I was welcome to join them. Up two flights of stairs, I could hear the sounds of television and muffled voices from behind a large door. I knocked. The haze of sweet smoke hit me as the door opened. Apparently this was Dolf's bedroom but it also doubled as the common room. There were at least fifteen people in the room, some sitting on his bed, some in chairs and the rest of us on the floor. Piles of empty beer cans loomed through the smoke. We talked and drank and laughed. A bottle of tequila did the rounds of the room, then a bottle of Malibu, then Drambuie, along with an untold number of joints. I couldn't figure out where it was all coming from; it just kept appearing. Over the next few hours there was a constant flow of bodies into and out of that room. The Aussie from the Youth Hostel turned up with some friends. Backpackers returned from their night at the pub, while others left to go clubbing. I slept well, that first night in Northern Ireland.

I hadn't made any travel plans as such, but that night a young Irish guy suggested that I see the Giant's Causeway on the north coast. His friend had kept interrupting, saying it was just a bunch of rocks and not worth the trip, but he had my curiosity. So after breakfasting in the cafe where he worked, I turned northwards. The road system in Ireland is much more straightforward than in most of England, which makes hitching a lot easier. Also, the Irish are renowned for their hospitality. I made it to the giant's Causeway that afternoon, and found it so impressive that I returned again the next morning after spending the night in a great little hostel in Portrush. Giant's Causeway is a bizzare rock formation, the result of a lava flow into the sea. According to geologists the lava cooled at a very even rate, which caused it to crystalize.

Giants' Causeway. Anyone starting to think I have a fetish for rock formations?

It has left a huge honeycomb pattern made up of tens of thousands of hexagonal basalt columns, that extends from the snow covered cliffs down to the sea. 'Far more than 'just a bunch of rocks'!

Distances in Ireland are also short for Australians, and I made it from the north coast to Dublin that afternoon. I checked into a hostel and phoned Carmel in Waterford. The next day I visited the Guinness brewery, the high point of any backpacker's stay in Ireland.

The tour cost two pounds, but you receive vouchers for two pints of the good stuff. I still can't believe that I saved one of those vouchers as a memento

It is true that you'll never find a better pint of Guinness anywhere in the world. Nothing else about Dublin stuck in my memory, except that I had developed a cold, and a very sore throat. 'Which is not to say I didn't like the place. There was probably plenty to see and do if I'd stayed around, but the next day I was off to Waterford. Carmel's husband picked me up from the pub where I was drinking 'hot toddy's' to soothe my sore throat.

Waterford itself isn't up to much. The 'Let's Go' book says; "Waterford's focal point is an ornate clock tower that doesn't work; its major sight is a factory...together they epitomize the riverside town." But it was good to see Carmel again, and to meet her husband and their new little baby. I took a tour of the Waterford Crystal Factory the next day, which I found quite interesting.

One of the craftsmen at work in the waterford Crystal factory

Then I headed south to Cork. I must recommend the Cork Independent Hostel, just near the train station, which was one of the friendliest and most relaxed hostels I've been in. Of course, in saying that, the whole place may ompletely different if the ownership has changed since then. Cork I saw nothing of; 'sat up late talking to some of the other backpackers, then woke up early and thumbed a ride to Blarney. Not wanting to feel that I was missing out on something, I kissed the Blarney Stone.

MMMWAAAH!

There's actually an official photographer who will sell you an instamatic of yourself going the pucker, next to a small sign reading "KISSING THE BLARNEY STONE". I asked him ever so politely in my best 'poor backpacker' voice if he'd take a photo for me with my own camera. He did, two in fact. As you can see by reading this book, kissing the stone has not earnt me the gift of eloquence as legend promises, but I do recommend it as something worth doing if you're in the area. (Even though I heard later that the local youths think it's a great prank to sneak into the castle grounds at night and urinate all over the stone!)

I'm not sure why, but I hitched north to Limerick from Blarney, then straight back to Dublin. Arriving in Dublin early enough, and not particularly needing to spend another night there, I headed straight to the ferry terminal and hitchhiked aboard. The guy who picked me up didn't ask for any money, as it didn't cost him any extra. Then at the other end, he gave me a lift through Wales as far as Chester, where he veered south to London. It was after midnight. Fortunately he'd dropped me at a truck stop, and within an hour or so, I was in a truck bound for the Manchester airport. From the airport, I took a taxi to Catherine's place. It cost fourteen pounds, but it had been a long day, and at least I had somewhere warm and dry to sleep.

I stayed with Catherine a couple more days, but she was in the middle of major exams and I had other journeys to make, so we said goodbye and that night I had dinner in the Mongolian Barbecue, Kensington, with many a story to tell Simon and co.

Visit my favourite books page for some recommended reading relating to this trip around Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. rollyour mouse over the cover photo for a brief description. Click for more details, to purchase online at a discounted price from Amazon, or to view other titles. (if you buy a book, or any other product from Amazon, through this link on my site, I get a small commission- even more if you buy the book you clicked on. Go on, buy a book today!)


TIPS

If you can have the sort of flexibility needed, you can save a lot of money by travelling last-minute on a charter flight. For Australia to London, phone Just Flights in Sydney.

Anticipate what questions immigration officials are going to ask you, and prepare answers. If necessary, organize for others to collaborate your story. Have proof of funds.

Hitchhiking around the UK is fine. Make use of truck stops. Use signs with the highway number on, not the name of a town. Poms travel by highway numbers, often unaware of what towns they're passing along the way.

As I've said before, don't be hesitant to call on old friends, no matter how distant and obscure your contact with them may be.

Don't prejudge a place by what you've heard in the media. It's their job to make sensational news out of nothing. Talk to people who've been there.

In a very cold climate, nothing insulates you better than several layers of clothing eg. singlet, T-shirt, flanalette shirt, sweatshirt, jumper, oilskin. Gloves are handy, especially if you're hitchhiking. ( you can't keep your hands warm in your pockets while you're hitching!) Some sort of warm hat can make a huge difference, since most body heat is lost through the head. Unfortunately, anything that obscures your face, such as sunglasses or a beanie make getting a lift more difficult.

'must see' places : The Lake District
Belfast nightlife
Giant's Causeway
Anywhere else where you've got friends

close window