“And last of all,” the Hitchhike coordinator explained with a tone of finality, “here are your rape alarms. Please only use them in emergencies.”
Will and I scoffed. As if two strapping lads like us would ever need a rape alarm; thanks for the gadget, Q, Bond is now fully equipped. The Health and Safety presentation we’d spent the last hour yawning through had really damped the whole spontaneity of the ordeal. Did Jack Kerouac get briefed before he set off on his bubbling, Jazz-fuelled adventure across America? Did Christopher Columbus carry a rape-bugle in case the Aztecs touched him inappropriately? No. So why should we? We had raised tons of money for a local charity anyway (Unseen, who fight Human Trafficking), so we had bags of positive karma as quasi-life insurance.
Two rules applied for the hitchhike race:
- It was a race between 25 pairs from Bath Uni Campus to the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, clad in wacky costumes
- Paying for transport disqualified the team.
April 17th soon arrived. I, Punk-Rocker Skater, and Baseball Kid Will were ready for anything, having planned our route to Paris the day before, and 1st place on the podium beckoning.
Start the clock: armed with cardboard and Sharpie pens for signage, we raced to the buses, declared our charitable status, and accepted a free ride down to the train station. Of course, ordinary citizens were expected to help us whenever necessary.
With this in mind: “excuse me,” I charmingly addressed the girl at the station, “two free train tickets to Dover, please.”
Cue reality: 1.5 hours later, we were still outside an Esso garage in Bath, waving our thumbs flaccidly at the slow-moving traffic. Finally, a minivan pulls over, having seen our A4-sized “M4 to Dover” sign.
“No worries boys, jump in!” He warmly offered. But 800m down the road, we get dropped off again. “No need to thank me!” (we didn’t) “Oh, one last thing – your signs are shit.”
As offensive as this was, we’d just learnt Lesson 1: signage is everything. And so we found a large piece of cardboard and rewrote our message in huge font. Sure enough, a BMW pulled up 30 seconds later. A middle-aged woman stuck her head out and asked if Heathrow airport would be of any help. Why Yes! Yes it would.
So we were back on track, and the only foreseeable hazard was that the 9-month pregnant driver’s waters might break: we really couldn’t waste time delivering the miracle life in to the world. But thankfully, she held it in until she dropped us at Heathrow. After being moved on by security, we cheerily waved goodbye to her, before noting how crazy a mum-to-be she was for letting a man with a baseball bat into her vehicle.
The next problem swiftly became obvious. Charity aeroplane tickets must be booked six weeks in advance, so flying to Paris was off the cards. Worse still, all infrastructure is hardwired to flow efficiently in to airports, making hitching out virtually impossible. With no good places to thumb a lift, innovation was necessary.
We strode up to the National Express bus desk with an air of apprehension: winning the hitchhike race relied on this next conversation being executed perfectly. I noticed the receptionist’s badge had Poland’s flag on it, and so I called upon my meagre Polish to try and tip the balance in our favour.
“Dzień dobry, Pan…”
20 minutes later, we were on the bus to Cobham service station. We’d been given seats left empty by the lateness of their intended passengers, and were now approaching the 25%-of-the-way mark to Paris. Things were looking good, and we cracked in to a packet of self-congratulatory Oreos.
Unfortunately, Cobham chose that day to be on fire. This was abysmal news, and meant we had to stay on the bus until its final destination: Gatwick. For the same infrastructural reasons, we were marooned here for two hours. When we found a lift, he was far from a willing volunteer. After a vicious interrogation the Nazi Gestapo would have been ashamed of, we eventually convinced him that he’d go to hell if he didn’t give us a lift to Clacket Lane services. And that’s how we made it to Kent.
To our dismay, another 20 teams had too. To the average car driver, picking up a hitchhiker up can appear risky enough in the best of circumstances; when you step out of your car in to an ambush of students dressed for Halloween then it rules out the help of any sane person. This meant the individual who eventually picked us up would be, in all probability, a lunatic.
And he was. Totally balmy. But in a good way, like Neil from The Inbetweeners.
“I was taking a school to the airport,” the bus driver said, lighting a cigarette and taking full advantage of his otherwise empty bus, “but the headmaster got lippy, so I pulled over and threw all their luggage out! Got moved on by the police, but by then they’d missed their flight, HA!”
“HA!” We nervously hastened to agree, making a mental note not to speak out of turn.
The driver then told us about being held at gunpoint when driving a London double-decker bus: the balaclava-masked villain had demanded all the money be but calmly into a bag, lest he systematically blow each passenger’s head off. However, the buses had gone ‘Oyster card only’ that week, and so, with no cash on board, he alighted at the next stop, right into a heavily-armed police squadron.
We waved goodbye to our newfound mate near Dartford, and immediately searched for a good hitching spot. Lesson 2: Hitching spot selection is paramount. An ideal spot has:
- lots of traffic…
- which is slow-moving/stops periodically (e.g. at traffic lights)…
- with places to pull over.
Overly animated ‘thumbing’ also works a treat. Some CEO picked us up in his Mercedes on his way to Canterbury.
Hitchhiking lifts are never boring. This is because they come from people who self-select into slightly risky, exciting situations, and so are inherently more exciting and interesting characters. For the practicality’s sake, I leave most conversations unwritten – but it’s something I remember fondly.
We arrived in Dover after a free bus from Canterbury, which took all the twinkle in our eyes, all the sauce in our ketchup bottle, and a sizeable amount of je ne sais quoi to wrangle. But night was closing in, and we need to get the last ferry to Calais to stay in the race.
This also explained why we approached the band of Irish gypsies. We explicated our mission to the ‘chief gypsy’, a big, bald boxer-faced man, who spoke quickly and spat on the floor as though to punctuate his sentences. The whole ordeal was like Guy Richie’s film, Snatch.
‘Can ya drive a caravan?’ He interrogated.
‘Err…not legally.’ But not ruling it out if it meant a lift.
‘…g’in the passenger seat then,’ said the gypsy, after some consideration.
Result! Me and Will gleefully chucked our things in the back and took multiple selfies by way of celebration.
Then we noticed the chief gypsy usher a man with a bulbous scar down his cheek into the caravan where we’d left our bags.
“He’s my mate’s brother; he doesn’t have a passport. We’ll have to be a bit schemin’,” he explained.
But we weren’t complaining (yet).
And so, waving sarcastically and blowing kisses to our rival hitchhikers, the armada of caravans meandered towards the ferry, our driver spitting out the window all the while and listening to Christian hymns on the radio. A wooden rosemary swung like a pendulum from the rear-view mirror.
The gypsies were headed to Germany for a ‘working holiday’ with their hippy-haired kids, who pulled faces at us through the window. It also emerged that our driver enjoyed ‘doing the crack cocaine’, which might explain why he spoke at 100mph. Still, we couldn’t fault their collective sense of goodwill, and we talked about how misunderstood their culture was. At least, that’s what we were saying on the Dover-side of the sea.
“OK boys, in the back,” the driver ordered abruptly, indicating two damp seats in the back of a van with its windows boarded up. We gingerly clambered in, unsure why the front was now off limits.
“Change of plan: you’re coming to Germany!” Cried the gypsy behind us, slamming the door shut before we could work out whether he was joking. Suddenly the light turned out, the door locked, and the engine shuddered. We heard laughter in the front. Hurriedly, we called the Bath Office, but no answer, and after ten minutes of panic, we started looking for weapons. How we rued not paying attention to the rape alarm demonstration back in Bath! We might have used it as a distraction, smacked them unconscious with Will’s bat, then used my skateboard wheel ourselves to safety.
Then the van stopped and all went quiet. The door suddenly flew open, and we were commanded to scram. We didn’t need telling twice, and fled in to a wind-torn night, just happy to avoid abduction into the gypsy underworld. We were now more supportive than ever of our chosen charity, Unseen. We stumbled across a hostel in Calais by chance, and thanked all the deities we could think of.
I hate French people. Ok, I tip my hat to their elegant women, and concede to the fact that La Marseillaise is the world’s best national anthem. But if I had a euro for every French car that ignored us that morning, I could have got a taxi to Paris. One carload of spotty teens came round the roundabout, laughed at us, then went round again just to to middle-finger us. The best we could do was get a lift to a petrol station by the Eurotunnel exit, hoping the sheer volume of cars would lead to a ride eventually.
We’d tried gypsies, so why not Hell’s Angels? I’ll tell you why: on seeing my approach, the whole gang, more tattoo ink, beards and leather than man, spat on the floor in unison and revved their Harley-Davidson engines threateningly. After getting a stern middle-fingering from them too, we were losing hope: six hours, no progress.
Then, Britannia to the rescue. This time in the form of a two lovers in a Jeep, who we found pouring over a map.
“We had a few drinks last night,” they said, “and figured we’d cross The Channel and decide the destination afterwards.”
Two people looking for a romantic weekend in Europe? Jackpot.
“I hear Paris is nice this time of year,” Will chirped up.
“City of Love, isn’t that what they call it?” I joined the persuasion game.
But try as we might, they were Belgium-bound. We accepted defeat, and prepared to cough up for the train to Paris. A photo of the winning group to Paris had just been posted on Facebook. We’d failed.
But then something incredible happened. After listening to our cause and laughing at our gypsy conundrum, the couple gifted us the money for the train fare. Thankfulness cannot be expressed in writing as much as we thanked them then. We could not believe their generosity. God, I love the British. Lesson 3: Understand which demographics/geographies will be most inclined to help.
*Skip this section if you wish to maintain this positive outlook on humanity*
The final leg of the journey was in sight, and, buoyant with good cheer, we skipped up the road towards the station. But then, an event which still brings me to grief as I write this cut us short. We saw policeman cordoning off a long line of beeping traffic and a crowd assembling.
Then, from the road behind us, emerged a silent cemetery of several thousand darkened faces, a morbid crowd all marching silently, hand-in-hand. It seemed to suck the sound out of the world itself. Even the cars fell quiet. I saw a girl cross the road in front of me, turn to see the sad parade, then turn quickly away again with tears falling from her eyes; the sound of a silent crowd is somehow the most powerful volume of all. It reminded me of 11am on Remembrance Sunday.
Three people led the crowd. They bore a similar countenance, and wore white t-shirts with a young girl’s face printed on it, and a name: Chloe. The crowd stopped outside the town hall its thousand heads bowed mournfully. The world stopped and bowed with it.
Will and I tore ourselves away from the site, bewildered and severely affected. We found the local newspaper: a man had been arrested for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a girl the day before. Chloe had been playing in a park before being abducted by the man after spraying him with a water pistol. Chloe was, and will forever more remain, nine years old.
The race had been well and truly put in to perspective. We were somehow weary, and took refuge in a train cabin we pretended not to know was first class. We arrived in Paris around 4pm.
Nothing compared to that moment when Will and I raced up the stairs of the Métro, and, out of breath, basked in the afternoon glow of the Arc de Triomphe. We had hitchhiked 400 miles in 35.5 hours, spending nothing on transport and raising £450 for charity in the process. Despite not winning, we would later meet with other groups and decide our adventure was far better than ‘coming first’.
The whole experience had restored my faith in human nature, though the event in Calais was a reminder of how humanity is far from Utopian. Will and I had maybe even matured a little. So much had we enjoyed the whole affair that, no sooner had we finished, we begin to recount the whole tale to ourselves, right from the very beginning. Do I have any souvenirs? Yes, but I still don’t know how to use the rape alarm for love nor money.