This post is just the story of one day of travel, specifically traveling from Birmingham to London. For reasons I will elaborate upon below, I decided it would be a good idea to hitchhike. "How did it go?" I'm sure you're asking yourselves, desperately living vicariously through me. Well I'll tell you and you can decide whether or not it was a success. Although I'm quite far behind on my blog at this point, this all happened today and I'm writing it now so it's fresh in my mind.
I was staying in Birmingham with Micque (Mick) who I knew from my time working at Sporties and I was off to London to see Santi who I met in high school and who was undergoing further pilot training at Gatwick Airport in London. Santi was actually in Berlin, but he was flying into Gatwick that evening. So why did I decide to hitchhike? Well there are a couple of reasons. In no particular order;
I'm poor - I checked my bank account yesterday and found that it didn't contain quite as much as I thought it did. In fact, it might even border on alarming given hat I have two and a half months of travel left. I'll get by with it but it just means I will have to tighten my belt a little more.
It seemed like fun - I've always wanted to give it a go and it seemed like it would be a fun and interesting experience. It certainly was an interesting experience, I won't deny that.
I'm currently halfway through Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" - if you've read the book, this point is self explanatory.
I think the best way to do this is probably with a timeline of my day from this morning to the present. I'm kind of guesstimating with some of the exact times, but you get the idea. I'll include some of the lessons I learned along the way.
10:30 - I woke up in Micques spare bed above the bar where he works in Barnt Green on the outskirts of Birmingham. I got up and ready for the day, packed what I thought I'd need for the next few days into my small backpack and left the rest of my things in my big bag with him.
11:30 - I checked google maps and walked towards the nearest highway heading in the direction of London. On the way I passed Tesco and bought a ham sandwich for £1 (see point No. 1 above).
12:00 - I reached the point where, on the map, the country road and the M42 motorway intersect. In reality, it's just a motorway bridge over the country road. I had to climb into a farmers field, climb a barbed wire fence and land in a large, soft looking patch of blackberries.
Hitchhiking Lesson Number One - blackberries have thorns.
I scrambled up the embankment and ended up on the side of the motorway heading towards London. I stuck out my thumb and began walking in what I assumed was the right direction. Surprisingly, it was actually the right direction.
12:15 - I'd only been walking about fifteen minutes when I came across the site of a car accident on the motorway. There was a flat-bed truck (lorry?), a highway patrol car and two completely destroyed cars. One car was being loaded onto the back of the truck. One of the traffic officers asked me where I was going and informed me that hitchhiking, and indeed just walking, on a motorway is quite illegal in the UK. He offered to give me a lift to the nearest service station once they were finished loading the first car into the truck.
12:30 - Content with the ease with which I had obtained my first hitch, I climbed into the backseat of the lorry and the driver dropped me and the shaken driver of the destroyed car at the nearest service station. This was, unfortunately, a service station pointing in the wrong direction and not on the motorway like I would have liked. Making the best of a bad situation, I crossed the road and found quite a good spot on the road heading back onto the motorway.
I stood there in the brisk, English air with my thumb extended knowing it would only be matter of time before someone picked me up and my adventure would be underway again.
2:45 - Yes, it was more than two hours before my next lift. Two people stopped to ask where I was headed but neither were heading towards London. Eventually one middle aged man in a very expensive Jaguar stopped and offered to take me to a big service station a few miles down the road where the trucks did actually stop.
Hitchhiking Lesson Number Two - Standing on the street is for chumps. Standing at service stations and just ask people where they're going.
3:00 - I got to the service station. It was indeed full of trucks and regular cars as well. I was pretty tired and lethargic so I bought a generic brand energy drink for 55p from the station and ate my ham sandwich.
I asked around the truck drivers if they were going to London. Most were either happy to take me but were trying to avoid London or were not allowed to have passengers for insurance reasons. I turned my attention to people in cars.
I asked one friendly looking guy if he was going to London. He said he was passing close and I explained I was trying to get to Gatwick. He gave me a complicated run-down of the motorway system around London which really only confused me more than said he could take me close to Gatwick. Gratefully I followed him to his expensive looking Mercedes and climbed in the front seat. His three year old daughter was in the backseat.
Hitchhiking Lesson Number Three - Apparently people with nice cars like to pick up hitchhikers?
The ride into London was fairly uneventful. The guy was nice and as traveling from Wales to Kent with his daughter to see family. His name was Seth and the daughters name was Ella. Ella kept us both entertained by saying truly the darnedest things as only an inquisitive young child can do. This included the "Why?" game for most of the trip wherein an initial question is asked and then a subsequent "why?" is asked after every subsequent answer until one of the players gets bored and stops replying. Hint: Ella never lost.
The traffic on the M25 (which I learned is essentially the ring road which encircles London) was horrendous which is apparently fairly standard.
6:00 - Seth dropped me off at a McDonald's by the side of the motorway which he assured me was quite close to Gatwick Airport. I thanked him profusely, said goodbye to Ella and got out. I went into McDonald and I got a small meal. By this time, I'd spent about £7 all day which was fine by me.
I pulled up google maps on my phone to see how to get to Gatwick. Google maps suggested a 4 hour walk. As it turns out, I was actually not remotely close to Gatwick. Like, not even a little bit at all. What's more, unless I wanted to stand by the side of the motorway in black in the dark, hitching a lift was going to be very difficult.
6:15 - I worked out an alternate plan. I would walk to the nearest train station and catch a train to Gatwick from there. The nearest train station was an hours walk away, according to google maps, but I was fine with that. Santi wouldn't be free until about 9:30 anyway so I had lots of time to get there. I set off along the road.
It turns out "road" might be a bit of an overstatement. It turns out the route was not exactly a major thoroughfare by any standards. I was strongly reminded of the Robert Frost;
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference"
I did indeed take the road less travelled by. It was also a road through a wood. Did you know they have woods in suburban London? No, neither did I but they do. Big, dark, creepy woods. When I say this was a road less travelled by, it was literally a potholed dirty road only big enough for one car (and then, only barely) through a dense wood in complete darkness. I don't mind admitting, I really was actually a little creeped out by the complete stillness. I'm not afraid of the dark or anything but I was really, really, really glad I brought a torch (flashlight) with me.
Hitchhiking Lesson Number Four - Bring a torch.
This went on for about 45 minutes until I eventually began to see houses and real roads again. I wandered though the village of Oxford and found the train station. I bought a ticket to Gatwick Airport (£11.80!!! Goodbye budget.) and set off. Halfway to Gatwick, I got a call from Santi saying that there had been a mix up with his ticket and he would now be flying into Southend Airport instead of Gatwick. The 'mix up' here was that he had purchased a ticket on a flight to Southend not a flight to Gatwick. Anyway, halfway through making plans to just meet in London city the reception dropped out. I tried to call back but, of course, I had no credit and by the time I did he was already on the plane.
10:00 - I'm sitting in McDonald's near London Bridge writing this waiting for Santi to land and call me to organise a place to meet.
General Backpackers Lesson - McDonalds (and other chain restaurants to a less degree) are your best friends. They are a (usually) free source of wifi, electricity, warmth, bathrooms, running water and they are usually open all night. Also, I think they do food as well.
Possibly the most London photo ever. Black cabs, double-decker bus, Big Ben, London Eye, constant rain