Hell’s Angels, Gypsies and Beer: How to Hitchhike to Paris from Bath.
“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 prepared. The list of precautions 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 groped him inappropriately? No. So why should two bold explorers like us bother?
The Hitchhike race was a fundraiser for a local charity, Unseen. Two rules mattered:
- 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 (the latter adjective due to a broken skateboard found en route to campus), and Baseball Kid Will were ready for anything, having already planned our route to Paris and 1st place on the podium.
Start the clock: armed with blank signs and Sharpies, we raced to the buses, declared our charitable status, and accepted a free ride down to the train station. Of course, ordinary citizens would be expected to help us whenever necessary.
“Excuse me,” I charmingly addressed the girl at the station, “two free train tickets to Dover, please.”
Cue reality: two 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. 800m down the road, we get dropped off again. “No need to thank me!” (we didn’t) “Oh, one last thing – your signs are sh*t.”
As offensive as this was, we’d just learnt Tip 1: signage is everything. And so we found a large piece of cardboard and wrote the message again, 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. Um. Yes!
So we were back on track, and the only foreseeable hazard was that the 9-month pregnant driver’s water might break: we really couldn’t waste time delivering the miracle life in to the world. But thankfully, she held it in, and we all had an excellent impression of each other come Heathrow. After being moved on by security, we cheerily waved goodbye, and noted how crazy the mum to be was for allowing a man with a baseball bat in to her vehicle. But the next problem was already becoming obvious.
Charity tickets must be booked 6 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 legal places to hitch from, innovation was necessary.
We strode up to the National Express bus desk with an air of apprehension: winning 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. 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. It took hours to find another lift, and 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, and so we wasted two hours vying for a lift as part of a parade of students in fancy dress. 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 the fact that it was just us three on the 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.
His other story about being held at gunpoint when driving a London double-decker was especially good: the balaclava-masked villain had demanded all the money be but calmly in a bag, lest he blow each passengers head off, one by one. 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 police ambush.
We waved goodbye to our newfound mate near Dartford, and immediately searched for a good hitching spot. By this time, we were getting the hang of things. Tip 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.
Animated ‘thumbing’ also works a treat. Some CEO picked us up on his way to Canterbury.
Hitchhiking lifts are never boring. This stems from the fact that they come from people who self-select into a risky, exciting situation, and so are inherently more interesting characters. For the practicality’s sake, I leave most conversations unwritten – but it’s something to savour.
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 were desperate get the last ferry to Calais to stay in the race. This partly explained why we approached the band of gypsies. We explicated our mission to the ‘chief’, a big, bald Irish traveller, who spoke quickly and spat on the floor to punctuate his sentences. It 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 in by where we’d left our bags in the back.
“He’s my mate’s brother; he doesn’t have a passport. We’ll have to be a bit scheming,” 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.
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’, 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. Boarding the ferry was a doddle. But two hours later, we wished we’d never left Dover.
“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, wondering 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 lights turned out, the doors locked, the engine shuddered and we were moving. 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 wished we’d paid attention when they were explaining how to use the rape alarm back in Bath! We might have used it as a distraction, smacked them unconscious with Will’s bat, then used my board to skate to safety.
Then the van stopped and all went quiet. The door flew open, and we were commanded to scram. We didn’t need telling twice, and fled in to the wind-torn night, just happy to avoid abduction into the gypsy underworld. We’d actually been raising money for Unseen, a charity which fights human trafficking, of which we were now more supportive than ever. We stumbled across a hostel by chance, and thanked all the deities we could recall.
I hate French people. Ok, I tip my hat to their stunning women and I concede 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 came round again especially to middle-finger us. The best we could do was get a lift to a petrol station by the Eurotunnel exit by chancing our arm at a local hostel, 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, 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 passive persuasion.
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.
Tip 3: Understand which demographics/geographies will be most inclined to help
*Skip this section if you wish to maintain a positive outlook on humanity*
The final leg of the journey was in sight, and, buoyant with 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, some instinct demanding the upmost respect from the motorists. 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 and mournfully bowed their heads; the world stopped and bowed with it.
Will and I tore ourselves away, bewildered as to what had just happened. We found the local newspaper: a man had been arrested for the kidnapping, rape and murdering of a girl the day before. She had been playing in a park before being abducted by the man after spraying him with a waterpistol. Chloe had been 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 Métropolitain, and, out of breath, basked in the glow of the great 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 superior to ‘coming first’. Never had an experience restored my faith in human nature as much as it had obliterated my optimisms of mankind ever becoming a truly compassionate community. Furthermore, Will and I had developed a deep bromance, and maybe even matured a little. Proud, we found the nearest bar and had the best-tasting beer of our lives. 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, only I still don’t know how to use it.