the last rides

There’s no noteworthy cathedral in Colchester, but it does have an old castle housing a decent museum on the city’s history, which dates back to Roman times when it served as a regional center until it was burned down by Boudicca’s troops. Though there’s not much to do in town my host makes things more interesting. She’s working towards a PhD in philosophy and she invites me to visit a play with her and some friends.

I get up very early on my last day in the UK to take a train to the ferry terminal. It’s actually only roughly 30 kilometers away, and not hitchhiking the final stretch of my three and a half year hitchhiking journey seems like a cop out but I really don’t want to miss the ferry.

Things don’t start out well however when I get to station to catch a train to Colchester’s main station. The ticket machine is out of order. A guy working there tells me to buy a ticket at the main station. So that’s what I intend to do when I ask a conductor guarding the entry gates to let me out so I can reach the ticket machine. He looks a bit puzzled, but after explaining things a bit more he lets me pass. However, this ticket machine won’t read my card. I go back to the the guard,. No problem, he says, just go to the ATM outside, and pay for the ticket in cash. So out I go, but again my card is not being read. I go back and I ask if there’s any way I can catch the train. As I speak I hear how incredibly stressed I sound. He’s not having it though. But by now two or three other employees are listening in to the conversation. I tell him I really have to catch the ferry and one of the guys tells me to go to the main ticket window and buy a ticket there. He lets me pass the gateline. I don’t know if he meant this remark as some kind of compromise, a way of letting me dodge the fare, or at least pass this first hurdle without losing face. But that’s how I interpret it and get on the train.

I try to find some distraction to calm my nerves by striking up conversation with an elderly guy who has a dog. Through an incredible stroke of luck, when the ticket inspector comes by the guy pulls out a thick wad of old train tickets. The inspector takes a quick look, says thank you and walks on. He must have thought we were travelling together and my ticket was hidden somewhere in the pile.

I’m incredibly thankful to the guy, though I don’t go through the whole trouble of explaining the situation. But I find out that his destination in Holland is not too far from my parents’ house. And seeing how he’s walking with a cane, a dog and luggage, and will have to switch buses a few times, I offer him a ride in my mom’s car when we get to Hook of Holland. So even though I didn’t personally finish my trip hitchhiking, I ended up traveling for free and even gave a ride to someone else.

a good start, and then…

The first guy who gives me a ride early in the morning offers to take me on a different road to my original route. But since he’s driving all the way to close to Cambridge, well over 100 kilometers away, and seeing how bad hitchhiking has gone the last few days, I take up his offer anyway. Since he’s a very active and enthusiastic Corbynite we mostly talk about the state of socialist parties in Europe and what it would take to save them. Though we can’t really come up with an answer he does think Corbyn has rescued the Labour Party.

I get a short ride to Cambridge, but than I’m stuck again. It’s starting to rain but thankfully a construction worker on his lunch hour takes pity on me and drives me to the south of town. I’m pretty close to my destination of Colchester when a mother and daughter on their way back from the hospital stop. I don’t recognise the name of the place they’re going to but it’s pretty much a straight road from Cambridge to Colchester so I get in without hesitation. Unfortunately, they’re going far more eastwards than I’m supposed to. I guess it makes sense for them, since in their perception all roads lead through their town; they don’t even realise there’s a shorter route.

But by now I’m stuck close to Stansted Airport and I try to go down the back roads to avoid the motorway. I even catch a ride to a small village, but I find that the road from there is no good for cars so I walk back to the main road pretty pissed off at myself. It’s getting late and I really don’t want to spend another night outside. Especially now that I have a ticket for a ferry in a few days.

Luckily I get picked up pretty quickly by a Turkish architect who I manage to amuse with my basic grasp of Turkish. Next I get a ride from a South African who says he used to pick up people from the street who need help and let them crash at his place, but now he and his wife have a baby and his wife is not so keen anymore. Still, he says, I can probably stay at his place if I fail to find a final ride to Colchester. I don’t even need to make use of his offer as a former soldier turned taxi driver takes me along for the last stretch.

a visit to Lincoln

After another night sleeping outside I’m pretty keen on getting to Lincoln quickly. However, I have to wait more than an hour before a delivery van stops. I’m glad I get picked up by this guy though: he used to drive trucks, but to spend less time away from home he’s switched to lighter transport. And he really used to be far away from home. He has experience transporting dangerous goods and was part of a convoy to Chernobyl in 1985, as well as having driven Russia’s ice roads to reach its oil fields. His retirement plan is to buy a truck and drive through India.

A Romanian computer programer drops me off in Lincoln where I walk to the house of my hosts, an elderly couple who are very active Green Party members. Couchsurfing hosts are rarely older than 30 and practically never older than 50. These guys are in their seventies, so they have some pretty good insights on developments in UK politics.

Visiting a cathedral, a museum and perhaps another historic landmark is getting to be a pretty standard itinerary for my visits to UK towns. Lincoln is not much different. Yet the beauty of the place is more than enough to keep me paying attention.

slowing down

I wander around Durham for a day visiting the university and the cathedral before ending the night in a pub together with my couchsurfing host’s fieldhockey team. We don’t make it very late however, as they have a game tomorrow. That works out well for me because my host offers me a ride to the road leading south.

I’ve tried to find a place to sleep in a few places in North Yorkshire, but had no luck so I decide to head to Harrogate just because I hear it’s a pretty town. On my way there I initially get a few short rides, before being picked up by a bored musician who goes out of his way to help me out. Eventually he bores of me too and drops me off about 20 kilometers before Harrogate. Next I’m picked up by a farmer and her kids. It turns out she used to live in the Netherlands and has a Dutch brother-in-law. We hit it off and she offers to put me up for the night. But the date by which I have to be back home is approaching fasy and as interesting as it’s bound to be I know staying in a farm off a main road will be too much of a delay. Instead I spend the night on the outskirts of Harrogate in the parking lot of a gravestone shop hidden from the road. Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I doubt I will attract any attention.

I’ve got a bed waiting for me in Lincoln, but hitchhiking is not going well. It’s not so far and there’s a motorway, but I spend over an hour by an on ramp and nobody’s stopping. So instead I decide to try my luck on the back roads. Which works… in a way; more people stop but they’re rarely going further than a dozen or so kilometers so as the sun sets I’m still about eighty kilometers north of Lincoln. Someone offers me a ride to the outskirts of Doncaster which is a bit of a detour, but it’s right by the motorway and I really just want to leave this place, so I take up the offer.

a nice surprise after two slow days

After waiting about two hours on the edge of Stirling I’m starting to get why last night’s host prefers not to hitchhike in the UK. It’s pretty ridiculous: the only other time I’ve had to wait this long in the country was when I left London. I’ve got some distance to cover, but it really should be possible to do it in a day. A couple of people do offer me rides, but everybody seems to be going the wrong way. So I leave the service station and go to the entrance of the motorway. Luck would have it that there’s a pretty good place for cars to pull over. Still it takes a further hour for a car to stop, and even then he’s only going to the north of Edinburgh. I really don’t want to get stuck there and was hoping for a ride further south, but as desperate as I am I concede.

It’s almost five, I’m tired, not very happy and about 14 kilometers north of a good spot to hitchhike further south from. I decide to just walk to the center of town, find a hostel and continue on further tomorrow. The next day goes better, but not a whole lot. I have to wait a while again to get out of Edinburgh and then I get a succession of short rides with varying wait times. I don’t know if it’s just bad luck but it’s very different from hitchhiking in the highlands.

As the sun sets I get dropped off in the town of Jedburgh by a guy who used to be in the French Foreign Legion and who gives me some survival tips just in case I’m ever in trouble in a forest. It looks like it’s going to rain, but it’ll be too dark to hitchhike soon. As I consider my next steps a guy with two dogs walks up and asks me if I’m hitchhiking. His next question is if I want to stay at his place. It’s a split decision. He looks friendly enough but what really influences my decision is his dogs: they’re friendly and calm so I figure their owner must be all right too. And he is. He and his wife are South African emigres who live in the rectory of a church. He tells me that once, traveling through the US he himself was invited to stay at a stranger’s home and he’s paying back a debt of sorts. A beautiful home with interesting people makes for a good evening. And I’m glad to be sleeping in a bed instead of in the rain.

The next morning I walk around the town and it turns out to be a pretty interesting place with an old abbey and a museum dedicated to former resident Mary Queen of Scots. By the early afternoon I say my goodbyes, walk to the road, stick out my thumb and after about 10 seconds a car stops: two Syrian refugees who are heading to Newcastle. I try to ask if they can drop me off where the road splits to Durham. But they’re not having it and insist on dropping me off at Newcastle’s central bus station and I’m kind of relieved at the easy prospect of just boarding a bus, at least for a short while, instead of having to depend on luck and my wits.

heading back south

I came to Skye over the bridge and I hitch out  getting a ride on the ferry. I get picked up a kilometer or so before the port and me and the driver haven’t had much time to connect yet, so during the crossing we go our own ways. But when he takes me to Fort William I get to know him a bit. He’s a social worker and a very convinced Scottish nationalist who rails against all that is English.

My next ride is given by two photographers who often stop and wait for the clouds to touch the mountaintop while the sunlight hits at just the right angle. I don’t particularly mind the delays though. I’m in no hurry and they’re nice guys. Plus I really need some picture taking tips, though they emphasize the main trick is patience.

My final ride is given by a young Irish guy who grew up in a few different countries, which is not too dissimilar from my own background and it’s always interesting to share past experiences. He drops me off at the house of the guy who was initially supposed to let me stay in Stirling. Turns out he was in the mountains, and I can’t fault him for that. He also hitchhiked through South East Asia and has done a bunch of other interesting things, though he says he doesn’t hitchhike in the UK: the waiting times are too long.

a quick tour of the Isle of Skye

After visiting the history museum in town and hiking in some nearby mountains Fort William has little left to offer. So I head to the Isle of Skye and to a bothy in the far north of the Island, which is pretty fitting because the island itself is my northernmost destination. I get pretty lucky hitchhiking, though I kind of feel I’m moving through the landscape too fast. It’s just so beautiful that at every turn of the road I feel like I should get out and continue on foot. One day I’ll come back and spend more time here.

I end up at the bothy well before the sun sets. It used to be a coastguard lookout and there are even some binoculars left for some whale spotting, though I don’t see any. Nonetheless it’s an impressive place: grey sky, grey sea, high cliffs and green and brown hills.

After sunset a couple from Central Europe join me in the bothy, and they’re kind enough to provide me with my first ride of the day in the morning. All of my rides are either from fellow tourists or people who’ve moved to the island. I’ve been told the local population is not necessarily too fond of tourists. A couple who moved up here from Glasgow drop me off at Dunvegan castle. But just as they drive off I realize my phone fell out of my pocket in the back of their van. I walk after them trying to flag down a next ride but nobody stops. Initially I’m pretty despondent, and the impressive yet foreboding landscape doesn’t do much to bolster my spirits. But eventually I get lucky, and an English couple give me a ride and tell me the road stops in a few kilometers by a beach. And that is where I spot the distinct blue van in which my phone lies. I wait for the couple to return from their walk and they even drop me off at Dunvegan again. The castle’s well-decorated rooms offer a strange counterpoint to the wild nature outside. For an hour or two I’m in a different world entirely.

After a few more rides I end up getting one final ride from a man who installs refrigerators in supermarkets for a living. He takes me along for a few dozen kilometers while recalling fond memories of getting stoned in Amsterdam.

in the highlands

Having spent a few very comfortable days with my cousin I head to a national park. It’s already too cold to sleep outside this far north, but I’ve found out about these things called bothies: cabins that are very basic, but free to anybody who wants to stay. After some Googling I pick out one that is not too far from a road so I can reach it with one day of hitchhiking and walking. It’s already dark when I reach the place, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how well decked out it is: there’s a fire place, and an outside toilet and even some candles and flashlights.

I want to continue westwards, towards the Isle of Skye. There are some more bothies on the two or so day walk to another road, but I decide against it. It’s a  notorious route and I have little experience walking around these mountains, plus I’m alone. Instead I just hike around the bothy for the day and head out the next using a different path to get back to the road. I guess it’s a good thing I played it safe, because I manage to mess up even that option. I didn’t pay close enough attention to the map and after a few hours I end up with a river in front of me, so I have to take a detour, and I end up way behind schedule, not even managing to reach my destination of Fort William at the end of the day. Instead I find a hostel in Pitlochry.

I make more efficient progress the next day thanks to two friends with a canoe attached to the top of their van, and a man who spends his summer living in his van and renting a flat in winter. The people up here do seem more adventurous for whatever reason. My host in Fort William is a guy who grew up in East Germany who somehow ended up as a baker on an oil rig. Right now he’s got two weeks off and he kills his time hanging out in Cafe Nero on the main street. He’s also got another guest, an elderly American hippy who is on her way to join a commune in New Mexico now that her ten-year Indian visa has run out.

first days in Scotland

After meeting my good friend Sam in Glasgow we head out to Milngavie to walk the first stretch of the West Highland Way. I’m used to covering reasonable distances carrying my backpack, but I must admit, after 13 kilometers I’m pretty beat. And hitchhiking to Stirling feels more my pace.

I was supposed to have a place to spend the night, but I can’t get in touch with my host. My ride into town rents out a spare room on Airbnb and gives me her number telling me that today it’s occupied but maybe tomorrow she can help me. I find a hostel in town but it’s full. I go outside the door and slump down on the sidewalk to check my phone for options. I could walk to the outskirts of town and camp for the night, but that would mean walking down, and tomorrow morning walking back up, a steep hill. Just as I’m getting desperate the hostel worker opens the door and tells me that they’ve opened up an unused room and I get a eight-bed dorm room to myself.

I reach out to my cousin in the Highlands who invited me to stay with her a few weeks ago and ask her if I can come a bit early. Due to some family stuff I’ve never had much contact with her, and the last time I actually saw her was at her wedding. So I was pretty happy with her invitation. In the morning I visit the castle, a central place for Scottish history, before meeting my cousin’s husband.

It’s nice to be with family – somehow things just feel more natural. There are things we don’t have to explain to each other and it’s always interesting to recall shared memories. I stay at their place for four days, but it seems much shorter as we take trips through the countryside, watch TV together and have long conversations.

making my way North

Chester, my next destination, is only 25 kilometers away so it’s pretty tempting just to take a direct bus instead of hitchhiking, especially since no cars seem to be stopping and I’m standing a few meters away from a bus stop. I get off in the center and am immediately greeted by a collection of old Tudor houses. But the history of the town actually dates back to Roman times, and the remains of a amphitheater have even been found.

I don’t have too long to spend in Chester since I’m meeting a friend in Glasgow in two days. At the about five o’clock I head to the motorway to try and find a ride to Carlisle where I’ve found a place to sleep. After about an hour I get a ride from a guy who’s driving all the way up to Inverness in the northern Highlands. He tells me he used to live in Carlisle and it’s only a tiny detour for him to drop me off at the place I’ll be staying. Once I’m in the car I realize how lucky I am. Not only is the driver just a nice guy who’s good to talk to, but the distance I cover with the ride, roughly 230 kilometers, is greater than any other trek I’ve recently made. Since I started in the late afternoon I could very well have been stuck at a petrol station somewhere. I guess travelling has been getting so automatic that I don’t take any real effort to plan things out anymore.

I’m only spending the night in Carlisle. And I guess I’m not missing out on much since both the driver and my host, a Swiss doctor who works for few months at a time to fund her travels, assure me there’s not much to see and do in town. So in the morning I make my way to a petrol station where I draw a sign, stick out my thumb and wait for someone to drive me to Glasgow. An elderly couple take up the call. I ask them what they recommend in town and they drop me off by the Kelvingrove Museum.