A Diary of a Hitching Holiday in 1982 - with LOTS of photos!
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4
It was June, 1982. Phill, Jane and Suzy had been talking about going to the south of France for some time and I had been thinking that I wouldn't mind going myself. Jane said "Andi, why don't you come with us?" but I replied that I would only be a "gooseberry" if I did. She then informed me that two of her friends from the hospital are touring Germany for two weeks, and then making their way to Ste Rapheal, where they would all meet up. This information changed my attitude completely, and I accepted their invitation readily.
Two weeks later, they changed the meeting place to Canet Plage a "small fishing village" in Rousillon, as Linda and Sean had already booked a holiday there that week with Club 18-30. We arranged to leave on Wednesday, 22nd June, travel together on the Eurobus that left London for Paris that evening, catch the Metro to the outskirts of Paris. There we would split up and make our way to Canet Plage, where it would be a simple matter of meeting up again.
However, on Thursday, 17th June, I cashed my Giro-cheque and started thinking. I had already signed the holiday form at the Employment Exchange, and I had not planned anything between then and Wednesday; and with the exchange rate the way it was at that time, it would probably be as cheap to live in France as England. If I hitched all the way, that would save me some money as well, and I would try to get a lift over the Channel with a lorry driver.
I went to tell Nick that I was leaving early, then went round to see if either Mark or Mick fancied going with me, but received answers in the negative. I visited my parents' house, had some dinner, and persuaded my father to give me a lift to pick up my bags. I told Phill that I intended leaving that night, and his astonished reaction was
Dad dropped me off at the London Road / Humber Road roundabout at seven o'clock. I walked to the roundabout where the London Road joined the A45 where I waited for about thirty minutes till a lad in his mid-twenties gave me a lift in his van.
The van was not running very smoothly, and when we got to Stretton on Dunsmore, we stopped at a garage where the diesel fuel line was tightened and bled. The van stopped again on the M1 where we had to flag down a passing motorist to borrow tools to fix it. We managed to repair the engine enough to get it going again, and the driver dropped me off at Junction 13, where he turned off for Oxford.
I walked towards the entrance slip road, but found it closed due to road works. I went to the North bound slip road but found that blocked also. I spent quite a while here, thumbing anything, anywhere, and eventually managed to persuade a lorry driver to give me a lift onto the motorway. He did this, but refused to stop at the next junction. We also bypassed the next service station, due to "lack of time". He finally set me down at Watford Gap, miles in the wrong direction.
Having had a cup of coffee, I started out again, on the South bound side of the motorway. I managed to cadge a lift in a Class I HGV with "Yogi Bear" (the nick name he used on his CB radio). At two forty-five in the morning, we were approaching London, and I asked him if he was going to the other side. He replied that he was going to the centre, but that he would drop me on the North Circular Road. He carried on speaking into his CB radio, and when we arrived at the ring road, he said to wait there for about five minutes, and I would get a lift out again. Sure enough, five minutes later, another lorry stopped, and I transferred my bags into the Portway vehicle.
The driver "Wagon Wheel" explained that "Yogi Bear" had asked for this lift on the CB. We went through London, via the Blackwall Tunnel, and onto the motorway once more arriving at Farthing Corner Service Station at just turned four in the morning.
My last lift this side of the Channel was with Dave (Low Profile) who took me to Folkestone Harbour. On the way in he tried to contact another driver who might be crossing himself, but to no avail.
Dave dropped me outside the ticket office, and went to change his trailer.
I dashed through the drizzle into the ticket office, and asked when the next boat was. I was informed that I had just missed the 6:00 sailing and the next boat would be at 7:45. When I asked for a ticket, the attendant said that as I hadn't much luggage with me, I should buy a day return as this was only £6.50, £3.50 cheaper than a single. I sent a card from Folkestone to Phill and Jane, telling them that this was a much cheaper way across, but found out later that they had already booked and paid for their Eurobus tickets.
I boarded the boat at 7:20 with about twenty other passengers, only to be asked to disembark ten minutes later as it was having trouble with the steering. As the next departure was not until 10:00 and there was insufficient time to make it to Dover for the 8:00 boat, I made my way to the staff canteen for a mug of tea and a couple of "dog rolls", the "dog" being a hot-dog.
After a good warm up, I made my way back to the departure lounge where I tried to catch up on my sleep. This was a hopeless idea as the lounge had by now filled up with a very large number of school children booked on a day trip.
I boarded the boat at last and advanced my watch to Central European Time. The boat left on time and I got chatting to some of the day-trippers.
On arrival in Boulogne, I tried to sell the unused portion of my return ticket, but had no buyers. I walked to the town centre, sorted out the items I would need most - dictionary etc, then walked to the main road to Paris via the National One. I got a lift from a French trucker after an hour of arriving in France. Who said French truckers don't give lifts? I tried making conversation, but the French that I had learned in school must have been in a different accent. I found out later that their accents vary as much as scouse, cockney and scot. At least he understood the word "Paris".
I was dropped off in Nouvions, where he took a side road. I walked around the village for a while, bought a couple of apples, and made for a cafe with a Union Jack outside. I asked in French for a beer and the landlord spoke back in English "English?" He told be that he was from Ireland, and had married a French lady. I gave him the return portion of my ticket and asked him to give it to anyone who could use it.
On leaving the cafe, I forgot about the traffic appearing from the left, and nearly got killed by a motorcyclist who was probably as frightened as I was.
A young lad on his way home from school tried to speak to me, but I had to apologise for my lack of French and started thumbing again.
A blue Peugeot screeched to a halt about 20 metres past me and the rear door flew open. I asked if they were going through Paris, then climbed in. I was offered a stick of their bread which I wolfed, washed down with a bottle of Heineken. When I asked them their destination, they said that they were headed to a town just north of Toulouse. I told them that I had been considering travelling to Le Mans for the 24 hour race the following day, but if they were prepared to give me a lift all that distance, then I would stay with them.
I slept in the back of the car for about two hours whilst we travelled, until we stopped for a stretch. When we arrived in Paris, we encountered London-like traffic and had a little trouble with the car, i.e. windscreen wipers becoming jammed when the horn was struck.
At nine o'clock, Vincent tried to 'phone his father, but had no reply. The couple then took me on a whistle-stop tour of their capital city. This included the Cathedral de Notre Dame, the Boulevard St Germain which is their version of our Kings Road in London, l'Arc de Triomph, avenue de Champs Elyses, the left and right banks of the Seine, the Palais de Chaillot and the Eiffel Tower.
We stopped for drinks at about ten, having parked in rue Jacob. We walked round the St Germain district for a while. During our search for a cafe with vacant seats, we watched a youth performing mime, whilst his friend played a guitar. , And a corner outside Aux Deux Magots was occupied by a crowd watching a fire eater juggling with flaming skittles whilst balancing on a slack rope six feet in the air strung between two trees.
We found a cafe not far away, on the Boulevard St Germain, and Vincent purchased three small coffees and was charged 35FF! I was bought a length of plastic tubing filled with a luminous liquid, which could be worn as a head or wristband, or round the neck, but misplaced it later in my journey.
We went back to the car, filled up with petrol, and drove through Paris, heading south. We stopped again at a small cafe-tabac, where Vincent bought some cigarettes and three more (decently priced) coffees, then finally made our way out of the town.
After about an hour, I fell asleep in my seat, and Vincent carried on driving.
Sylvie woke me some time later. They had stopped in a secluded lay-by, shielded from the road by trees in the Forest of Orleans. Vincent and Sylvie slept in their car, and I slept under the stars in my sleeping bag, which I had laid on top of its waterproof cover.
At eight forty-five the next morning, Sylvie woke me once more. It took me some time to realise were I was and who was calling me. Our journey continued and Vincent alarmed me by stating that as Sylvie did not speak much English, today I would have to speak French. However, they kept the conversation easy, and managed to teach me more in a day than I had learned in a couple of months at school.
The car was halted in a small village where we found a cafe and had our breakfast, large coffees accompanied by cakes. We travelled for about three hours after our meal, till we reached Limoges. Here Vincent informed me that they were going to meet Sylvie's brother and would I like to wait, or would I like to carry on? I said that I would wait, and arranged to meet at three. I took a walk around the town, bought a tee shirt, and a Camembert sandwich and a cup of coffee. The clothing cost fifteen francs, and the food twenty.
When I met up with my friends again, they were with Sylvie's brother and his son and informed me that they would be staying until about ten that evening.
I found a park away from the road, with a bench in a sunny spot, and tried to catch up on my sleep. After two hours, I was woken by a Gendarme, who informed me "Ne dormez pas ici!" He pointed to the grass and indicated that if I wanted to sleep, then I should sleep there.
I informed him that I was waiting for some friends with whom I was travelling, and he seemed satisfied and left. I thought better of sleeping on the grass, which was a bit damp, possibly from sprinklers, and made my way back to the cafe.
Here I pointed at an item on the menu, and received a garlic sausage sandwich, which I helped down with coffee, followed by numerous beers throughout the evening. I sent a card with a picture of a local cathedral on it to my parents, and one of an auberge with the local farmers enjoying a glass of eau de vie, to the pub at home.
Vincent and Sylvie returned to the cafe at ten past ten. I offered them drinks, but they refused. I finished mine, and climbed into the back of their Peugeot. As we travelled, I related my incident with the policeman to them, and asked them about their day.
We arrived in Boulevard Gambetta at one thirty in the morning, where my companions rent a flat. Rather than send me on the road at that time, I was invited in for coffee. Upstairs, I met Jean-Paul, Rico, Jackie and Micky. As there were too many people in the flat, I went with Jean-Paul to his flat, near to the cathedral.
The flat was in a very old building, at the top of a winding staircase. It was sparsely furnished, with only the barest of essentials - mattresses but no beds, a table and a couple of chairs, and a cooker. He made a drink of tea for me, the likes of which I have never had before, nor would wish to have again. It had been made by adding tealeaves to cold water in a saucepan, then bringing to the boil. It was served in glass cups without handles (by design) with neither milk nor sugar.
For some unknown reason, I woke early the next morning. I nearly knocked over the fifteen potted plants standing under the window as I was looking out over the cathedral and market square. I lay back down, wrote up my diary notes, and fell back to sleep.
At midday, we went to Vincent's, where I asked when the banks opened. He replied "Monday", but told me not to worry, as I could stay here for a while. Jackie came from the next room, greeted me and leaned forward. I didn't do anything, so she offered her hand, which I shook. She then went to the guy sitting next to me, who kissed her on the cheek. Apparently this was something else that wasn't taught in my French lessons at school.
The TV was turned on, and I had to watch "Nero Wolf" with over-dub. Never mind, I understood the word "mangez" as Sylvie brought forth the dinner, spaghetti and eggs cooked together, with tomatoes and grated cheese tossed in.
After this scrumptious meal, Jackie took Johnathon (Sylvie's son) and myself down the road to the shops, then to a cafe. She spoke very good English and so we had an interesting conversation.
We strolled back to the flat in time for the England Vs Czechoslovakia match in the World Cup series; England won the match 2:0. During the match, we munched pate, bread and wine, a very good staple diet in my opinion. I invited all present to stay with me if ever they visited my home country.
After the match, Jackie washed some of my clothes - she was welcome to this task.
The rest of the evening was spent watching the TV - Popeye, the news and a service from Coventry Cathedral (my home town) - small world, isn't it? Spain beat Yugoslavia 2:1; this was followed by a German film with French subtitles about a Spanish couple, one of whom had an American mother. Understand it? No chance! We abandoned the film and talked and drank wine until the early hours of the morning, when I went to sleep in Johnathon's room, which was empty.
I woke not long after ten, and admired the beautiful view over the rooftops towards Jean-Paul's flat, the cathedral, and the causse beyond the river Lot. From a flat below our third floor window, rose the sound of accordion music. "The Birdie Song" was one of the tunes being played, but somehow it was not as nauseating as usual, probably because there were no idiots waving their hands in the air vaguely in time with the music. The weather tried to rain slightly that morning, but quickly dried up, a useful shower that served to keep the dust down.
Today, Monday, was to be a lazy day, for at midday we took a gentle stroll down the Boulevard to a cafe, were we had a very enjoyable meal. Here we stayed for about two hours, when we made the great effort of dragging our bodies to the next cafe down the road. There we met some more of the locals and I joined in the aforementioned greeting custom, much to Jackie's amusement. Jackie and I went to do some shopping for tonight's meal, then we returned to watch Kuwait being hammered again, this time by France, 4:1. This was one match I could feel free to cheer. Rico and I took Johnathon to the park at the rear of the municipal building to work up an appetite. Here, Rico informed me, in hushed tones, that his main ambition in life is to be a secret agent. The park attendant kicked us out at seven, and we returned to the flat, where, during our dinner, was heard the sounds of music coming up from the street at the front of the building. At first, I thought it was an over-loud record player, but on further inspection, it was revealed that a rock group was playing in a shop doorway directly below us. This was the start of celebrations for the very first Fête de la Musique.
After we had finished our meal, we went down to the street and watched the group, which consisted of four guitars, one bass, one saxophone and an organ, all of which were laying down a very danceable beat. A New Orleans style jazz band came marching down the street, followed by a very large crowd singing and dancing. Having followed this band down the street myself, I came across Jean-Paul and some of his friends playing bongo drums, multi-guiros and other instruments of the percussion family. Although there was no tune, people standing around them were joining in using anything that they could lay their hands on. When I saw somebody drag a cardboard box from a dustbin and start hitting it with a branch, I decided that anything goes, and commenced tapping a "no waiting" sign with an English 2p coin.
At midnight, we decided to quench our thirsts at the cafe at the top of the hill, where the jazz band had ended up. The majority of the rock and roll band had stopped, just the saxophonist remained, having joined forces with the jazz group. Some kind soul pushed a Vibra-Slap in my hand, and I soon found out how to play it - just hit it! The bass drummer and I set up a call and reply thing, which kept everybody's feet in time while the rest of the band decided what to play next. The lead trumpeter and the trombone player copied our example, the trombonist at one end of the room on a table, the trumpeter at the other, standing on a pinball machine. When they started playing "When the Saints..." I started playing and singing with even more vigour and enthusiasm. It was one of the few occasions in my life when I can say that I was drunk on fresh air and atmosphere. I gave the Vibra-Slap to someone else (I hope the true owner found it again) and started dancing with the crowd that had been there most of the night at the other end of the cafe.
When the manager asked us to leave, at two o'clock, we slowly moved into the street and the band marched off to find yet another cafe.
Vincent asked if I fancied going swimming by the river. Thinking they meant in the river, I said "yes", but I would have to get my trunks from the flat. He replied that I would not need them as it would be dark there, and they had already got some towels. On the way to the cars, Jean-Paul called up to a window in one of the narrow back streets and one of the shutters to an apartment near the top of the building flew open. No face was seen, but two towels were tossed out and gently fluttered down.
On arrival at the river, I started making my way down to the bank where I thought that we would be swimming. They called me back, telling me that the river was too dirty to swim in. I followed them to a wall, into which was set two locked gates. Sylvie and another girl were helped over the 2.5 metre high wall, quickly followed by two other lads and myself.
What a sight greeted our eyes!
There were already a number of people that I had met earlier, in what was now obviously their open-air municipal swimming pool. Modesty had no place here, they had all "forgotten" their costumes, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been, for there was not much light, only a clear sky and the moon to guide our way up the ladders to the diving boards.
We must have been in the baths for about three-quarters of an hour, when the gendarmes arrived. Luckily somebody had been keeping a watchful eye over the wall and had seen them coming. Some youths jumped over the wall and disappeared into the night; others hid in corners of the pool with just their noses poking out from the water. I grabbed my clothes, scrambled onto the roof and lay low. I was not feeling too comfortable, lying on a roof with no clothes on and armed police shining their torches inches away from where I was hiding, heaven alone knows what I would have done if they had asked to see my passport!
After the gendarmes had disappeared, everyone came out of hiding, went to a corner of the complex, which was well away from the road, and lit up. Vincent and Sylvie had left, so Jean-Paul asked where I proposed to spend the night. When I said "here" he said that the police would probably return later, so we sneaked back to his car, then drove to his flat. We retired to bed at half past three, very, very tired.