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Hitch-Hiking

On the Move

They say all roads lead to Rome. Well, this may be so on the Continent,* but it is certainly not true of England. Here they all lead to Covent Garden Market. So if you intend to spend your holiday hitch-hiking, the market is by far the best place to start from, providing you live near London. Set out early, for the lorries and vans which have come from various parts of the country to bring farm produce to the market as a rule leave for home about 6 o'clock in the morning. Any driver will be glad of your company. He had little or no sleep the night before, and if you do nothing more but help him to keep awake on the journey, he will be grateful.

* (the Continent - mainland of Europe (as opposed to the British Isles of Great Britain and Ireland).)

This was the advice my friend and I got when we were planning to make our first plunge into hitch-hiking. We took it, and did not regret it. No sooner had we reached Covent Garden Market, than we were snapped up by two young drivers. Originally, we had thought of going to North Wales. Being beginners at this kind of holiday-making, we had the illusion that, whatever the mode of travelling, one got where one intended to. The two young men soon put us right on that. Devon they were going to, and Devon it would have to be for us as well. Certainly we could look round and try to find a lorry going to North Wales. There was, for instance, that man Jones with his "cart" a little way up the road. They would not, however, advise us to approach him, a thoroughly disagreeable character. And what had we against Devon, anyway? We had nothing against it, and, not wishing to hurt the feelings of our new acquaintances, agreed to change our plans. After making sure that the two lorries were going in the same direction we climbed in and by 8 o'clock were clear of London.

We took the Great Western Road which meant that we would cut through Salisbury Plain and pass Stonehenge.* As neither Heather nor I had ever been at Stonehenge, this seemed an exciting prospect, even though we would see it from a fair distance. Salisbury, where we stopped for a meal, proved to be another highlight on the journey. It is a lovely old English town with quaint cobbled streets and a magnificent cathedral, perhaps the most perfect example of Early English architecture. On the whole, however, travelling by the Great Western Road tends to be a little dull as the surrounding country is mainly flat. It is not surprising then that we spent a lot of time in conversation.

* (Stonehenge - a prehistoric ceremonial ruin on the Salisbury Plain in Witshire, England, constructed at its first stage in the megalithic period, 1900-1700 В. C., of circular formations of huge upright stone slabs and lintels.)

My companion, whose name was Jack, a burly fellow only a little older than myself, turned out to be morbidly interested in the treatment of various ailments. As soon as he learnt that I was a nurse, he started to question me upon these matters. Healthy enough himself, he seemed to have not a single relation who was not suffering from some dreadful disease. I had the time of my life giving him extensive consultations on this and that, asking about the symptoms and the treatment and medicine so far prescribed. The part of a Harley Street* specialist suited me down to the ground though I must admit that I had some misgivings about it later on, and hoped to God none of those poor people had followed my advice.

* (Harley Street - a street in central London, notably occupied by the offices of prominent members of the medical profession.)

My friend's companion was about the same age as Jack and of an extremely humorous disposition. He kept Heather in fits of laughter throughout the journey. She told me some of his jokes and stories, but the only thing I seem to remember is a yarn about a wicked English lord who had contrived to roast alive his own butler for the unforgivable sin of serving Beaujolais* ice-cold. The building where the crime had been committed was duly pointed out to my friend.

* (Beaujolais - a red wine of south-eastern France.)

We arrived at our destination, a small Devonshire town, towards evening and, after making the dreadful blunder of trying to pay for the lift (this is never done!), set out to look for lodgings. Our new acquaintances had given us an address where they thought we might be able to put up for the night. We found the house with some difficulty, and were shown into a smallish downstairs room which had one narrow bed in it. Not fancying tramping the streets in search of accommodation we decided that we should manage somehow. This being settled, we deposited our rucksacks in the room, had a quick wash at the kitchen sink and went out for a meal and a walk.

We returned to our lodgings rather late, let ourselves in with a large latchkey and found ourselves in pitch darkness. Since there seemed to be no light switch anywhere near the door, we felt our way along the wall into our room where the search for the switch was continued with as little success. Eventually my friend found some contraption on the wall which she rightly guessed to be gas lighting. As we had no matches, this brought us little comfort. In the circumstances, the only sensible thing to do was to undress and go to bed. The bed was very high compared with the ones I was used to, but as I was getting into it the springs suddenly gave way and I landed with a heavy thump onto the frame. The same instant my friend flew up into the air where she remained, balancing desperately in order not to come down on top of me. "Some springs," she giggled. We soon realized that sleep was completely out of the question: each careless move either reversed the situation (me up, Heather down) or resulted in one of us rolling off to the floor. In the end we settled down to telling each other stories.

I recalled my experience in a Salisbury inn the previous year. My cousin and I had come up to Salisbury to look round the lovely old town and its famous cathedral, and intended to spend only one night there. The landlady of the inn where we inquired for accommodation said she had a large vacant room which she would gladly put at our disposal. There was only one bed in it, but as it was large she did not think we would mind. She lead us upstairs and showed us the room. There was nothing unusual about the room itself, but the bed ... it was enormous. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that one could easily sleep a family of ten in it. It was what they call a four-poster and it had an ornate canopy over it. We agreed to take the room, little imagining what was in store for us.

Few people realize how important it is to know precisely where the various parts of a bed are in relation to your body. Most of us sleep in very ordinary beds and take these things for granted, as, indeed, we did. At first our four-poster seemed very comfortable: the mattress was even and soft, so were the pillows. But after making a few half-unconscious moves we found that we had completely lost our bearings, which resulted in us starting to travel in various directions. Sometimes' we lost our pillows, sometimes met on no-man's land to discuss our next move, continuing thus throughout the better part of the night. When we woke up in the morning I found myself lying right across the foot of the bed while my cousin lay fairly near the side with her head towards the foot. Neither of us had a pillow.

My story reminded Heather of an incident which was supposed to have taken place in one of those countries which are constantly subject to earthquakes. A man was staying the night at his friend's place. As there was nowhere else to accommodate the guest, a bed was made up for him on the floor. An earthquake occurred during the night and the host, having warned his friend, made out of the house without bothering to put on the light. The other man seemed a long time coming, and the host decided that he must have dropped off to sleep. At that moment he heard his friend's terrified cries. The cries continued for some minutes, then abruptly stopped and after a short silence were followed by a low chuckle. The next moment his friend joined him. It turned out that the unfortunate man had completely forgotten that he was sleeping on the floor. Correspondingly, when his friend called out to him, he had started to look for the side of the bed in order to get out of it. It was only after many desperate attempts to find the side of an imaginary bed that he recollected where he was.

The next morning we got up early, had a hearty breakfast and set out on the road to the coast. Few cars went past, and though we thumbed frantically, they whizzed by without taking the slightest notice. We didn't really mind that: true, the surrounding countryside was bare and wind-swept, but the weather was fine. Our luck turned only in the afternoon, when we were offered a lift to a place near Newquay on the Cornish coast. The owner of the car turned out to be a commercial traveller selling soft drinks. For this reason our progress was rather slow, as he called at almost every pub on our way. He was, however, a lively and amusing talker and the time passed quickly.

It was nearly dark when we reached our destination and had begun to rain heavily. The place we found ourselves in seemed but a collection of hotels and guest-houses strewn about hilly countryside. We thanked our friend for the lift and made for the nearest hotel. It was further than we had thought, and by the time we reached it we were drenched almost to the skin. The hall porter who opened the door looked us up and down with obvious disapproval and shook his head: "No rooms." The door closed with a bang. There was nothing for it but to trudge to the next cluster of lights way up the road. The small guesthouse from which the cheerful beams were coming had obviously been built quite recently. The architecture reminded one of the Continent, and there were bright curtains and flowers in the windows. "Too expensive! And no hitch-hikers, of course. Not respectable!" said Heather bitterly. I had to agree. Slipping and sliding on the wet dirt-road we made our way to the next hotel. We looked a sight by now, wet through, shoes covered with mud, hair dangling down in untidy wisps. No luck! On and on we plodded, from one hotel to another, each time getting a dirtier and more contemptuous look, each time hearing the same answer: no accommodation. In the end the only place we had not tried was the continental-looking guest-house.

It w'as but with little hope that we mounted its white steps and rang the bell. The next moment the door was flung open revealing an array of smiling faces. "Oh, there you are at last!" cried a comely middle-aged woman. "Come in, come in. Why, you must be drenched!" We were whisked through an elegant dining-room into a large kitchen where such clothes as could reasonably be removed in the presence of an audience were pulled off us and hung up to dry, after which we were ordered upstairs to have a hot bath and change into dry things. "Come down as soon you've done. I'll have supper ready for you," said the woman who had welcomed us in. We did as we were told. "Don't you go and tell them that we are not the people they are taking us for," Heather warned me when we were out of hearing. "But they're bound to find out sooner or later," I protested. "Well, I'd rather it be later," Heather answered stubbornly.

In about an hour, feeling apprehensive but wonderfully snug in our dry if somewhat crumpled clothes, we descended the stairs. The guests had assembled in the dining-room, obviously waiting for us. A steaming-hot supper was immediately placed before Heather and me, and as we sat there tucking into it with great relish the mystery of the unexpected welcome was cleared up. It turned out that the whole company had watched our ordeal from the moment they noticed us standing undecidedly in front of their guest-house. They saw us being turned away at the other hotels and rightly guessed the reason why we had not called at theirs. As "Sandy Hollow" was, in fact, not only the cheapest but the least snobbish place in the neighbourhood, they begged the landlord to go and fetch us. He went in his car but somehow managed to lose sight of us, so that we arrived before he got back.

We spent a very enjoyable evening at the merriest little guest-house I had ever come across in England. The place rocked with laughter deep into the night, and in the morning some of the guests spent a jolly half hour planning our journey for us. Afterwards we were escorted to a busy road from where, we were assured, we would have no difficulty in getting a lift.

We still had ten days ahead of us, and they slipped by all too quickly. We visited many little towns and fishing villages along the coast, made a host of friends and had innumerable adventures. Yet when I think back now to those happy days I find that my warmest recollections are of the hospitable little guest-house called "Sandy Hollow" and of the kindness of the people whom we met there.

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