Wednesday 6 June 2012

On the Road

It's 6.30 pm on a hot and sunny July evening in 1966 and four guys in denim clothes and battered desert boots are standing outside the "Queens Head" pub in Sheerness. The pub had been open half an hour and pints of stout and mild already drunk and now they were outside tossing a coin. "OK, the winning pair go first" was said and duly after calling "tails" two walked off to stand by the boating lake on the edge of town and began thumbing for a lift. The other two were already back in the pub, quaffing more beer, until their turn came to repeat the thumbing exercise an hour later. (The four of us are pictured above, with me in the front).
In those days, with our regulation sleeping bag wrapped in an old dustbin bag and a guitar in it's case, it was generally easy to thumb lifts around the country, despite not looking too pleasant after a few days sleeping rough. Three of us held down permanent jobs but in all our free time at weekends and holidays through the summer months we spent a lot of time in the mid-60's acting out the hippy/beatnik life of the times. If we weren't occasionally hitch-hiking to London or the South Coast, we spent weekends sleeping rough around Sheppey in either an old tent, old buildings, or the seaside shelters, normally under the influence of too much drink and sometimes other stuff.

Anyway, back to hitch-hiking and the normal aim of a night such as the above if we were heading for London, was for the two pairs to set off an hour apart and to close the evening in "The Falcon" pub at Falconwood on the old A2, for a last drink before closing time. If we achieved that then the four of us would then bed down in a wood close to the pub, enduring the elements tucked up in our sleeping bags. Surprisingly, despite the uncertainty of lifts and often quite a bit of roadside walking without them, we often achieved meeting up again at "The Falcon", although sometimes a lift gave one pair the opportunity to end up close to our ultimate destination in London, normally the Walthmanstow area, and we wouldn't meet up again until the next day.
The actual hitch-hiking was good fun, providing lifts were plentiful, it wasn't so good walking long distances along roads in rain and wind, and we would normally attempt to get off of Sheppey via a lift, before we actually begun walking and thumbing. It was also fairly safe in those days and the only regular incidents that I recall were those when cars would speed past close to our outstretched arms and attempt to hit the hand with their wing mirrors, I've suffered a few bruised hands as a result of that. Other than that we often received lifts from some really interesting and chatty people, who I hope, were surprised to find that we were a lot nicer and intelligent than perhaps our appearances might of seemed. One particular lift that we got as we were heading home out of London, was from a Scotland Yard detective, who put a shiver up our spines. He gave us a lift all the way back to Sheppey as he was going to join up with his wife and children in a caravan in Leysdown and had just finished finished working on a man hunt in London. Some days before we had hitch-hiked up there, a guy called Harry Roberts had murdered three policemen and provoked a huge man hunt, which we vaguely knew about. Apparently the afternoon before our lift home, the police had finally caught and arrested Harry Roberts, hiding in a a make-shift camp deep in Epping Forest and not that far from where we had been sleeping the night before - scary!!

A lot of our hitch-hiking tended to end up in the Walthamstow/Leytonstone/Epping Forest area because we knew a hippy girl there and although we slept rough at night, we could often leave our sleeping bags and guitars at her place during the day. Some evenings she also took us into her local pubs or to see up and coming groups - sometimes, one of us might even get to sleep at her place!! Other times though, we also made for Central London and hung around in the Trafalgar Square area, sleeping in the parks at night and naively, it wasn't until a few years later that I found out that not all the guys there after dark were looking for somewhere to kip down. Trafalgar Square could be good during the day then because there would be good numbers of hitch-hiking guitar players laying around there, swapping songs and tales of the road and we learnt a lot. We even got searched a few times by Police, checking for any drugs that we might be carrying. In the summer of 1966 we must of appeared in the photograph albums of many American tourists, who were anxious to take photos of us "typical British beatniks".

How did we keep clean, well, a lot of the time we didn't, dirty denim jeans and jackets, long hair and beards were the image and to be honest there weren't too many opportunities for a wash. Occasionally however, we would make use of some of the public toilets of the time, where for 3p old money you could hire a towel and a bar of soap and stand at a sink for brief wash, they were some dodgy places but luckily we looked more ferocious than we actually were. So often, after several days wandering around we would re-appear back home looking somewhat the worse for wear and I sometimes had to have a bath at my girlfriend's house before I dared go back home proper. I recall one evening that we headed out of London on the A2 and begun thumbing for home but three hours, some rain and many miles later, we were still lift-less, wet and weary. We gave in and slept in our bags behind some bushes at a lay-by alongside the main road, wet, tired and dirty. It was like that sometimes, if you didn't get a lift you kept on walking many fume-filled miles into the night.
But they were the bad bits, sometimes we came across unexpected surprises as we bummed around, even more surprising given how rough we looked. One night the four of us had slept through torrential rain in our sleeping bags in Epping Forest near Woodford and had had to dry them out in the sunshine the following morning. The next evening, after having a few beers in the "Green Man" pub in Leytonstone, we came out to find it raining again and ended up sitting in an underpass under the road, contemplating having to stay there in the dry all night. A woman, a few years older than us, passed by and returning a little later with some shopping, stopped and asked if we were thinking about staying there all night, to which we said probably because of the rain. She then said that she lived in the flats across the road, that her husband was away and that we were welcome to bed down there for the night, which did seem a better alternative to the cold concrete floor we were sitting on. So back to her flat we went, wondering slightly if we were going into a trap but no, there was a living room, kitchen and bedroom and we were told to lay out our sleeping bags on the living room floor. There was however, one condition, only three of us were to sleep on the floor, the other was to sleep with her, so coins were tossed but unfortunately this blogger was one of three sleeping on the floor that night.

The 1960's really did live up to how they have been portrayed and this is just a small snippet of what we got up too as teenagers at the time but we certainly took full advantage of all the things that were on offer, sometimes too fully at times, but we've all survived.

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