Mike Russell and I were incorrigible hitch hikers and when spring was in the air we often set forth upon the high road to Chester. I went to see the ridiculously healthy plains bred girls, well groomed and in thin cotton dresses when Oldham's pulchritude was still swaddled in duffel coats and cardigans against the possibility of any return of winter. Mike went to commune with St Werburgh in Chester Cathedral, or so he alleges
On our first adventure we passed a shop in Stretford which advertised "WE TAKE DIRTY NOTES!". Unfortunately we hadn't any paper to write one - though the urge was strong. Another place was emblazoned "WE MAKE SIGNS!" but no one was making them at us.
There were usually enough daring drivers who would take a chance on the odd couple at the roadside not being Axe Murderers. Wagon drivers, in particular, in days of easy schedules, no tachographs and less banditry on the roads, welcomed us into the cabs.
Wagon drivers always offered tea from massive flasks. Often there would be no cup and you had to lift the flask to your lips with both hands and tip it delicately toward you. At this point the driver always made a savage gear change such that a tsunami of superheated sweet tea would cascade down your gullet or into your face. It happened so regularly that I believed that being able to scald hitch hikers was an integral part of the heavy goods vehicle test, like the three point turn in the ordinary test.
We were always asked where we hailed from and every driver knew Oldham as a great place for a night out and almost without exception they mentioned "The Albion" and the "Top Drum" , alehouses with a clientele drawn from every undesirable element in Oldham's population. One of the best things about hitch hiking was the element of Serendipity, something I still delight in when I'm driving the cab. The human race is an endless source of wonder and amusement and no matter how good a psychologist a taxi driver claims to be people are seldom dull or predictable. Hitch hiking got us in trouble on a hiking trip, as reported elsewhere, but mostly it got us where we wanted for nearly nowt. What Lancastrian can find fault with that? Mr Pope of Capel Curig Youth Hostel was wrong. The virtue in hitch hiking is IT'S CHEAP.
Mrs Collins became the entire religious instruction department at Hathershaw on the retirement of Mrs Hines. She was progressive and set up a lunchtime club which invited speakers from many well meaning organisations and so introduced us to VSO,(Voluntary Service Overseas), a sort of British Peace Corps. For those less inclined to contracting Malaria or Dengue Fever there was Community Service Volunteers. We were also introduced to Amnesty International. She was involved with SCMS which became CEM (Christian Education Movement) and told us that we could have a week's holiday with CEM in exotic locations for a trifling sum. This last turned out to be a downright lie. The "holiday" involved a lot of fairly strenuous work in a British location with a group of similarly deluded souls and a sizeable amount of "God bothering" thrown in. As with hitch hiking it had the lure of summat for (nearly) nowt so Mike and I signed up.
I'd better come clean at this point. My Roman Catholic education has put me off any organised religion and I am what I call an "ethical Christian". I follow the basic principles enshrined in the ten commandments and the teachings of Jesus but only really pray in times of desperation and at my wife's graveside because she would have wanted it. I think this level of belief probably also qualifies me as an "ethical Jew" or an "ethical Muslim" and probably an "ethical Buddhist" , most belief systems agreeing largely on what it is to live a good life.
A brochure of sorts detailed where volunteers were to perform their good works. St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire appealed to me as did Battle Abbey on the site of the 1066 England/France International but for some reason we ended up on our way to Llangoed, near Beaumaris in Anglesey. Needless to say we hitched. Neither Mike nor I can remember if we stopped overnight in Chester Youth Hostel where the warden was the daughter of Mr Anderson, Warden of Oaklands Hostel on the North Wales Hiking Trips. I remember passing through the North Wales resort towns in the back seat of a family car on a beautiful sunny day and arriving in Bangor.
To cross the Menai Straits we chose the ferry from Bangor Pier to Beaumaris. It was a bit like sailing in the jolly boat of the Hispaniola without the inconvenience of Israel Hands firing a cannon at us. By the time we landed I was feeling a little queasy and the onset of scurvy seemed likely. Perhaps we're not a seafaring nation? After coming ashore in Beaumaris we plodded to Llangoed (church in the woods?) and found the Primary School which was to be our billet for the week. We were introduced to the other "campers" and leader Frank. Some prayers, a long sunny summer evening , a meal (with Grace) a chat with a Welsh Chapel Elder followed by another local giving us the lowdown on the Elder's criminality and so to bed. The work started the next day.
The task was to renovate or redecorate a run down village hall and tidy up its gardens. I was skilled in none of the requisite skills so had to ascend a steep learning curve. I soon demonstrated my incompetence with a paint brush and was put on garden clearing using sickles and an "only messin' " (Scouse expression meaning ersatz or make do) one handed scythe with which I soon became proficient.
The previous evening's introductions had been more confusing than informative and now we had our chance to get to know each other a little better. Some names stuck easily like Floss, as unflossy a chap as I have ever met. He was a Londoner , about six foot two with an easy relaxed attitude to everything. His chosen transport was a Panther "sloper" motorbike, the cutting edge of Cleckheaton technology, a slow, heavy single cylinder machine with its cylinder taking the place if the front member of the frame,a design feature which had lasted since the beginning of the twentieth century to the company's drawn out demise in the early nineteen sixties. By then family men had by then opted for Issigonis' Mini in preference to the "George and Mildred" look of a sidecar combination. So the Panther was on its way to extinction. Just as people often look like their dogs bikers' personalities often have expression in the choice and condition of their bikes. The Panther and Floss were a well matched pair, friendly, slow moving, big and reliable..
A sulky German girl completed the whole week doing little more than repeating, "My name is Barbara. I come from Germany and I work very hard." I think she belied our impression of the German work ethic. A lumpen Scottish girl developed the habit of swooning which I had only read about in Victorian literature and in the Beano. Cynics noted she always found a comfortable spot to collapse onto and her parents had to come south and take her home. Looking back I think it was a Victorian condition, she had the hots for a young Welsh academic who was sort of liaison between the Saisons and the Cymraig. He was in the best Victorian tradition unattainable on any level. How very Jane Austen.
Two Italian lads Didi and Carlo were exactly as you would expect, Sometimes racial stereotypes fit the person. They showed all the best aspects of the Italian stereotype. We weren't at war so the downside was never tested. I seem to remember Mike subsequently spent a holiday with them. Probably part of his inexorable progress towards Rome!
Heather,a Yorkshire lass, was the daughter of a vicar of Wakefield but not Goldsmith's Doctor Primrose but a cleric called Harris. She made a pass at me. I was ever so surprised but the most impressive girl was Liz from Aylesbury.
She was a dark pleasant very attractive girl with what my untutored Northern ear took to be an Eliza Doolittle accent. She was a very well developed girl and her work clothes were mostly outgrown which did little to conceal the war being waged on her chest. Unaccustomed postures necessary to gardening meant much of her time was spent fastening up buttons which were unequal to the strain to which they were subjected. Welsh hobbledehoys began to gather around the perimeter fence much like vultures on the Serengeti. Helpful gardening advice was called out . Liz was used to this sort of attention and managed to arrange a date that evening with two likely boyos but only on the understanding that Mike and I should come along as Duennas. So it was that I supped my first pint of pub-bought "bittr" (sic) in the White Lion at Beaumaris . We performed our duties well and Liz returned with us hardly mussed by the amorous Welsh Lads.
The primary school classroom in which we slept had a wooden box brimful of tiny plimsolls with which a battle was fought one day. A cow defecated in the outside boys' toilet, I didn't know you could toilet train them. The villagers were grateful and friendly and someone invited the local television news to visit us. A piece of wall was chosen, already immaculately decorated and I was to apply a paint-laden roller across its immaculate seagull grey surface for the camera. The paint I applied was white! AARGH! I now know that freshly applied emulsion paint often shows the colour of the liquid in which the pigment is suspended but at the time I was sure I'd knackered the whole job. Two hours later the wall was again immaculate. PHEW!
We achieved what we were to do and made good friends among the work campers and the villagers. It was a lovely week and a different educational experience. Mike and I did similar camps in Madeley (now part of Telford New Town) and Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. I did another in Pollockshields Glasgow without the Monsignor. Mike is still in touch with Jane, a campanologist from Llandaff, Cardiff. The memories are dimming and we seem to have similar gaps but we had a wonderful time as missionaries.
On returning from Madeley we got stuck on the East Lancashire Road and Mike's mum and dad drove down to pick us up in their Morris Oxford. It was the model which served as taxis in Indian cities throughout the rule of the Ghandi dynasty with names such as the "Hindustan" and the "Sanjay". The Morris company went for short-lived Italian styled models. I've just watched Blue Peter in Bombay and I couldn't see a single example but they lasted fifty years after Morris declared them obsolete. Mike's mum had brought us some tomato sandwiches. I didn't eat Tomatoes...until then.
One of my clearest memories is of Mike being dragged over a banking by a "Powered Scythe" in Cumbrae. It only had two controls but he never was technical. A pair of "campers" getting MILDLY (pre-watershed) amorous were admonished by a native of Cumbrae for canoodling on the Sabbath. One dippy girl stuck a fork through my thumb in Madeley. It missed the bone. No harm done. A lady associated to the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae told countless stories of the doings of a Mrs McBay. I was eager to meet this lady but it eventually became clear SHE was Mrs McBay and always spoke of herself in the third person. Someone put a hedgehog in my bed one night . I didn't get prickled but who would have thought such a small animal could contain so much faeces?
Louise Houghton once wrote in my English book,"Brackets are a sign of a muddled mind." Looking through this she might have a point. There is a saying that no good deed ever goes unpunished.
I have had nothing but benefit from my good deeds with the CEM
The Cabbie's Tale
'Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,'
And Absalom hath kissed her nether eye
And Ncolas is branded on the bum
Godde blesse us alle
Ande his Kyngdome Cumme.
by Vinnie Waldron