A European Adventure
A (mostly) factual account of a young mans travels around Europe
By Damien Smethurst
Author's Note: The following is an account of my first trip away from home, when I decided to take on the world single handedly and go hitch-hiking around Europe. This took place many years ago, and unlike a lot of my trips since, I made no effort to try to keep a diary of where I was or what I was doing at the time, and so my memories are not as bright as they might otherwise have been.
All of the salient facts, however, places, names, and so on, are completely factual and as fresh as if they only happened yesterday.
I had been looking forwards to doing this since I was a young kid, and now my long held dreams were about to become a reality. I was finally going to go travelling, and I knew that whatever happened, the trip that I was about to embark on would change my life in some way that I was as yet unsure of.
I just kind of felt that something like this would HAVE to have some sort of big effect, or what was the point otherwise?
I had a reasonably happy childhood, I suppose. Certainly it was better than many people have, and no worse than a lot of others. Still, I couldn't wait to get away and be out there on my own, trying to survive just on my wits and nothing much else.
When I first voiced my plans to go and hitch-hike around Europe, it generated a mixed reaction from people. On one side, there were people who wished me well, and even told me that they wished they had done the same when they were younger. On the other side were the people, mainly my family, who didn't hold out much expectation of me lasting out there on my own for very long.
After all, this wasn't the first time I would be leaving home, far from it in fact, and so far I had always been back with my tail between my legs within a few months.
This time, this time was going to be different though. I was determined to make the most of this chance to prove myself, to grow up and maybe finally throw off the shackles of shyness that had been holding me back my whole life. If I couldn't learn and grow from an experience like this, then there was truly no hope for me. I was always going to be the shy kid stood in the corner at parties, to afraid to speak to anyone.
The night before I left I held a bit of a leaving party, as most people in such situations are liable to do. And then it was Sunday morning, a few weeks after my birthday, and time to head out into the world and see where I ended up.
I didn't have much money, and this was a combination of me being useless at saving up, but also sort of deliberate, as I knew that for as long as I had money in my wallet I would be disinclined to actually try to get a job, which was the whole point of the journey. If I could get work in a different country, where English was not the first language, and prove myself, then I could do anything I set my mind to.
And so off I went, on an adventure that would yield many hardships, many surprises, and a few friendships that survive to this day.
The first leg of my journey was to take the train from Manchester to Macclesfield, a journey of about 15 minutes. This, it turned out, was just long enough for me to get distracted and leave my sunglasses, purchased especially for the journey, behind on the train when I got off! Not the greatest start to a journey ever made, I suppose!
I was supposed to go to a trucking company yard, where a friend of mine had organised a lift with one of the truck drivers from Macclesfield to the other side of the English channel, from which point I would be on my own. However, I had some difficulty in finding the place, and having stopped at a shop to purchase another pair of sunglasses, I flagged down a taxi to get me there.
Once at the yard, and as I saw the taxi speed off down the road, I realised that I had, once again, left my sunglasses behind. This was not going well. 40 minutes into my journey and I had already lost two pairs of sunglasses!
Forty minutes later and me and my first driver of the tour, a man named Mike, were underway and heading towards Dover.
Now I should point out at this point that I had no fixed destination in mind. This was not the kind of journey most people take, that being, one in which you know where you want to go and what you plan to do upon your arrival there. The only thing I knew for certain was that I did not want to go to France.
Anywhere else I was fine with. Just not France!
The trip down to Dover passed pleasantly enough, and Mike told me that his plan was to find someone on the ferry from Dover to take me onwards from there, as he was heading out towards Romania, which was probably too ambitious a destination for me as I was just setting out.
At the first service station we stopped at, I again purchased a pair of sunglasses, and hoped that these would last a little bit longer than the two previous pairs!
We made pretty good time until we hit the M25, also known as the worlds largest car-park, and it soon became evident that the 8pm ferry that Mike had been hoping to make was probably not going to be possible, which meant that the next one would be around midnight.
I had only been to Dover once before, several years earlier, when my younger brother and I had cycled down from our home in Canterbury, just because we wanted something to do on a Saturday afternoon in the summer.
We had a look at the docks, and then locked our bikes up and went for a walk around town. Before long we found ourselves up near Dover Castle, and decided to try to get inside without paying. Not because we were bad kids, as we were anything but, we were just short of cash so felt that if we could find a way in without spending our hard-earned money then it would be cool, and if not then the castle would still be there another day.
We entered a wooded area by the side of the Castle walls, and walked around looking for a place where we might be able to breach the defences. We were still kids, and so imagined ourselves as an advance party, looking to secure an access point for the army massed behind us, as kids tend to do.
After a little while, we found a spot in the wall that was low enough for us to climb over, only to find a couple of security guards having a cigarette break as we reached the top of the wall. They challenged us, as was their right, and we jumped back down and ran through the woods, trying to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the wall.
A few moments later we encountered a problem, in the shape of what are known worldwide as the White Cliffs of Dover, just a few feet in front of us. Behind us we could hear the guards thrashing through the woods heading after us, and so, after a brief look at one another, we opted to climb down the cliff face!
We were both very good climbers, so we made it down without any problems, and then decided that there had been enough excitement for one day, and so began the long cycle trip back to Canterbury. Of course, the day couldn't end quite that easily, and I got a puncture after just a couple of miles.
My brother decided that as it was dark and getting late, he would go on ahead and let people know where I was so that they wouldn't panic, and I was left to walk the rest of the way home.
This latest trip to Dover, however, was much less eventful. Papers were checked briskly, and then we joined the queue waiting to be allowed to board the ferry. This was it, I was finally going to leave England!