A hitch in time

28th January 2005 at 00:00
In 70 years of thumbing lifts around the world, Tudor Bowen Jones (below) has never lost his sense of adventure. Harvey McGavin goes along for the ride

For a man of 90, Tudor Bowen Jones has plenty of get up and go. In fact, by the time you read this, he may already have got up and gone. Whenever the urge takes him, this former deputy headteacher from south Wales packs his rucksack, puts on his hat and sets off on another adventure.

But coach holidays and cruises are not his style. Mr Bowen Jones is a hitchhiker, happiest on a roadside verge or, even better, in the passenger seat, one of the most travelled and almost certainly the oldest still to be thumbing a lift. Hitchhiking has taken him many thousands of miles, to more than 40 countries and through six passports since he first stuck out his thumb as a student at Coleg Harlech in north Wales in the 1930s.

But his first experiences of shared transport in the mining village of Treharris, where he grew up, were not so harmonious. "As kids we used to hang on the back of the horse and cart, and the driver, if he was a miserable so and so, used to whip behind the cart," he recalls. "I can remember the first car coming to our village. The Russians used to talk about the arrival of the first tractor on the co-operative; well, it was a bit like that."

But Mr Bowen Jones's interest in the automobile has remained that of a passenger. He has never learned to drive and views cars simply as a means of getting from A to B. "Driving is not exciting except to one who is in a race," he says. "The longer you drive, the more tiring and boring it is. If you can get company it keeps you more alert. When someone picks you up they feel for that time they are partaking of your adventure."

And what adventures he has had on the road. For his most recent trip, to mark his 90th birthday last May, he went to Vienna "just for the hell of it really". But trips from years before are fresh in his memory; riding in everything from Rolls-Royces to hearses, from the Middle East to the United States, and across virtually every country in Europe.

Back home at the bungalow in the Cardiff suburb of Penarth where he lives alone, he has no television and he spends his evenings learning to play the piano or reading. He admits some people find it strange to see an "an old geezer like me" beside the road and often assume he is lost or his car has broken down. "I have never been bothered about age," he says. "Even if you are 105, why not just go and do it?" He compares his predicament now to that of the children he taught years ago. "When a child is growing up he wants to know his body so he tests what it can do; it's a process of development. That's also true in old age. It's not bravado. It's just like a tenant finding out about the house they are living in."

At Dordon County school in Warwickshire, where he taught until his retirement in 1976, he never told the children he was a hitchhiker "because they would have had a go themselves". Instead he would just say he had been on a trip and astound them with his souvenirs. He goes to the kitchen and comes back with a plastic jar containing a sandy coloured piece of rock.

"When I brought back this, a part of a pyramid, they used to touch it like it was the body of a saint."

He loved teaching, he says, but became disillusioned as outside influences began to creep in. "I gave it up largely because of the political mistreatment education was getting from the government," he says. "Anybody was ready to advise teachers on how to do their job. I used to tell the people who came into school to advise us, 'I run this class and if anything goes wrong I blame myself'.

"One thing I really loathed was to teach in front of someone else. I always regarded it as a personal matter between myself and the kids." He remembers being so irked by the presence of an inspector sitting at the back of the class that he invited the man to teach the class himself and left the room.

He is proud of having equipped generations of children with the basics. "I taught them how to take notes at the age of 10 or 11 and how to write in paragraphs. I used to loathe learning to spell in class. But I used to say, 'Learning to spell is not an interesting subject, but if you don't learn to spell you won't learn to write because you won't want to show you can't spell. It's a long job, begin now'." He still gets a Christmas card from one of his former pupils - she's a grandmother now.

Since retiring, Mr Bowen Jones likes to take a trip at least once a year.

The longest he has had to wait for a lift was 12 hours outside Vichy. "I found a bed for the night and started again in the morning."

His relative lack of stature has been an advantage, he reckons. "I don't intimidate people because I am not much more than 5ft tall. That's an asset."

He recalls his trips in incredible detail, spinning out anecdotes laced with the wisdom of a well-travelled man. "I used to hitchhike in Spain when Franco was in charge," he says. "Spaniards were poor then but, once they started to make money, hitchhiking became difficult. He who has, has something to lose."

These days, hitchhiking, or even picking up a hitcher, is considered slightly dangerous, but Mr Bowen Jones insists "there is a great deal of compassion out there on the road". He has made friends across Europe on his travels, and says it is the kindness of strangers, as much as the lure of a free ride, that keeps him going.

"The great charm of hitchhiking is the variety of people you meet and the frequent occurrence of the unexpected. Each day is different from the previous one. There is, out there, a union of people who speak the same language; the language of having hitchhiked and never forgotten it."

And his next trip? "I'll let you know where I'm going next when I've gone there," he says.

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