For those unfamiliar with the concept of Oxford Lost, let me explain. In the aid of a RAG charity of your choice, you are dumped by coach 100 miles away from Oxford and you have to hitchhike your way back as quick as you can without spending a penny.
‘Why?’ may you ask. ‘Ostensibly for charity, mostly for the banter,’ comes the reply.
On Saturday 12th March Dan Nichol and I were dropped off in Bournemouth, armed with only tiger pyjama suits, a ukulele, a massive cardboard sign and increasingly desperate smiles. There were many prizes on offer that day. First prize was for the team who got back to Oxford in the fastest time. With the sun beaming, and the allure of the beach just down the road, we settled on the next best thing: to get home using as many modes of transport as we could.
As if the bright orange pyjama suit hadn’t brought out the child in me already, the sight of a merry-go-round had me positively regressing. Providing an amusing sight, I hopped on. Transport mode no. 1: check. We sped on past the mini-golf (passing the Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men team) until we reached the open sea and the beach. By the sea we had a quick rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ on the ukulele.
The rain put an end to one of many interludes and so it was onto the land train: a contraption designed to ferry lazy adults and their winy, nagging children along the sea coast. It is at this point, I must admit, that we had some help. Our friend’s parents happened to be in Bournemouth and kindly offered to give us a whiz around town. We were treated to the full guided tour: the squirrel ferry, the chain ferry, Harry Redknapp’s house, and Poole harbour. I bet you didn’t know it’s the second largest natural harbour in the world after Sydney. We managed to disgruntle a group of surfers who became a backdrop to one of our holiday snaps.
Hitchhiking began in earnest at a slipway on the A338. After little more than a minute my thumb was starting to hurt. Statistically you get offered a lift every thousand cars that passes. I counted forlornly. Luckily, help came in the form of a Postman Pat van. When Pat dropped us off at Ringwood we barely had time to take in the view before a friendly musician, who bore an uncanny resemblance to James Morrison, whisked us off to Salisbury. Spiritual moments are few and far between on a hitchhike – especially in a deserted underpass. However, with the aid of a ukulele, and Dan using our sign as a drum, the melancholy tones of Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma’ echoed through the tunnel. The mood was punctured by a scary man: “Where you lads heading?” he asked. We sidled away sharpish.
Darkness had fallen. We’d passed the crematorium. Quite frankly the scenery of the M&S opposite the care home, where we now sat dejected, was not much to look at. Thankfully, help came in the form of my granny. She took us home for a cup of what she called “scented muck”, while Dan squirmed as he made polite conversation about the grave injustices of speed cameras. Once biscuit and tea o’ clock was finished we were back on the road. My granny regaled us with tales of her travels in Cairo and stories of my dad from back when he looked like a sultry Mick Jagger.
Due to a miscommunication she also left us in the middle of nowhere. It was cold. And, again, it really was in the middle of nowhere. Although I felt as if our experience had been validated by getting truly lost I didn’t relish the pitch black or the cars speeding past us as we negotiated our way over broken bottles and syringes. Thoughts turned to serial killers and hypothermia. After a little wander we stumbled upon a tiny hamlet near by. The inhabitants were rather surprised to find two students dressed as tigers perched on their doorstep who looked like they had strayed from the zoo. Out of a mixture of charity, pity and (most likely) disbelief at our stupidity we got a lift to the nearest station. Our morale hit a new low. Not only had we admitted defeat but we found ourselves in a more or less empty train station face to face with two belligerent 12 year olds downing vodka jelly shots on the platform. Welcome to Whitchurch. Tittering at place names such as ‘Westward Ho!’ and ‘Wetwang’ in our road atlas was our only consolation in this, our darkest hour.
Our ignominious route home was via Basingstoke and Reading which took us, finally, to Oxford. It had taken us a full 12 hours to get back. Though we felt like we had failed the strict hitchhiker’s code, we had compromised none of what the event was about: a day outside of the usual routine and an opportunity to raise a healthy sum of money for a good cause.