National Geographic : 1934 Mar
VAGABONDING IN ENGLAND A Young American Works His Way Around the British Isles and Sees Sights from an Unusual Point of View BY JOHN MCWILLIAMS BOUT midnight I stepped out into the almost empty streets of Blooms bury, strode down to Hyde Park Corner, and joined a lively crowd at a coffee-stall-one of those red-painted shops on wheels that attract with their cheerful hospitality all classes in London. While sipping my coffee I surveyed the group around me. The young man-about town at my elbow, carrying just enough liquor to make him forget all about being reserved, was eating a snack in friendly companionship with a shabbily dressed new acquaintance he had stood to sandwiches and coffee. HEIGHT CALLS TO HEIGHT On my other side was a member of the Guards, so tall that he did not have to raise his eyes to look into mine. It was not long before we struck up a conversation. "You're not an Englishman, are you?" he began. "No," I replied. "Why?" "Oh, I could tell that; you talk so much slower. You're Irish or Scotch. Which?" "Neither; I'm an American!" "An American!" he exclaimed, laughing. "That's where they grow dollars, isn't it?" "It may be," I replied, "but I'm still waiting for mine to sprout!" "Get out! If you hadn't a lot of money, how could you take a trip like this?" "Oh, that's easy; worked my way across. I expect to walk up to Scotland and back, earning my expenses." "Great; but how are you going to get work with jobs so scarce?" "Trust to luck," I said nonchalantly. "Well," doubtfully, "I shouldn't want to risk it in these times." "It does seem a long chance," I agreed. "I'm walking over London to-night. Want to come along?" "By Jove, that's an idea!" Gulping down the last of a second cup of coffee, we started off. His strides were a good match for mine, and to my delight I did not have to hold my long legs in check. We soon traversed the distance to the Embankment, the clatter of our heels on the pavements echoing through the dark streets (see illustration, page 362). Save for a jolly bobby or two, whom we readily convinced we were not "smash grab" burglars, we passed virtually no one. A woman, snoring audibly, made a black heap in a doorway and at the car shelter a little farther along a late tram was taking on a muttering, drunken rascal. Near the Westminster Bridge a man limped up. " 'Ave ye got a cigarette?" he asked hesitatingly. I pulled out a pack and he took one. "My rheumatism's bad," he went on, his face twitching. "Could ye lads stan' me ta a bed?" "What's a bed cost?" I asked. "Eight pence," he replied. Before I could get out my money, my friend dropped a shilling into the old chap's hand, with the caution, "Mind you don't spend it for whisky." From Westminster Bridge we gazed upon the shadowy Thames, its moonlit surface rippled only occasionally by a dimly lighted barge or tugboat. How different from the day! Gone were the endless noises and the rumbling of heavy traffic. FREE BEDS ON THE EMBANKMENT On the Lambeth side each bench held a sleeper. A policeman, arousing them, came our way and glared at us as he passed. Most of the unfortunates lay down again as soon as the bobby's back was turned, but a few got up and walked aimlessly up and down the Embankment till he was out of sight. Though it was early June, the air was damp and biting with cold. It was so dark that we almost sat down on a small form huddled in a corner of a seat. It was an old woman, asleep, her frail shoulders wrapped in a woolen shawl and her white, straggly hair barely visible beneath a battered hat. As we got up she moved slightly and laboriously turned over. Tired eyes peered up at us, as if in fright at beholding some thing utterly unreal.