The Sixties were the greatest travel era – a glorious time of freedom and discovery
The Sixties, coming after the post-war austerity of the Fifties and before the arrival of guide books in the Seventies, were a glorious time of freedom and discovery – when even a holiday in Europe was a big adventure.
Of course there were downsides, but these were no deterrents to the brave; indeed, they often favoured budget travellers like me. After the end of the Second World War, for example, the government took steps to protect sterling by limiting the amount that could be taken abroad. The Exchange Control Act of 1947 decreed that your travellers’ cheques had to be listed in your passport. A £25 per year limit in the 1950s was relaxed in the first half of the 1960s – but then Harold Wilson imposed a £50 restriction in 1966.
Hansard reported the Opposition’s outrage: “The hon. and learned Gentleman may not be aware of it, but I have been looking at a booklet published by Sir Thomas Cook & Son which shows that British tourists are restricted to relatively modest hotels costing less than £3 a day. If they want to go to a better hotel, they can afford to stay for only one week.” Of course there were ways around this – there had to be.
A friend’s mother used to send her £5 notes to a poste restante address inside Knorr soup packets since the foil beat Post Office X-rays. It was before the arrival of lightweight luggage too, but we penniless students cheerfully made do with what there was: assorted bags and, in my case, my father’s Bergen rucksack, canvas with a steel frame and weighing almost as much, empty, as a fully-loaded modern backpack.
Jet planes and budget airlines belonged to the future, but that was just fine for me because we had Brian Hughes and his train to Greece. Brian was an enterprising Oxford undergraduate who booked whole railway compartments to transport youngsters to and from Athens, travelling non-stop from Calais (no Channel Tunnel in those days) via Yugoslavia to Greece.
Each compartment had seating for eight and during the day we travelled conventionally, watching the passing scenery become increasingly exotic. At night we rearranged the compartment for a tolerable night’s sleep. As Brian explained: “The luggage goes on the floor to provide a bed for two, then two on the seats and two aloft on the luggage racks.” In a postcard home I commented wryly on the latter: “Because of the bars I woke up segmented like a worm.”
Greece was a revelation. You stepped out into a blast of heat doing your best to act grown up and be interested in ruins but really longing to plunge into the Mediterranean and eat mysterious meals. No need to understand the menu, you just walked into the kitchen and pointed to the bubbling pot that most took your fancy.
We all hitchhiked. It’s what you did. And we slept on the flat roofs of hotels for free or for a nominal cost. It was wonderful! An undeveloped country, utterly foreign and with no guide book to explain it. Unadulterated travel.
I turned 20 on my first Greece trip in 1961, and I returned twice, though the third year saw us on our way to the Middle East, hitchhiking every mile of the way, sponging unashamedly on the generosity of drivers and the hospitable people of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (which was considerably bigger in 1963), and taking in our stride the lechery encountered in Italy and the Arab countries. We were gone for three months, it cost £90, and that was it; I was now a traveller and I’ve never stopped wanting to experience new countries.
In 1964, after seeing The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the National Theatre, I made it my goal to see the land of the Incas. But my job as an occupational therapist didn’t earn much (my first pay packet was £38 in cash) so I went to the USA where ‘socialised medicine’ was despised and an unbelievable number of dollars was paid into my bank account each month.
I saved enough money to visit Iceland to go pony trekking, travel across the US with a friend in her VW Beetle and, in 1969, set off on my own for Peru, taking buses through Mexico and Central America, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru before taking a variety of vessels down the Amazon. I not only visited Machu Picchu but slept in the ruins on a bed of straw – one of only two gringos to visit that day. Such adventures consolidated my career as a traveller and writer, leading to the publication of the first Bradt guide (to Peru and Bolivia) in 1973.
The Sixties were not for the faint of heart, but endlessly thrilling – definitely the best decade for travel!
Here's the rest of the series, with recollections of travel during the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties, the Noughties and the 2010s.