Professional Hitch-hikers: Britain's Trade Platers

By: Bernd Wechner
© May 1, 2001

Professional Hitch-hikers: Britain's Trade Platers

Professional Hitch-hikers: Britain's Trade Platers

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: May 1, 2001

I've often half-jokingly been labelled a professional hitch-hiker myself, for the simple reason that I write here, and on my travels hand out a small business card to that effect. But it's hardly a profession, more a sideline between what I do as an Engineer (the day I earn any real money at it I'll have another story for you!).

I know of one group of hitch-hikers though, that very definitely do earn the label "professional". They know the roads better than any author of guide books I've come across, the road generally flatters them with rapid rides and they earn a living at it! In Britain they are widely recognised by the trade plates they display when fishing a ride so they're known appropriately as "trade platers".

Essentially professional delivery men, Trade Platers are issued with personal licence plates in a distinct colour (red on white?) which they can attach to an unregistered vehicle in order legally to drive it from A to B. From home to A and from B back home, they usually hitch-hike.

Hitching proves attractive to these delivery men for at least two reasons:

  1. the pay is not excessive and public transport in Britain is horrendously expensive and
  2. the plates they carry win them win them the support of the trucking community, who are happy to help a colleague in the delivery business out.

On a thumbing tour of Britain last Summer of course I caught up with a few Trade Platers. Ironically, my first ride out of Dover Port was with a Trade Plater delivering one car to the port and another from the port back to London. So for the moment he was offering rides, rather than fishing them. The ride was short though (I was heading for Faversham) and I had to wait till Birmingham to find time for a real thumber to thumber chat with some trade platers.

Andrew Gale is a part time Baptist Minister, part time Trade Plater. His parish near Birmingham hasn't the funds to employ a full time minister so he supplements his income delivering cars. Perhaps an idiosyncratic mix of professions, but the humility and trust he embraces as a hitch-hiker harmonise so beautifully with his calling as a purveyor of Christ's message - this is no haughty evangelist preaching from up on high!

But Andrew is indeed humble, and claiming to owe his move into plating entirely to one good old friend, Ian Amphlett, insisted that I meet him. If I thought Andrew was a legend, Ian was none the lesser, and they make a team in transit like none I've seen before!

Ian has been "plating" for 18 years now. He can barely read and write, never left Dudley (his home town) before getting this job, and claims it cured him of a huge speech defect that all the kings therapists and all the kings horses couldn't. "When you get into the cabin with a hulk of a truckie, and start stuttering - 'Ar, ar, ar, ar yu, yu, yu, ggggoing tttto ...?' you have to learn how to talk to survive!" he insists!

After 18 years thumbing Britain, he's a walking talking guidebook to Britain's roads. Andrew often calls Ian from the road, for some advice - Ian knows just where to stand to get out of almost any town, headed almost any direction to get a quick ride. He has a map in his head, he tells me. "Like a computer," Andrew says.

A few of Ian's words:

    We might be poor, but we see life... It's a job you hate, but you love. Once it's in your blood system, you couldn't do another job, where you clock in and clock out... The first three months are murder on account of all the mistakes you make... but the longer you do it the easier it gets.

No shortage of tales either after 18 years. Not only could he write a grand guide book, but a grand old story book as well.

Hitching home once, he was picked up by a businessman once who asked Ian to drive while he got some paperwork done in the back. The businessman was so grateful he gave Ian £20 for the ride!

Fell asleep in the snow once, and woke up to find a milko on his rounds. Helped out with the milk run, and the milko arranged a ride on the postal train for him.

He's been picked up by an inviting Masseuse, a flasher, a mad cow pistol shooter and an endless array of people who tell him all their problems – he lends a caring ear like any hitch-hiker ought!

Ian seems a living example of how hitch-hiking can influence lives, and reminds me poignantly of an earlier (February 1998) article of mine "Hitch-hiking: A course in personal development?".

He's the first man I've met that confesses to having used the old Irish switcheroo to fish rides! Thus far I'd always considered the trick apocryphal, but Ian has hitched north on the M1 several times with a sign that reads "South". The idea of course being, that a car will pull over all the sooner to point out the (intentional) error. I think he got the idea once, when hitching to Cardiff with a misspelled sign – someone pulled over quick smart to correct his spelling.

But it's not all easy. Often he's up at 1 in the morning, back home by 10 at night. The rides aren't always abundant. The winters can be cold. "Like a jellyfish, drift with the tide, it comes in it goes out." says Ian.

Now if you're interested in pursuing this line of work there are a number of places you might look. "Vehicle Delivery" is a keyword you could use to trace a possible employer, and Ian mentioned A-Line, Manchester, Uniload, Cohen Deliveries and UFD (United Fleet Deliveries) off the top of his head, but on-line I've managed to trace these for you as a good starting point: European Vehicle Deliveries appears to employ trade platers for Europe wide deliveries, Eurofleet seems a large enough deliverer and Ace Vehicle Deliveries too are on-line.

Good luck!

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