Thursday, 6 February 2014

Youth Hostels

My family rejoined the Youth Hostel Association last summer. I have been a member for many years and visited dozens of hostels around the country. The Moorlands used to have several hostels although their numbers have been depleted and reduced even further with the selling off of Gradbach Hostel last year to Newcastle College.

The movement in the UK was born 80 years ago when cheap accommodation was opened in scenic parts of the country giving young people from industrial areas their first opportunity to explore the picturesque beauties of the UK. It gained royal approval early on when the Prince of Wales opened Derwent Hall in the Peak District in 1932.

Ilam Hostel opened in 1935 fulfilling a need as the Peak District attracted 20,000 youth hostellers to existing hostels in the area. During the war Ilam was pressed into service providing emergency accommodation for Czech refugees. Other hostels that opened in the 1930s were Ashover and Rudyard, both of which have long since closed. Rudyard had a distinguished literary visitor in the winter of 1936. George Orwell used it en route to Wigan to research “Road to Wigan Pier”; Orwell stayed a night at the Youth Hostel beside the Lake. It was intensely cold the hostel was unheated and lit only by candles. He had to thaw out over a fire in the morning. The lake was frozen and ice had formed into blocks which made a clanking sound as they collided. Cigarette packets bobbed up and down among the ice floes. Orwell thought it was a very depressing place.

YHA membership took off after the war with over 300 hostels opened by 1950 with individual membership reaching 200,000.

The first hostel I used was Hartington which coincidentally was the hostel where I rejoined in August. It was the summer of 1970 and I was part of a geography field trip from school. Of the local ones I have also stayed at Meerbrook in the late 80s which was rather cold and damp and Ilam which was delightful. I used to prefer the simpler hostels such as Ellingstring in Yorkshire Wheathill in Shropshire and Alpheton in Suffolk which was an old Nissen hut. It is a pity that these hostels were those targeted for closure in the 1990s as I found them basic but charming.

Anyone who has stayed any time in hostels during the old regime would be familiar with the “chores” that hostellers would be given and also the often eccentric hostel wardens who ruled with an iron fist and dole out the duties. I fell foul of such a character in the 80s at a basic hostel on Dartmoor who took a dim view of anyone who went to the pub. Dressed in lederhosen stretched over a portly frame the very camp warden admonished me in a phrase that has always lived with me “I tend to find that my young gentlemen like to go to bed early after a hard day on the hills”. I was on toilet cleaning duties the following day.