Many years ago, at the tender age of 12 or 13, my friend and I stood outside a youth hostel, slightly confused by the notice that said it didn’t open until 7. We’d thought it opened at 5. Soon the warden came outside to welcome us: “you don’t have to wait out here, boys, come on in”. We’d made the schoolboy error (well, we were schoolboys) of reading “1700 hrs” as “7.00 pm”!
This was our first trip to a youth hostel. We’d cycled, well, nearly twenty miles, to Greens Norton and this was a taster to see whether we could cope with a longer trip in the summer.
We checked in, made up our bunks, and met the other hostellers – a couple of lads a few years older than us, some ladies in their mid-twenties, a young German family, and a septuagenarian gentleman who still managed an annual two-week cycling holiday, covering distances of 70 miles a day (which put our 20 miles somewhat to shame). I recall that he talked incessantly, and we wondered whether his wife insisted on the trip so she could get some peace.
Dinner and breakfast were provided (our parents may have mandated that, to ensure we got decent meals). In the morning we were given our chores (I think it may have been sweeping out the dormitory) and then it was time to cycle home.
This was the start of my love of youth hostelling. No sooner were we back home than we were planning our summer trip – five nights cycling around the Cotswolds. We planned the route and booked the hostels ourselves. The trip was completed with no major disasters.
In the years that followed I visited several youth hostels on cycling and walking expeditions. During the summer between sixth-form years, I cycled from Cornwall to Buckinghamshire (coincidentally cycling through the town where I recently lived and past the site where I now work); after A-Levels another friend and I toured The Netherlands; a few years later I cycled on a solo trip through Ireland.
Youth hostels were incredibly welcoming and friendly places, and an ideal location for a solo traveller. Basically furnished, but clean and comfortable. There were always people to talk to, and no one looked disparagingly at you when you came in wet and muddy from a day’s walking or cycling.
Most hostels provided meals, though there was also a self-cooking kitchen. I generally chose the catered option, as it was one less thing to carry. The food was always good, and accompanied with large pots of tea. I was never sure how they provided a three-course meal at such a low price.
Chores were never onerous. I soon learned it was a good idea to volunteer for washing up in the evening, then you could have an earlier start (or longer in bed) in the morning. However, I recall one warden who did all the washing up himself, and the only help required was to put the crockery back in the cupboards. This was the same warden who, after a heavy shower, refused to open the drying room for people who hadn’t lined their rucksacks with a plastic bag because it was their own fault their belongings got wet.
- In a hostel in Cornwall, the assistant warden was a foreign student. He was getting more and more frustrated as each meal he brought from the kitchen didn’t match anyone’s order: “But when you move on,” he said in broken English, “you can tell everyone that you stayed at Boswinger on the busiest night of the year”
- In The Netherlands another British lad was having problems using the phone: “Excuse me,” he asked the rest of the British contingent, “have any of you managed to phone home since you’ve been here?” We turned to him as one and replied, “Why would we do a stupid thing like that?”
- In Ireland I didn’t take a very good map. I was planning to cycle from the ferry at Rosslare to Waterford to buy a better one, but without a map that wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be. I came to a floating bridge and concluded I was in the wrong place so turned around. Forty minutes later I was back at the same floating bridge – but from the other side!
- Later (much later) that same day I reached my destination – having cycled over 100 miles. A couple of German girls were staying, one of whom spoke good English and I told her about my journey. Over dinner, they were chatting in German, and I heard an exclamation of “Rosslare?!!” as they looked towards me. They were obviously talking about me. “Yes, Rosslare” I replied. “Oh, do you speak German?” they asked. “No, but I guessed what you were talking about!”
- At Stow-on-the Wold, the warden was ex-military. There were notices in the dormitory detailing the specific way in which the blankets were to be folded and arranged on the bed. I had no idea what to do, but luckily my father was with me and recognised the configuration from his National Service.
Times pass. Tastes Change. What we used to term as “Basic” is now seen as “primitive”. No heating in the dormitory? Do what? (After one freezing night, I learned that the secret is to put as many blankets below me as above me). No showers? You’re having a laugh! (I remember one dormitory with no running water. Washing facilities were a jug and a bowl. Bathing at Winchester Youth Hostel (at the City Mill) involved holding on to a rope and jumping into the mill race. I’ve seen the photographs).
Youth hostels needed to evolve to meet the new expectations. Many of the smaller hostels (including Winchester and Greens Norton) were closed, and others were upgraded. Catering and room facilities were improved, and many were made suitable for larger groups, such as school trips.
But would they retain the same friendly and welcoming atmosphere? Would they still be such fun places to stay? Would the family foster the same love for youth hostelling as I had? It was time to find out. You’ll find out how we got on in the next instalment.
(Unless otherwise stated, all photos were taken by the author)