Founded in 1930 the venerable Youth Hostel Association, commonly known as the YHA, has provided a unique opportunity for literally millions to get away from an increasingly urbanised world either walking, cycling, climbing or just travelling; at the time you were not allowed to use a hostel unless you arrived under your own steam, this has now changed. They were cheap, warm, interesting and good fun, in particular meeting members from every walk of life and other countries. Furthermore, many of the hostels were set in wonderful locations and very often equally wonderful buildings; even as a teenager we enjoyed and appreciated the aesthetics of such places but not always the daily chore, whereby under instruction from the warden all those staying overnight were obliged to carry out a housekeeping task.
I have fond memories of staying in many youth hostels throughout the UK and Europe whilst cycle touring and hitchhiking. Their very presence helped unlock what subsequently became a life of travel for me across the globe. I still clearly remember my very first hostel in 1965 when I was 14 years old. I was surprised that my parents had allowed me to go away on a three day cycling trip in East Anglia, though traffic and roads were far less busy in those days. All I needed for the trip was carried in a medium size saddlebag – a few spare clothes, basic bike tools and a cotton sleeping bag liner required by the YHA in order to use their beds. My first hostel stay at Houghton Mill near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, was the simply amazing and remains etched in my memory. Located on the banks of the River Great Ouse, the hostel’s setting was itself quite breathtaking. No longer a working mill, the beds were arranged amongst the old machinery that had previously been used for milling and thus was very unusual, spooky at night but fun. It was truly a time to remember and despite subsequently staying at scores of hostels, Houghton Mill still remains my all-time favourite.
Despite the name, older members use the facilities too and in 2009 I returned to hosteling for the first night of my cycle ride to Paris. On this occasion in order to catch the ferry to Dieppe the next morning I stayed at Telscombe YHA, located just outside the ferry port of Newhaven. Situated almost at the top of the South Downs and it is a bit of a slog with a loaded bike but worth it. Nestling within a dry valley next to a small church in the hamlet of Telscombe, the small flint faced building was everything I remembered about hosteling at its best – a quiet, pleasant place in which to rest before continuing on one’s adventure the next day. On this evening I met a recently retired GP who had just started his walk along the entire south coast footpath of England, which amongst other things made for an interesting and enjoyable evenings conversation; he successfully completed the walk somewhere near Minehead on the north coast of Somerset about three months later!
Sadly since I last used the YHA scores of hostels have been closed and alas like so many other hostels in the UK, Telscombe is also today no more. It’s difficult to find a definitive reason for their demise, more a number of issues which includes: lack of interest on the part of younger persons i.e. they’re not cool and the availability of more money i.e. people now want to stay in lodgings such as Travelodge or Premier Inn. However, it’s my feeling that the YHA also lost its way and been poorly managed during the intervening period, all of which has created something of a vicious circle – hostels deteriorating put off potential users and after years of neglect the network of hostels has thinned out considerably, making them less practical for those touring under their own steam.
Looking at the current YHA map of East Anglia there are now just six hostels, probably more than 60% of the hostels have closed since my first cycling trip there, including Houghton Mill and just recently Saffron Walden, where I stayed in 2009. Built circa 1497 the Grade-1 listed building was one of the YHA’s finest but I now see on the property website Rightmove was sold for £1.495 million! Apart from the morality of taking apart the YHS network for such money, there’s also a feeling of selling the family silver. The riposte to such misgivings is usually “well things change” or you’re just getting older, both of which are true. However, if the YHA is to continue and even thrive once again it must be re-imagined and re-built for the 21st century, or maybe I’m just naïve and their day has been and gone?
It was the opportunity for ordinary people to spend a night for a modest cost in a wonderful building that made the concept of the YHA so exciting and enjoyable. Of course the same buildings that were once used as hostels still exist but now in a new guise used for different purposes:
- The beautiful Houghton Mill is thankfully now in the hands of the National Trust and therefore remains open to the public to enjoy;
- Telscombe has been developed and divided into upmarket houses but was unusually replaced by a new hostel nearby in the valley of the River Ouse, which is more convenient for those travelling the South Downs Way;
- It’s not clear what has happened to the truly magnificent No1 Myddleton Place, AKA Saffron Walden YHA?