Winchester youth hostel was a first among many; one of the first youth hostels in Britain, a first city youth hostel and the first opened with support from the National Trust.
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Jack Catchpool, first national secretary for the Youth Hostels Association, equivalent of today’s chief executive, longed to see youth hostels open on the route of the old Pilgrim’s Way, from Winchester to Canterbury. In 1930 he imagined youth hostels, within walking distance of one another, 15 to 20 miles apart.
To lease rent or buy buildings would take money and the new association had very little of that. People expected a youth hostel might cost between £300 and £500. With little money, Catchpool searched for buildings that might make hostels. The task might have looked hopeless but Jack Catchpool was a determined, stubborn man.
In 1930 he had invited historian and Cambridge professor, GM Trevelyan, to be the association’s first president and that invitation turned out to be a shrewd move. Trevelyan became a great spokesman for youth hostels.
He brought with him contacts and links with liberal British society, particularly among those who wanted to open the countryside for walkers and ramblers. He had close links to the National Trust, was a member of the trust’s governing council and chairman of its important estates committee.
When they met at Hallington, Treveylan’s home in Northumberland, Trevelyan’s first question to Catchpool was “What do you propose to do?” Catchpool replied that he wished to proceed in close association with the National Trust.
“We must endeavour to provide chains of youth hostels beside the historic routes” like the Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury, he explained.
Wherever possible Catchpool wanted to use “buildings of great beauty, so that the rising generations may come to know and feel in their very being something of the history and beauty of our country.”
Catchpool and Trevelyan talked about ways YHA and the trust might work together. The trust was a different organisation to the one we know today. It was small. In 1930 its membership had only reached 1000, a figure that the new YHA achieved and overtook in less than a year.
It was an important force in the preservation of the countryside but it had yet to find its role as a big membership organisation and as a protector of historic houses. The trust instead concentrated on protecting landscapes. It bought and owned parts of the Lake District and other beautiful stretches of countryside.
Knowing that the trust was sometimes given property it could not use, Catchpool suggested that, if YHA was responsible for the upkeep of some of these buildings, it could help the trust protect buildings it might otherwise have had to turn down.
The old city mill
The joint approach paid off. A group in Winchester had been working to save the old City Mill, empty for more than thirty years, on a bridge across the River Itchen on Bridge Street. The group bought the building and passed it to the National Trust.
The trust had no use for a mill. But to Jack Catchpool the mill might be ideal. It could be the first hostel in his pet project of hostels along the Pilgrim’s Way.
Catchpool drove down to Winchester to look over the mill. He took with him his boss, Barclay Baron, YHA’s first national chairman, and Dorothy Tomkins, an unemployed architectural student.
Dorothy Tomkins left a vivid description of the mill as they found it and Oliver Coburn included her description in his history of youth hostels, Youth Hostel Story.
Arriving in the afternoon the old mill’s great gable end of red brick glowed in the sun. They crept along a dark passage with the echo of tumbling water rushing to meet them and climbed up to a long room, floored with rough wide planks of sold oak, with a wall of red bricks and an open timber roof. Diamond encasement windows lit the room’s “pleasing” proportions on either side.
“Everywhere was thick with dust and cobwebs. We viewed the loft among the beams, the two little rooms which were earmarked for the girls’ dormitories, and the colder, more forbidding stable accommodation for the men. We admired the walled garden projecting into the river which is perhaps the most beautiful and unexpected part of the Mill.”
On their journey back to London, Catchpool and Tomkins agreed he would provide £50 from his own pocket, for the furniture and equipment, as the hostel was very much his baby, and she would carry out the work to get the new youth hostel furnished and open.
First in a chain
Dorothy Tomkins worked hard. She improvised with skill, using a notice board and trestles to create a table. She darkened the common room with creosote and drafted any visitors to the mill into the backbreaking work.
Success crowned her hard work when the youth hostel opened for Easter 1931. It was one of the first in England and Wales, part of a small group of youth hostels that opened that year in time for Easter, and one of the association’s first city youth hostels. Among others that opened in time for Easter 1931 were Idwal Cottage in Snowdonia and Street in Somerset.
Winchester was also the first in the proposed chain of hostels for the Pilgrims’ Way and it was the first hostel YHA leased from the National Trust. Others followed at Tintagel and Boscastle in Cornwall, at Tanners Hatch in Surrey, at Wasdale in Cumbria, and at Marloes Sands and St Davids in South Wales, among others.
GM Trevelyan, in his role as YHA president and chairman of the trust’s powerful estates committee, must have helped. Later, HE Gatliff and Len Clark were influential in developing the relationship between YHA and the National Trust.
Catchpool’s loan was quickly repaid and the hostel was very soon heavily booked. Always popular, it stayed open throughout the war years. In 1953 the association bought two cottages in Water Lane in an attempt to create more space. The hostel self catering kitchen moved into the cottages in 1961.
The old mill was a special place to stay, close to the centre of the city with a garden that extended into the river. Houghton Mill, another youth hostel in a National Trust property, in Cambridgeshire, might have rivalled it as a mill with existing workings, but it lacked the convenience of a city which Winchester offered.
Guests entered the hostel from Water Lane, a narrow side street. One remembered opening a door down three steps into an extensive basement with barely room to stand erect.
Upstairs was as lofty as the basement was low, “with nothing ahead of the steeply pitched roof. Here the common room is divided from the women’s dorm by a curtain and at the far end, in a sort of minstrels’ gallery, is another women’s dorm. Having scaled the ladder, you duck through a 3-foot aperture and find yourself right among the roof beams.”
But the hostel was also famous because, for many years, people washed in the mill race, in a “washing shed beside the Itchen, dipping up its waters in tin basins for their ablutions.” Another user recalled bailing up a bucketful of water and pouring it into a basin on the bench. Some visitors had refreshing morning dips, jumping into the river just for fun.
I was a regional manager for Winchester in the mid 1990s when Lawrence Garvin was the manager, an erudite, well educated man, a linguist and city guide. The job required devotion. The hostel was hard to run with no obvious solutions that would make it easier, more efficient and simpler to run.
Low ceilings threatened heads at unexpected turns. The kitchen was little more than a cupboard, a floor below the dining room in the main mill room. A dumb waiter trundled food betwen the floors but sometimes it was quicker and simpler to run.
Regulations, for the prevention of fire and for food safety and hygiene created havoc too. A wooden building required special fire precautions with fire doors, alarms and emergency lighting. The kitchen required better ventilation and carrying food, dishes and plates, up and down stairs added risks. All of this had to be accommodated in a mill that had been there for over 1000 years and a building that was more than 200 years old.
Challenge and change
People were swimming in the mill race until at least 1981 but by the time I was there, that had stopped. The washing shed had become a men’s washroom with washbasins and hot water on tap. A wall with a window closed off the mill race and electric lights lit the water racing past.
It was hard to believe that anyone had washed in the freezing water let alone swum in it. Sometimes branches and other rubbish coming down the river blocked the chute. A locked door allowed access so that the blockage could be cleared.
At times of high river levels, water came under the wall and washed up the corridor from the washroom towards the entrance in Water Lane. I remember paddling down the corridor a few times with waves washing around my feet.
Relations between the association and the National Trust added to the difficulties and tensions of working in a historic building. To the trust the building was a gem. Its workings and the beautiful main room had the potential to become an important visitor attraction at the centre of the city.
Meanwhile, the hostel was becoming cramped. Modern guests expected better washing facilities, more private rooms and more comfort from a city youth hostel. Car parking became an ongoing problem, disrupting the narrow lane and dismaying neighbours. The hostel became one of the most heavily used of any in England and Wales, more often than not fully booked.
The two sets of demands bumped against each other as they did in many other youth hostels until eventually they could not be contained. In September 2005 the youth hostel closed its doors. The association sold the cottages in Water Lane and handed the mill back to the trust.
The trust restored the mill to full working order in 2004. Visitors today can experience hands-on activities and audio-visual displays about milling and the rich wildlife in the area and they can take in regular milling and baking demonstrations.
The mill is also the official gateway to the South Downs National Park. It provides information for visitors to explore local walks and attractions, as well as the many other local National Trust properties.
Over the years the youth hosel at Winchester recorded nearly almost 500,000 overnight stays.
You can read Dorothy Tomkins’ description of her visit to the old mill in Winchester in Oliver Coburn’s book, Youth Hostel Story.
Thank you to John Martin, YHA’s Hon Archivist for information about the hostel from his Historical Listing of all Youth Hostels.
Images courtesy of YHA Archive.