A history of hostels in one walk.
When friends suggested a walking trip in Wales, climbing hills and staying in hostels I agreed. The chance was too good to miss. They are friends I like being with, I had never walked any hills in Wales and my friends are great navigators and I am not.
As the time grew nearer my fears grew. I last did something like this 40 years ago when I walked from Langdale to Eskdale and over to Black Sail youth hostel in the Lake District.
16 year-olds used to walk from hostel to hostel back in the 1960s. It used to be that lots of people walked from youth hostel to youth hostel. That kind of walking spurred youth hostels at their beginning and became a verb.
They called it ‘hostelling’. But it fell out of fashion and I am no longer 16. Neither have I ever carried a full rucksack for four days over 3,000 ft hills.
I practised packing, ditched what I could, packed again and ditched again, and though the bag was less full it still seemed as heavy. My iPad never made the cut but a paperback and a notebook stayed. On the last morning, I abandoned even a thermos flask and left home full of doubt that this was at all a good idea.
When this kind of hostelling, walking from hostel to hostel, fell out of fashion it might have been for good reason. I reflected that I was doing something unfashionable, against history, and I wondered whether I would learn things I’d rather not know about my body, the strength of my legs and my ability to climb hills with a pack, never mind sleep in hostel beds for more than a night one night.
We parked at Capel Curig as the rain poured down and I looked at the hostel there wistfully. We could have stayed there, used the car and gone walking each day without carrying everything from hostel to hostel. It’s no longer owned by YHA but, though it looks in better shape than ever, it wasn’t in our plan.
A couple of hours later as we went over Y Foel Goch the weather lifted and the sun and views of Snowdon emerged before we dropped between Tryfan and Glyder Fach.
The first day’s walk had been a glorious introduction to the Welsh hills. We met no one all day and only saw two low flying jets and a helicopter. I was beginning to think I liked the hills of Snowdonia better than I might.
At Idwal Cottage youth hostel hospitality overwhelmed us. We couldn’t have been better welcomed. We were allocated rooms so we each had a bottom bunk and my fears began to slip away. My legs weren’t stiff, the shower was hot and I was enthused again by the history of the area.
Idwal Cottage is one of the longest surviving hostels in Britain and pictures on the walls give testament to that history. When it opened in time for Easter 1931, YHA had aims to create chains of hostels 15 miles apart so that people could walk from Liverpool and Birmingham into North Wales. But the idea never came off. The chains of hostels from Birmingham and Liverpools had gaps.
It was only once a walker arrived in Snowdonia that walking from hostel to hostel was possible which was what people wanted anyway. In Snowdonia, the Peak District, in the Lakes and other areas, plenty of people walked from hostel to hostel each summer as we were doing. When I worked in the Lake District in the 1970s hostels and the hills were alive with 16 and 17 year-olds on a first break from home.
The next morning we left Idwal Cottage. Our boots were dry from the best drying room I’ve ever come across and the idea of walking from hotel to hostel seemed better than I had expected. We climbed into some of the best mountain scenery I’ve seen. We went over Y Garn and then up Glyder Fawr before dropping down to the hostel at Pen y Pas.
By now I was feeling comfortable. The weather had been great and I had carried my rucksack easily. Only sometimes it threatened to throw me off balance. I avoided that and managed not to fall flat on my face in the mud.
I had left behind the news, cares and email. Finding a way from one place to the next was the only challenge and walking took my thought. I concentrated on the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other while keeping an eye on the views.
Times have changed but I understood how those early founders of youth hostels wanted their hostels to be one days’ walking apart. It was a brilliant and simple idea.
The next day turned into farce, with high winds, rain and mist. We might as well not have gone up Snowdon. I spent most of the walk considering whether the weather was ‘less than pleasant’ or ‘more than unpleasant’ without conclusion.
I was out of love with the hills until we dropped down to Nant Gwynant. Emerging from the mist was an hallucination of rushing rivers, green fields and a wide valley bottom.
I could have waved a stick at the sky to express my triumph. The hills had thrown their worst at me and I had survived. I had all my possessions still on my back, I was damp but dry and my feet were sore but unblistered. My camera didn’t survive so I have no photos of that day, after the morning climb from Pen y Pas, and none of the following day.
The next day we walked from Bryn Gwynant to Capel Curig. After a little light rain at the beginning we walked in dry breezy weather, in bright sunshine. We came down the final slope from Moel Siabod to the cafe at Capel Curig and a celebratory tea with scones the size of plates. We had done it.
I’m not 16 but it had been fun. We became disconnected from the world as we walked from place to place. Maybe that’s what people liked when they walked from youth hostel to youth hostel when hostels started but I doubt it.
We heard no news, and kept ourselves entertained with jokes, stories and catching up with what we had been doing in the two years since we had last been together. My emails and social media accounts stayed behind.
Apart from nights in youth hostels we were on the hills for entire days, carrying all that we needed on our backs. We walked 26 miles and climbed 11,000 feet. Staying each night in youth hostels we dried out. We had no need of tents and we bought our meals at hostels as we went along, even taking a bigger packed lunch from Bryn Gwynant youth hostel than I could eat.
The old days of youth hostels now seem a lot more attractive than I had expected. I’m puzzled why this idea of walking from hostel to hostel fell out of fashion.
Do we want go on bigger adventures now, like walking the West Highland Way, the Continental Divide or any of the other great treks around the world? Last year 40,000 people walked the entire length of the West Highland Way. Is walking from hostel to hostel too tame?
Why did we give up the fun of easier walks from one place to another? Has the private car ruined our lives? Or are we so much in love with our possessions that we can’t part from them.
By the 1980s youngsters on a first break from school stopped walking from hostel to hostel. The numbers using youth hostels in that way dwindled. YHA stopped trying to create chains, closed hostels and concentrated on areas people wanted to visit. Richard Schirrmann had done the same in the very early days of youth hostels in Germany.
At each hostel there was surprise when anyone found out what we were doing. If we had been on a long distance path our walk might have been more usual but someone else could have carried our luggage.
And yet? It was fun, so much so we were planning our next trip over that tea in the Moel Siabod cafe. All the hostels were good. We were warm and dry. We slept in beds. It was better than camping and without the tents. I’d recommend it.
I now love Snowdonia and I have a new favourite youth hostel at Idwal Cottage. And most of all, I’ve discovered how much fun it is to walk from place to place. I like this idea of exploring on foot without continually going back to where I started to find a car or waiting somewhere to get the bus. It’s a great kind of freedom to treasure.
Interested in the history of youth hostels, you can find out more in Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world.